The Snowball Effect

Greetings. Many of us were either shocked or amused a few days ago when Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe brought a snowball to the floor of the United States Senate, threw it to a colleague, and offered this simple act as proof that climate change was a myth. How else might one explain that it was still cold enough to snow in late February right here in the nation’s capital? The fact that Inhofe is a long-time denier of climate change is not surprising to those who follow American politics. The reality that he is now chairman of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee should be cause for greater concern as he is in a rather influential position when it comes to U.S. environmental policy.

But this isn’t really a post about climate change or the political and/or personal views of a senator from a state that’s economy relies heavily on fossil fuels. Or one man making a confused connection between the weather in Washington, D.C. on one particular day and the evolving climate around the globe. Rather it’s a post about how leaders and organizations too often think and act based on their own misguided beliefs and an unwillingness to understand and acknowledge the facts. Facts about the market, the changing needs and desires of current and prospective customers, the quality and value of their products or services, or the quality and value of the customer experiences they provide. Facts about innovation, how it occurs, and how to unlock the real genius in people at all levels of their enterprises. Facts about technology, the internet, new and emerging business models, and how easy it has become for clever folks from different industries, backgrounds, cultures, and walks of life to literally change the game in all of our industries overnight by figuring out how to create significantly greater value at significantly lower cost.

In turns out that Inhofe is not alone in denying what is really happening and, while we can’t easily change his worldview, we have to be willing to change our own views of the world. Continually. By paying attention to the marketplace and the offerings of our best and newest competitors. By embracing and capitalizing on the power of the Web, the Cloud, mobility, social media, and a range of other transforming technologies. By being open to a much wider set of ideas and inspirations from a much wider set of people…including people who don’t really understand or appreciate the way we’ve always done things and how our world has always operated.

The days of hiding behind “business as usual,” of milking the cash cows we know best, and of thinking that we can keep believing in our own outdated beliefs, are over for practically every business on earth. And if we need more proof we can simply look at the once-remarkable firms in our own industries that failed to keep up with the times. Or we can look at once remarkable companies like Borders, Blockbuster, Radio Shack, and even McDonald’s that refused to accept the fact that the world around them was changing and it was time to change along with it and place new bets on a new and evolving future.

A senator, a snowball, and a sad but urgent wake up call for all of us to get our facts straight and our actions right in order to thrive, prosper, and remain relevant.

It turns out there is a not-so-subtle difference between being innovative based on the facts and being innovative with the facts.

Senator Inhofe CSPAN

We win in business and in life when we pay attention to the world around us. And when we use facts and reality to guide our most innovative and inspired thinking.

Cheers!

Digging Deeper for Innovation

Greetings. It’s hard to resist writing about what appears to be an important breakthrough in antibiotics that was reported in the latest issue of the journal Nature. After all, antibiotics are vital to our ability to fight infections. Yet many bacteria have become increasingly clever and increasingly resistant to the drugs we commonly rely on. So reports of a new drug called Teixobactin, that is potentially resistance-proof and seems capable of curing very severe infections without worrying side effects, is very encouraging news.

It is also exciting because it once again suggests the power of stretching our thinking to new places and new terrains in order to unlock breakthrough ideas. Terrains that include dirt or more specifically microbes that were discovered in “soil bacterium just beneath the surface of a grassy field in Maine.” These microbes are in a constant battle to survive and their unique skill in fighting could be the key to successfully battling many of the illnesses that threaten us including some seemingly intractable diseases. And while Teixobactin has not been tested in humans yet there is real cause for optimism about its potential.

As reported in the New York Times, researchers believe that the key to Teixobactin’s success is its ability to attack bacteria “by blocking fatty molecules needed to build cell walls.” This is a very different approach than current antibiotics which target the proteins in bacteria. These proteins, and the genes that encode them, seem quite capable of adapting and eventually resisting medicines designed to control them.

For most of our companies and organizations, our success is also dependent on our ability to continually look for new and better ways to respond to threats, opportunities, and the challenges of new and existing competitors. Competitors who are always looking to get around our best efforts by creating new offerings, experiences, or business models. And our ability to respond and innovate requires us to cast a much wider net and to seek new ideas and approaches from other industries, walks of life, strangers, and even places where we might have to get a bit dirty.

Antibiotics from Dirt

Which begs the question, where will you look for new ideas and possibilities?

We win in business and in life when we dare to dig deeper in our quest for new ideas that can change the lives of those we serve.

Cheers!

Seven New Year’s Resolutions

Greetings. As I head back to the gym and grab a quick salad after a holiday season filled with lots of family, friends, food, and an occasional premium-quality malt beverage, I am keenly aware of my resolutions to exercise more, eat less, focus on the things that matter most, avoid taking on too many extra projects and volunteer assignments, live in the moment, and stress less about the things I can’t control. It must be a pretty good list, because it is almost identical to the list I made last year and at the start of every new year. And, with a bit of luck and a bit more effort I am guardedly optimistic about making real progress in the next twelve months.

The way I see it, resolutions are incredibly valuable…even when we can’t achieve them as completely as we would like to. Valuable in focusing our attention and best efforts on the important stuff. Valuable in giving us a better understanding of our real potential. And valuable in enabling us to better appreciate our own strengths and humanity as well as the strengths and humanity of others who are often very different than us.

Which suggests that making New Year’s resolutions might also be a good idea for leaders and organizations. Resolutions that focus our attention and best efforts on the most important stuff in our world. Resolutions that give us a better understanding of our full potential as enterprises. Resolutions that enable us to see the strengths, humanity, and value in all of our colleagues, associates, members, partners, and customers.

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So here are my suggestions for seven important corporate resolutions that will, with the right attention and effort, drive greater innovation, collaboration, growth, and business success in the year ahead…

Resolve to:

1. Be more curious about the world around you.

2. Be more open to the ideas, insights, and perspectives of others, including strangers.

3. Imagine how your company or organization could become much more meaningful and valuable to your employees, customers, and anyone else you have the privilege to serve.

4. Take the time to know your colleagues better, discover their real talents, and find more opportunities to share knowledge and possibilities.

5. Take the time to understand your customers more deeply and find more opportunities to make them smarter and more successful even when they aren’t paying you to do it.

6. Communicate more effectively and more often with those around you.

7. Make an even greater commitment to the health and well-being of your community.

We win in business and in life when we resolve to be more thoughtful, innovative, caring, and remarkable in the year ahead.

Cheers!

Giving Thanks

Greetings. Another Thanksgiving here in the U.S. and another chance to pause, if only for a weekend, to think about all of the people who have made a difference in my life during the past year. Needless to say, friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, and customers are high on my list this year and every year. You are the anchors in so many parts of my work and my personal, social, and civic life. You are the folks I count on for support, encouragement, good humor, thoughtful conversations, new opportunities to learn, grow, and make a difference, as well as great suggestions for the best books, articles, and blogs to read, the most compelling movies, plays, and concerts to attend, the coolest new restaurants to check out, and the best places to visit across town and around the globe. And you were particularly important to me during the second half of this year while I was recovering and re-energizing after my hiking accident in Canada. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also thank a lot of strangers for making this year so meaningful. New neighbors I met while taking our dog Vincent for a walk. New customers who welcomed me into their organizations to exchange ideas and spark fresh thinking together about the power of innovation. New nonprofit organizations that gave me the opportunity to volunteer and play a very small role in their important efforts to change the trajectory for kids and adults in our community. New students who shared their energy and curiosity in the classes I taught at the University of Maryland, Georgetown University, and a wide range of corporations.

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I was truly blessed this year to have lots of awesome people enter my life and stretch my understanding and sense of possibilities.

And, of course, another giant thank you to some wonderful strangers who came to my rescue in the Rockies at the beginning of June and whose kindness and skill turned a difficult situation into new friendships and a wonderful affirmation of humanity at its best. I’m delighted to report that I am back on two feet again and will never again taking walking for granted.

Friends + Strangers = Greater Success

Friends and strangers. Just the right combination to help us learn, grow, innovate, and try our best to make a difference in the things that matter most.

Cheers!

Finding Insight from “Random” Events

Greetings. Two noteworthy events occurred this week that should cause us to think in new ways about our work, our companies and organizations, and what it means to innovate and make a real difference in the lives of those around us.

The first was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Jonas Salk, medical researcher and virologist, who created the first vaccine against polio in 1954. Within a few years his genius would come close to eliminating the spread of this disease in the U.S. The son of Russian immigrants, he was the first member of his family to go to college. Salk initially worked as part of a team developing a vaccine against influenza, but in 1947 turned his attention to the fight against polio. Though unlike other researchers who used “live” and weakened forms of the virus, Salk took a controversial approach using a “killed” or inactivated form of the virus. His vaccine would be replaced by Dr. Albert Sabin’s “live-virus” vaccine which was cheaper and easier to use, but in 2000 a new, improved, and safer version of Salk’s vaccine would become the only one used in the U.S. to prevent polio.

jonas salk

The second event was the final concert of the Allman Brothers Band at the Beacon Theater in New York City. This classic American band, started in Jacksonville, Florida in 1969, won a worldwide following and is credited with inventing “Southern Rock” and bringing to its music a unique and powerful blend of rock, jazz, blues, and country music. In the course of their forty-five year history, the Allman Brothers also showed us how enduring bands (and enduring entities in all walks of life) must continually adapt to difficulties and change in order to survive and remain relevant. Beginning with the death of Duane Allman, the group’s first leader, in a motorcycle accident only two years after the band formed, the group kept evolving, coping, bringing on new members, breaking up, re-forming, breaking up again, and then starting over again. And through it all they kept making meaningful music. Though they will be best remembered for many of their early songs including “Ramblin’ Man,” “Whipping Post,” “Melissa,” and “Midnight Rider.”

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Two very different events from two very different walks of life, yet each begs a vital question…

The work of Jonas Salk suggests that all of us have the potential to (a) figure out how to stand conventional wisdom on its head and (b) how to “inoculate” those we serve against the dangers they face in their business, social, or personal lives.

The music and life of the Allman Brothers band suggests that all of us have the potential to adapt and reinvent the work we do, and the people we do it with, in order to continue providing meaning and value for those we serve.

Two big possibilities that might be the key to your personal and business success, sparked by people and events from the past that might resonate with your future.

We win in business and in life when we look for inspiration all around us. And when we dare, if only on occasion, to be controversial and ramblin’ men and women who aren’t afraid to step out of our comfort zones.

Cheers!