The Genius of Jonathan Winters

Greetings. Last Friday, the brilliant Jonathan Winters died at the age of 87. One of the most remarkable comedians of his era, Winters had an uncanny ability to improvise, innovate, and find humor in almost anything around him. Often by creating new voices and often without saying a word. And while countless stories have detailed his career, his creativity, the truly amazing band of misfit characters he invented, and the personal challenges he worked hard to overcome, I’d like you to think about one simple idea…

The power of making things up on the fly.

Once when asked why he preferred to improvise, Winters simply suggested that it was a lot easier to make things up than it was to remember his lines. And whether this was true or not, his sense of ease and imagination was the real gift of this comedy genius.

All too often in business and in life we allow ourselves to be led by a script, or a plan, or a set of meeting notes or bullets that define our world and frame our direction. Prearranged ideas that protect us from messing up and assure greater consistency by eliminating the guesswork and leaving nothing to chance. But that also limit our sense of spontaneity and possibility in a world that consistently demands fresh ideas, new energy, and quick rethinking of the things that matter most. In fact, our ability to improvise and even make things up on the fly is essential to our greater success.

To give you a sense of Jonathan Winters, check out this delightful improvisation using only a pen and pencil…

We win in business and in life when we challenge ourselves to improvise. And when we unlock brilliance and new possibilities in the slightest suggestion.


Learning From The Worst

Greetings. While many of us were enjoying college basketball’s Final Four championship, the readers at Consumerist were holding their own “final four” of sorts to determine the worst company in America. And for the second year in a row, the winner is Electronic Arts…a leading maker of video games. It seems that the folks at EA have been running their business with a compelling disregard for their customers. Who ever thought that would be a winning formula?

But the rest of us can learn a lot from their missteps and from the elegant response to the award, or should we say defense of their performance, provided by their COO Peter Moore who replied:

Are we really the ‘Worst Company in America? I’ll be the first to admit that we’ve made plenty of mistakes. These include server shut downs too early, games that didn’t meet expectations, missteps on new pricing models and most recently, severely fumbling the launch of SimCity. We owe gamers better performance than this. But I am damn proud of this company, the people around the globe who work at EA, the games we create and the people that play them.”

Though probably not “damn proud” enough of the people who play their games (a.k.a., their “customers”) to understand and deliver what really matters to them. And he went on to suggest that EA should never be compared to companies that pollute the planet and evict people from their homes. It’s an interesting but self-serving comparison.

In fact, customers really do matter. And the most successful companies seem to put them at the center of their decisions and actions. The companies that EA beat on the road to the trophy were three other well-known brands that customers love to hate…Ticketmaster, Bank of America, and Comcast…because they also seem to delight in taking advantge of their customers.


We win in business and in life when we pay our greatest respect to those we have the privilege to serve. And when we spend less time covering our bottoms and more time exceeding their expectations.


The Lesson of Just Getting By

Greetings.   On a walk through downtown Chicago yesterday afternoon I happened upon a building that was originally built for the London Guarantee Accident Company in 1923.  It’s kind of an odd name if you take it literally…an insurance company that could guarantee that you would have an accident.  Not a particularly brilliant idea for you or for them.  Though I’m sure that wasn’t their intention, the name carved into the building in stone did bring a smile.  But under this sign and just outside the entrance to a local branch of the Corner Bakery which now occupies part of the retail space, the words “guarantee” and “accident” quickly took on new meaning when I met a stranger named Linda who, cup in hand, was trying to get $37 to pay for a room at a less than perfect hotel.

Let me backtrack to suggest that while there is no good place to be homeless, Chicago in the middle of winter presents additional challenges.  And there are a lot of homeless people in Chicago.  At least the sun was shining yesterday, but the temperature never got above 30 degrees and the place where Linda was standing seemed to be mostly in the shade.  But it was her “best place,” or so she believed, based on nearly two years of trial and error that comes from living on the streets.  A life that seemed, from her perspective, to be almost “guaranteed” by a number of setbacks, challenges, less than perfect choices, and even accidents that had occurred in her life…but for which there was no insurance policy.

And this spot, next to the door of a restaurant, was where she felt most hopeful that she would get enough money for a night indoors and a bit of food.  “Why don’t you go to a shelter?” I asked somewhat naively.  “Cause they’re all full of bedbugs and they ain’t so safe,” she quickly replied.  ‘Not as safe as being out on a Chicago street in the cold,’ I wondered to myself.  A scary thought for those of us who go to sleep each night in the comfort of our warm homes or nice hotels.

“Can I at least buy you a meal,” I asked after learning more of her story.  “That would be nice,” she replied and I took her inside to look at the menu and pick whatever she wanted. Then after she placed her order I encouraged her to sit down for a while and warm up.  “I can’t do that,” she told me.  “Why not?  You’re a paying customer,” I suggested.  “Not really,” she quickly responded, “but that’s not it.  I can’t spend any time inside if I want to make my $37 before it gets dark.”  “Then let me also get you a large hot drink to warm you and your hands up a bit until the food is ready.”

Two years on the street.  A sharp contrast to the frustrations that many of us face when we have to work long hours or come in on the weekend.  Or when things don’t go just as planned in our work or personal lives.

Two years on the street.  No doubt filled will more challenges than most of us will ever know.  And yet, through it all, Linda and too many others have somehow figured out how to endure.  How to be more resilient and resourceful that any of us give them credit for.  Skills that would be incredibly valuable in most of our companies or organizations if only the circumstances were slightly different.

As all of you who read this blog know, I’m a keen believer in the importance of strangers…and a keen believer in their power to teach us things we don’t know or provide the missing piece in a puzzle that matters in our work or personal lives.  But how many of us believe that any stranger could teach us something important?  And how many of us take the time to find out?  Especially from a homeless woman struggling to just get by.

Yet here I was understanding more clearly the challenge we face as a society and the challenges we face as companies in times when a slowly improving economy is testing our abilities to create greater value with fewer resources.  To be much more innovative, resilient, and resourceful than we have been before.  By understanding what it means to just get by.

Because if Linda can survive and hope for a better day, the rest of us have little or no excuse for not making the most of the opportunities in front of us.

london guarantee

We win in business and in life when we take the time to connect with strangers from all walks of life.  And when we find the time to not only learn from them but acknowledge that they matter.


Greetings.  Just a quick note to let you know that this blog has a brand new look, a brand new address, and a continuing commitment to bring you a fresh perspective on the real keys to innovation, unlocking genius, and delivering remarkable experiences to customers and employees.

If you already subscribe and receive the blog through your favorite feed, you’ll find the new design by going to:

And you’ll also find a link to download our new eBook on customer service.

Let me know what you think of the “new” blog and, as always, please don’t hesitate to share your insights and ideas for possible topics to cover.  And please don’t hesitate to share the blog with friends, colleagues, relatives, neighbors, and even total and partial strangers who might enjoy it.


The End of Manual Labor

Greetings and Happy Valentine’s Day.  I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands.  There’s just something energizing about repairing an appliance or a bicycle, planting a tree that I’m probably allergic to, preparing a remarkable and innovative dinner for kids who would likely prefer cheese pizza, painting a room in a new and interesting color, or refinishing a piece of furniture made out of real wood.  And for many of us, doing something by hand provides a much needed break from our days spent in meetings or hanging out in front of a computer screen.  In fact, I would argue that manual labor is not only essential to our economy but essential to our lives as human beings.  It keeps us grounded, connected with the physical world around us, skillful, and even refreshed.

But there’s a different type of “manual” labor that is quickly biting the dust…the art and practice of writing operating and instructional manuals.  Those handy sources of insight that have always come with everything that we purchase…from automobiles to HD televisions to smartphones to espresso makers.  Manuals that show us in step-by-step detail exactly how to use these machines in order to ensure their proper operation as we maximize their utility. Manuals designed to unlock their full value and potential in our fast-paced and gadget-centric lives.  Because a new generation of buyers don’t seem to use or even want manuals. The very manuals that our parents warned us to read in excruciating detail before we did anything.  Instead, they quickly pull their latest purchases from their boxes, plug them in, and start figuring out how to use them without the aid of any wisdom from any of the world’s manufacturers.  Either because they are too clever to need help, too rushed to find the time, too disinclined to read boring instructions, too ADD’ed, or too convinced that any semi-intuitive person can quickly figure out how to get the most out of an intuitive device …and in the process customize it in their own image.  Or because they would rather build their own relationships with things than be told how to interact with them.

And come to think of it, even the well-publicized classes at Apple stores seem to be filled with relatively “old” folks who are simply struggling to keep up with all the other folks who threw their instruction manuals away as soon as they opened the super cool box.

Which suggests the need for a bit of career development advice for everyone who develops operating manuals for a living, and the bigger need for the rest of us to figure out how to make our offerings as intuitive, simple, and inspiring as possible.  Otherwise we run the risk of missing the point for a whole new generation of employees, customers, and partners.

A generation that it turns out is so hands on that they are once again appreciating, on their own terms, the simple joy of manual labor.


We win in business and in life when we enable people to create their own magic, on their own terms, with the things we create.