The Power of Freshness

Greetings. If you would like to be totally inspired about the real power of music, and the real potential of life, work, and learning, then commit to spending fifty minutes listening to the BBC’s recent interview with Chinese pianist Lang Lang. But you will have to hurry because it is only up on their website for the next 26 days.

By way of background, Lang Lang was a child prodigy and is now one of the world’s foremost and most dynamic classical pianists. But he is also, at the age of 33, a renowned teacher, United Nations cultural ambassador, and remarkable voice for the power of learning across cultures, generations, and genres. And his thoughts about how we continue to stretch, grow, and stay fresh, focused on music but with much broader implications, are worth our time and attention.

In listening to the interview I was struck by his passion for a wide range of musical traditions, his sense of why so many young people never get past the early stages of learning (an instrument like piano), his thoughts on why being perfect is overrated, why it is important to “look for the notes between the notes,” and his belief that the greatest composers throughout history would probably delight in the knowledge that future generations were passionate about their music but also willing to try to reinterpret it. And the more I listened to his words and his playing, the more I felt the value of his insights and their broader application to life, business, and innovation.

Lang Lang, Piano / 18.02.2010 / Koelner Philharmonie

All of us and all of our organizations need to dare to try new things, figure out how to not become discouraged when the going gets tough, find joy in the work we do, and build on the ideas and brilliance of others.

Here is a fascinating excerpt on the power and necessity of keeping music (and whatever we work on) fresh and new…

“In music we need to always remind ourself why you play the piece over and over and over it again. You forget about the freshness. You really forget why we are loving music so much. You know. Because you repeated the same thing so much.

What I think we need to do is always play the music but try to imagine in a different eyes everyday. Different angle. And then when you play this piece you feel more like ‘Oh, it is quite fresh.’ I know the piece, but I don’t really know the piece. Today is my first time playing it. You always need to have that and if you start repeating the same thing you become, what you call, ‘autopilot.’ And that’s the worst part because then it’s not art anymore. It became kind of like ‘whatever.’ ‘Whatever’ in music is the danger. It’s the biggest danger.”

Think about how this might apply to your company and how you can avoid the danger of your work becoming ‘whatever.’

And if you would like to see and hear one way to avoid ‘whatever,’ check out Lang Lang’s collaboration with Metallica at the 56th Grammy Awards.

We win in business and in life when we approach the things that matter with different eyes and from different angles. And when we are open to learning from others and from different walks of life.

Cheers!

The Magic of Stepping Back in Time

Greetings. Ideas and inspiration often come from unusual sources. Like a warehouse filled with old furniture and memories. And this was exactly the case not long ago when our daughter Sara went searching for a few items to furnish her new apartment. In her search she came upon an old stamp album, published in 1928, and belonging to a gentleman from Westfield, Massachusetts, named Edward Pomeroy.

Stamp Album Cover

Now I should probably backtrack as some readers might not know that I am an avid and enthusiastic stamp collector, or “philatelist,” and have always viewed stamps as wonderful little journeys into the lives, cultures, histories, and geographies of other places and people. In fact, a few years ago I wrote a blog post suggesting that the world might actually be a better and more understanding place if its leaders collected stamps and in the process gained greater insight about other countries. So finding an old album filled with lots of intriguing stamps from around the world was a source of real delight.

But back to Edward Pomeroy who it seems was the secretary of a local stamp club and, as such, left in his album a wide variety of handwritten notes, news clippings, and meeting minutes describing the workings of the club, stamps and topics that were of particular interest, presentations made by various members about their interests and expertise, and an explanation of the club’s 10 cent monthly dues.

And while I found all of this fascinating, one note was especially remarkable. It explained how Edward was able to send himself a letter that flew on the Graf Zeppelin’s maiden flight to the United States. The note read:

For the Graf Zeppelin I had to send (my letter) to the Postmaster of New York City asking him to put it on a boat in time to reach Fredrichshafen by April 18, 1930. After reaching Germany it was put on the ‘Graf’ which went from Germany to Brazil then to United States which was delivered to me day after.”

And in his letter, adorned with a $2.60 Graf Zeppelin stamp, he enclosed the postcard pictured below that read:

He who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”

Words that strike at the heart of what it means to be human. Words that underscore the central challenge in all of our efforts to create organizations and cultures that consistently learn, grow, and innovate. Words that, in 1930, literally flew across the Atlantic as part of a history making voyage when the world of commercial aviation was in its early, daring, and formative years. And words that might have been lost in the dust of an old building had Sara not discovered Mr. Pomeroy’s stamp album and a small part of his life.

One more powerful reminder of the power of curiosity and the potential to find ideas and inspiration in the most unexpected places.

IMG_8470

We win in business and in life when we wander through old warehouses and age old lessons about innovation, progress, and community.

Cheers!

The Fastest Companies

Greetings. As a strategy and innovation consultant, I always look forward to Fast Company’s annual issue on “The World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies.” It is a quick read and a great chance to be inspired by some of the most creative and disruptive businesses and organizations on the planet. And I would think that it should be required reading for all of us as we try to keep up in our super-fast changing economy.

Fast Company 2016

This year’s issue shows just how diverse and remarkable the practice of innovation has become as new technology companies like Buzzfeed, Airbnb, Uber, Spotify, Robinhood and others continue to re-imagine existing industries while more traditional companies like CVS Health, Universal Studios, GE, and even Taco Bell reinvent themselves in ways that bring greater value to their customers. In the case of 53-year-old CVS, a company that gained a lot of very positive publicity when it decided to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products, it is not-so-quietly morphing from a huge ($153 billion in annual revenues) drugstore chain into a one-stop retail healthcare business with its Minute Clinics, optical and hearing exams, a new focus on wellness offerings, and a new “predictive medicine” partnership with IBM.

Buzzfeed, this year’s top innovator is continuing to transform the media landscape of video, news and information, and advertising through its culture of constant learning and embracing change, a sharp focus on data-driven metrics, and a deep understanding of what made companies like Paramount Pictures and CNN connect with audiences in the past.

I often talk about the power of learning from strangers and getting outside our offices and our comfort zones to discover new insights and new business models. And while the physical and psychological act of getting up and out is a powerful part of what it takes to stretch our thinking, a quick or slow read of this issue is bound to inspire anyone with a commitment to being faster in a world that demands that we pick up the pace.

We win in business and in life when we pay attention to brilliance all around us, and when we recognize the need for speed.

Cheers!

Notes From Malaysia

Greetings. Back from Malaysia just in time for the latest big DC snowstorm. Quite a contrast with the nearly consistent 92 degree temperatures for eleven straight days in Kuala Lumpur. And just like the weather, I went on my first visit to “KL” with a sense that many things would be very different from home only to discover a lot of very interesting similarities. I guess this shouldn’t be a big surprise. After all, people are people and we have a lot more in common with the residents of a Muslim and developing country halfway around the world than most of us ever choose to imagine.

So here are a few impressions from my trip to Malaysia with more ideas (and hopefully a few insights) to follow. And given that I am a geographer by training, I will begin with an old map to give you a bit of context for its location in southeast Asia…

Malaysia Map

KL is a very modern and fast-growing city which means that the roads are great but the traffic is crazy. To give you a sense of the pace of growth, think about this… In 2010 the city had a population of about 4.5 million people. Today the number is roughly 7.5 million. And the projection for 2020 is over 10.0 million. And it seems everyone (or practically everyone) in KL has a car or a motorcycle that they drive really quickly on increasingly congested roads. Their cars of choice are Protons and Peroduas, especially the nearly ubiquitous and modestly adorable Myvi, which are manufactured in Malaysia and not subject to the high taxes imposed on imported vehicles. Not that there aren’t a lot of Toyotas, Hondas, VWs, Audis, Mercedes, BMWs, minivans, and occasional Bentleys and Ferraris on the road, but local cars are everywhere. And for those of us who think that traffic in Washington, L.A., New York, Chicago, or San Francisco is impossible, KL’s complex network of highways, toll roads, and daring motorcyclists all driving on the wrong side of the road is a sight to behold.

Malaysia Myvi 3

Walking is not the most popular way to get around even though it is typically much faster than being in a car. Granted, it is very hot and humid in KL and the weather can change from sunny to pouring rain in a matter of moments. But almost every time I asked someone for walking directions I was quickly asked if I “really wanted to walk there.” “Oh, I think it’s only about a mile away” I would reply. “Exactly. Wouldn’t you prefer to take a taxi?” And when I asked the concierge at my hotel for the best walking directions to the National Museum (a distance of about four miles), he shared that he had never known anyone who had walked there citing the distance, heat, and the danger of crossing several major roads in a place where pedestrians don’t exactly have the right of way. It is also interesting to note that people in KL seem to walk very slowly.

There are about a zillion shopping malls in KL and almost everyone loves going to them. Okay, there aren’t really a “zillion” shopping malls, but there are more shopping malls in KL than any other place I have visited and they are very popular. And they even include pyramids and concert halls. I’m not sure if most of the locals actually go to the malls to buy things, given that the nicest ones are filled with very expensive designer stores, but they certainly enjoy the experience of looking in all of the stores, being in air conditioning, and walking slowly.

The food in Malaysia is absolutely delicious…assuming you enjoy Asian food. Malaysia, and KL in particular, is a real melting pot of many cultures with the three biggest groups being Malay, Chinese, and Indian. As a result it is easy to find great Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian food along with some delightful fusions among them. My favorite dish, recommended by many of the locals, was fish head curry…an addictive blend of fish heads, eggplant, okra, peppers, tamarind, laksa leaves, sugar, mint, and a bunch of other stuff that was awesome on blue rice. But I also enjoyed other wonderful coconut-based curries, chapatis filled with the most amazing cauliflower, spinach, cabbage, chickpeas, beans, and lentils, dim sum, Cantonese specialties, and lots of spicy and not-so spicy noodle dishes. And while I found the local food to be remarkable, I must also share that McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbuck’s, Subway, and especially KFC are super popular with Malaysians who seem to have a real passion for fast food and fried chicken.

Malaysia Fish Head Curry

People are really friendly. Not in a super outgoing way, but I consistently found that people in KL were courteous and eager to be helpful whenever I approached them. And most were quite curious about me, where I came from, and why I was there. Granted, I have almost always found that people are nice when we are nice to them. But that should be obvious to anyone who travels far from home. And while most people in Malaysia speak English, even folks who didn’t speak English were glad to help. On one of my many walks through the city I happened to get lost or should I say very lost…which is something that is difficult for a man, and especially a man trained as a geographer to admit. (If I have an excuse, or rather an explanation, it is that I kept discovering fascinating places that took me farther from my destination and my map). In any event, I found myself in a place that very few tourists have ever found themselves in only to be aided by a very kind shopkeeper who motioned me to his car in a crowded back alley and eagerly drove me several miles across town to my intended destination.

Malaysia Friendly

You can actually get a fish massage. You can also get a blind massage and a “super blind” massage. But I will have to try those on my next visit. Though my 15-minute foot massage, done in a pool filled with overly-enthusiastic fish, was definitely a unique and ticklish experience. I will spare you the pictures here as some readers might already be “grossed out” by the fish head curry, but feel free to email if you would like to see the video.

Malaysia Street Scene

I never cease to be amazed and inspired by the privilege of travel. And by the chance to see the similarities and differences in people who live around the corner and around the world. As I have come to understand more clearly all the time, our similarities are the glue that connects us and our differences are the raw materials that allow us to stretch, grow, and innovate together.

Cheers!

To a New Year of Curiosity and Growth

Greetings. While it is hard to believe that 2016 is already here, the start of the New Year provides a great opportunity to reconnect with all of our friends, colleagues, customers, business partners, and blog readers, and to thank you for being part of the life of our company in 2015.

It also seems like the perfect time to start a new conversation about the importance, or rather the “necessity,” of curiosity in the year ahead—a year that will be filled with remarkable possibilities if we are willing to stretch our thinking about the best ways to innovate and grow our businesses and organizations. Always remember that curiosity is a gift you were born with and it is your most useful tool in making great things happen! And while it might take a bit of practice to retrain your curious self, it is a lot easier than you think.

Curiosity-Quotes-30

In a world in which new ideas and business models are quickly changing almost all of our industries, we will all need to step out of our comfort zones in order to re-imagine how we can deliver even greater value to the customers, employees, and shareholders we have the privilege to serve. And the best ways to do this are by being humble about what we know and don’t know, paying closer attention to the world around us, asking our share of thoughtful questions, and being more open to connecting with and learning from people with very different ideas, insights, and points of view.

So here’s hoping that you and your colleagues will take the time to explore and connect with even more new people, new ideas, and new opportunities in 2016. And if you could use a little help, or simply a few words of encouragement, please don’t hesitate to give me a call or send me a quick note. In the meantime, I will try to be even more diligent about sharing ideas and insights from around the corner and across the globe that you can use to spark your best thinking yet.

But, most importantly, great thanks again to all of you who have shared your genius and taught me so much during the past twelve months.

Keep those cards, letters, calls, and emails coming, and best wishes for your most curious and successful year yet!

Cheers!