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!

The Real Lesson of Thanksgiving

Greetings. Another Thanksgiving has arrived here in the U.S. and with it another chance to slow down for a day or a long weekend, take stock of the year that is winding to a close, and count our blessings. And as most of the leaves have fallen and the weather has turned quite a bit colder, we can almost imagine what it must have been like on that first Thanksgiving back in 1621. But most of us will have to do a bit of re-imagining, because the story that we were taught as kids is not exactly what happened when the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts almost 400 years ago. And the friendship that blossomed between the new immigrants and the native people they encountered upon their arrival was not quite as idyllic and enduring as we have been led to believe.

The First Thanksgiving

Yes, these strangers did end up sharing a meal to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first harvest. And their actual “celebration” seems to have lasted for not one but three days…during which time they ate deer, shellfish, corn, and other roasted meat. No, there wasn’t a turkey (or sweet potatoes covered with mini-marshmallows) to be found on their dining table, and it is not likely that members of the Wampanoag tribe were actually invited to break bread with the immigrants in the first place. More likely the locals, skilled in hunting, fishing, farming, and living in the place now known as New England after being there for over 12,000 years, came to the rescue of their new neighbors by sharing their knowledge of how to survive, hunt, fish, grow crops, live in harmony with the earth and sea, and even prosper…albeit with a significantly different definition of what it meant to be prosperous.

And we have a pretty clear idea that their definition of prospering would shortly fall victim to the cultures and ambitions of a growing number of Europeans who would come to call North America home.

While we can’t change this period in history, we can at least try to learn from this meeting of strangers by thinking about the lost possibilities of their encounter and all of the opportunities that most of us miss to connect with and learn from people who are very different than us. People who know different things than we know and whose ideas, insights, and perspectives might challenge us to think in new ways about our lives, workplaces, communities, and the world we share. But to do this, we will have to be more curious and open-minded about the world around us, more humble about our own knowledge and its limitations, more respectful of other people from all different places and walks of life, and more committed to working together to address a set of shared challenges and opportunities that really matter.

Needless to say, Americans (other than native peoples) trace our histories here to immigrants. Folks who came to this land by choice or by force, but who were determined to make a difference and to live lives of meaning. Folks who became part of the fabric of an America that, at its best, has always been open to new people and new possibilities.

During this Thanksgiving and holiday season, as we enjoy family, friends, food, and for some of us football, most of us will pause to count our many blessings. But how many of us will also pause to think about the world’s latest wave of immigrants and how open we are to having them arrive at our shores? And how many of us will pause to think about how similar they are to our own ancestors who fled wars, persecution, and a lack of opportunity?

New Immigrants

We win in business and in life when, with a bit of caution, we make our tent bigger. And when we realize that strangers are, with a very few exceptions, something to be thankful for.

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.

Walking-with-Vincent-225x300

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!

Strangers in the Workplace

Greetings. Most of us enter the workplace as strangers, unless we were one of the founders of a brand new company or we joined an established organization where we already had a number of friends. As strangers we faced the challenge of getting comfortable, fitting in, and, we hope, making a difference. And our organizations faced the challenge of helping us to get comfortable, fit in, and, they hope, make a difference. But they also face the opportunity of quickly creating involved and committed team members. And if they understood the real power of strangers, they would be way more successful.

I remember the first day when I arrived to start a strategic planning project with a brand-new customer who was trying to figure out how to stand out in a very crowded marketplace. I was certainly a stranger there, except to the people who had interviewed and hire me. But as a consultant, I typically begin every assignment as a stranger, and one of my initial goals is to quickly understand the customer’s world as I build a set of meaningful relationships. I have a real advantage because my role gives me access to almost everyone, which isn’t the case for most new employees.

While I was waiting in the reception area prior to my first set of meetings, I met a young man named Jeff who was there on his first day to start a new job. After signing in, he was met by someone from human resources who gave him his employee badge and laptop and took him to his full-day new employee orientation—the first stop in what he hoped would be a long and successful career. And maybe it will be. But I recall seeing him several times in the weeks that followed—passing by his workspace, or running into him in the break room, on the elevator, heading out to lunch, or sitting at the back of the room during an “all-hands” meeting. Each time I asked him how things were going, and each time he gave me the same answer: “Okay, I guess, but I don’t feel very connected here. Maybe it’s just something that will take a while.”

“Kind of strange,” I thought to myself. I had found him, in our brief conversations, to be friendly and interesting, if somewhat reserved. But he had apparently been left on his own to accomplish the work he’d been hired to do—work that he might be uniquely qualified for but that certainly did not get at the heart of who he was and his full potential to make a difference. And I started wondering a few months later if he and his company had missed the chance to connect in some meaningful way, and whether we allow too many of our colleagues to become strangers in our companies and organizations. Strangers because we choose to treat them that way. This may not happen in every workplace, but it does in many of them, and especially in larger organizations where it’s easier to get lost in the shuffle.

I also thought about the reality that we don’t always find the time to let everyone know that they really matter. That we will never reach our full potential without them. That everyone’s job is just as vital to our success—no matter how long they’ve been here or what they do. And that everyone has a lot more to contribute to our success than simply going through all of the awesome stuff in their in-boxes.

And that in order to build organizations and cultures that can consistently innovate, collaborate, and bring real excitement to the customers we have the privilege to serve, we must find better ways to engage and inspire all of our people from the moment they arrive. And better ways to discover their real gifts and passions.

Corporate employee

We win in business and in life when we make the effort to welcome and connect with, and learn from, all of the strangers who enter our lives on the lonely and awkward day when they arrive.

Cheers!

The Power of Connection

Greetings. As you all now, I have a strong belief in the importance of strangers in our lives. I also believe that each day we pass by more than a hundred people who could change our lives, even if it was only for a moment. But in our haste to get to the next meeting, or run an errand, or simply get home from a long or short day at work we rarely take the time to connect. In fact, we rarely look up to catch their glance. So I was struck when I recently learned about the work of a New York City photographer named Richard Renaldi who also has a passion for connecting strangers and for unlocking the discomforts and possibilities that make us all human.

His work is fascinating. He identifies “random” people on the street and “asks them to pose in pictures together as if they were family members, friends or lovers.” And the results are quite surprising and inspiring. Results that were summed up quite simply and brilliantly by one of the women he photographed when she noted:

We are probably missing so much about the people all around us.”

Follow this link to learn more about his work and to see a short and thought-provoking video of the things that happen when total strangers come together. Then try to imagine how you and your colleagues might do a better job of connecting all of the strangers in your company or organization as the real key to greater collaboration, innovation, business success, and creating a more inspiring workplace. After all, you too are probably missing so much by failing to really connect with, learn from, and grow with the people around you.

richard renaldi

We win in business and in life when we take a chance and connect with strangers. And when we dare to believe in our own humanity and the humanity of others.

Cheers!