Friday, May 30, 2008

The Speed of Information

I was sitting in a classroom a few weeks ago listening to teams of students make brief presentations. The class was Social Entrepreneurship (eShip for short.) They were talking about their impending half-term projects with nonprofits. I was helping one of the teams who were looking at how to better leverage technology for small nonprofits in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont.

The professor and guest advisor were giving the teams tips on who to contact. During the tech team presentation, I was watching what the students were doing on their laptops. The advisor recommended the team contact a major foundation, who had a technology-related funding program. As he was making his comments, one of the students browsed to the foundation web site and found the relevant program page. Before he finished, she had sent the link via email to the rest of the team, who in turn were clicking to the site. The entire flow of verbal and electronic information happened real-time.[1]

Before you get in a huff about students not paying attention, and the rudeness of multi-tasking, let me tell you a pre-Internet story.

I remember sitting in my field manager’s office twenty years ago. I asked if he would check on something at headquarters for me and let me know what he heard. He said, “Why wait?” He picked up the phone, dialed his contact and got the info. I left his office with the answer and an important lesson: don’t make a to-do item of something you can do on the spot.

Do you see the parallel between what my manager did and what the students did? If you can get the information now, why wait?

My fourteen year-old takes pride in multi-tasking. I’ve seen him carrying on five Instant Messenger (IM) conversations, playing a video game with someone from Australia, and researching a paper for school at the same time. I wondered when he had time to think. The more I thought about it, the more I asked myself if the way students think today may be changing. Was problem solving changing from individual synthesis to communal answers? I decided to try an experiment with him.

I asked him how he would go about finding the answer to a problem.
“What problem,” he asked.
“One your teacher gave you, for homework.”
“Which teacher? (He is a teenager, after all.)
“How about history. What are you studying?
“The French Revolution.”
“OK. How would you go about finding the answer to this question: How many famous people were executed by the guillotine during French revolution?" (Remember, he’s fourteen.)

We were on the phone, so I asked him to describe what he was doing. His first stop was to go to Wikipedia and look up guillotine. (If you’d like to read along, click here: ) He read the first paragraph, but didn’t find what he wanted.

His next stop was Yahoo Questions. He entered “guillotine famous people.” (See ). The first answer was about a wax museum (Anyone can post answers.) He didn’t see anything else on that page that was better.

Next, he went back to Wikipedia, paged-down a couple of times and read about the Reign of Terror. Listed there were Robespierre, Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, each victim of the guillotine. He then informed me that Joseph Guillotin was not the inventor, nor did he die by its blade. Guillotin died of natural causes. Bonus points.

Total time browsing, about three minutes. Fast. But very much a solo performance.
“What if you couldn’t find the answer on-line?
“Never happened.”
“But if it did?”
“I’d email my teacher.”
“What about essay assignments?”
“If it’s boring, I write a paragraph, take a break and IM my friends; then write another paragraph, etc.”
“If you’re not bored?”
“Then I space out on it.” He blocks out everything else and focuses on the mission.

So it’s not very different than when I learned how to do assignments. At least for the engaging stuff. Notice that the multi-tasking parts are about socializing and entertainment, not the work itself. What is different is how fast it happens. Whether in the class or on the home PC, finding and using the information is lightening quick. So why don’t we have more answers?

[1] For an entertaining look at laptops in the classroom, read the Doonesbury comic for April 27, here:

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Sense of Play

I was on the MIT Campus for a CIO Summit and One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) conference. It was if the two were held on different planets.

The OLPC event began at the MIT Media Labs. During the reception, I managed to join a small tour of the "Lifelong Kindergarten" room in the lab. Along one wall are bins of Lego blocks and sundry parts for making small robots. There are couches and tables casually arranged for ad hoc discussions, with posters and paraphernalia hanging out throughout the space. A mock-up of a car chassis is in one corner. Blocks and crayons are on a table in another corner. The place exudes a sense of play.

The “Lifelong Kindergarten” project is the brainchild of Mitch Resnick, an MIT Professor. When he talks, you can hear the child’s sense of play at work in a scientist’s mind. You want to take off your shoes, roll up your sleeves and join him in the sandbox. Just look at their web site, here:

I first saw what I called the “Lego room” five years ago. I remember looking into the room and seeing a bunch of Lego-bots running around the floor and desktops, controlled by what looked like AI (artificial intelligence) programs transmitting wirelessly from PCs. It was heaven! My overwhelming sense was that this was where I wanted to come play when I “retired.” I had that same feeling standing in the room this week.

The OLPC offices were a similar hotbed of creativity. XO laptops were everywhere, literally hanging from the ceiling, crowded on desktops, on credenzas in various states of disassembly. My favorite line from a volunteer demonstrating the mesh networking was that the warranty was only activated when you took the laptop apart! Everyone was encouraged to play with the components and wield a Phillips-head screwdriver. The place was humming with activity.

Contrast all this creative energy with the CIO Summit on balancing innovation and cost leadership. It was also held on the MIT Campus. Here in the center of one of the hotbeds of technology inventiveness, was the most stale, one-dimensional conference I’ve ever attended. There were no videos, no demonstrations of cool technology, no engaging slides, no play, period. There were only speeches and panels of very qualified people talking, one after the other. If ever there was an example of Marshall McLuhan’s maxim that "the medium is the message" this was it.

This is not to say that the content was not interesting, or that I didn’t have a number of valuable take-aways from the session. The speakers, panelists and moderators were among the brightest, most accomplished academic and business leaders in our field of IT. But their creativeness was overcast by the dull context of an outdated venue. How can you talk about web 2.0 and not be
immersed in the technology instead of the commentary?

There is a message here for those of us who seek increasing innovation in our organizations. Context matters. A story may help. When I worked in NY I collected wind-up toys. My favorite store uptown was a little shop called The Last Wound Up. I had dozens of two-inch figures and animals in assorted colors that I kept on a round meeting table in my office. This was my interview space. I was a consultant manager for a Wall Street data and applications company. I remember a consultant candidate sitting at the table with me ignoring the toys. At one point I bumped the table by accident, and one of the pink mice did a back-flip. The candidate ignored it and droned on about his qualifications. He didn't get the job.

A few weeks later, I was introduced to Anna, the latest applicant. She had an equally impressive resume. Before she shook my hand she immediately went to the round table, exclaimed "look at these" and began winding a few up to see what they did. I was so impressed with her sense of wonder and play, willingness to step outside the typical interview box, and confidence that what she was doing was OK. It was an authentic moment. She got the job and went on to replace me as manager a few years later. The office with the toys created the context for something new and different to happen.

I’ll leave you with a related reference from a gem of a book by Gordon MacKenzie, the former head of creative at Hallmark: “To enhance the illusion of my emerging, indefinable (nonexistent) power [as the shaman of creative ideas], I set about to transform my little office into a corporate version of Merlin’s Den.” (p. 148). Pick up a copy of Orbiting the Giant Hairball (, read his chapter on "The Power of Paradox" and let the games begin.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Short Story

Last week's NetHope Summit in San Jose was a memorable whirlwind immersion in new technology. Our left-brain technology loving side was well fed. In the right-brain column were all the relationships that formed and deepened, both among our members, and with our corporate partners; and a bit of storytelling introduced at the outset.

I retold a story I heard In March at a gathering of NGO managers. I think it tells us something about leadership. It also tells us about the heart of strategy. I'll let the story speak for itself:

A Tree in Zaire

Four Peace Corps volunteers were making their way in a large Land Rover to a village in what was then Zaire. There was a single dirt road through a forest. A few kilometers from the village they discovered a large tree that had fallen, blocking the road. A villager was on top of the log chopping away with a hand-held axe. Wood chips were flying in every direction, but he was making little progress. The volunteers asked him to step aside. They pulled a cable from the winch in front of the truck and wrapped it around the tree. They tried the winch first, without success. Putting the truck in reverse, with all four wheels engaged, they attempted to drag the tree from the road. The wheels spun in the dirt. They made little progress. Villagers had begun to arrive down the dirt road, from the other side. As the volunteers gave up, restoring the cable to the winch, the villagers gathered around the tree murmuring. The man with the axe resumed his chopping. Off to one side, at the edge of field, the volunteers saw an old man smiling. He walked slowly up to the villagers at the tree and began to sing. The villagers joined him in one of those African songs that rises and falls with a cadence of call and response. As the song rose, the villagers all lifted. The tree moved a few inches. As the song fell, they put the tree down. Again and again, they sang and moved, sang and moved. In less than an hour, the tree was removed from the road. The volunteers got in their Land Rover and drove on to the village, with the people following in the dust. [1]

When I first heard this story, it was about overcoming obstacles. It is certainly about that. But it is also rich with possibilities for leadership. I've included some question below for you to think about and debate with your teams. Who are we in this story? That's a question worth spending time with. I leave you with a stanza from Robert Frost's famous poem to stimulate your right-brain thinking:

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar
Our passage to our journey's end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are.

Discussion Questions

1) Who are we in this story and why?
a) Are we the man with the axe?
b) The Land Rover with the winch?
c) The village with the song?
d) The old man with the vision?

2) Who do we want to become?

[1] This story was told by David Young, chief strategist at World Vision and a former BCG senior partner, at a workshop at Capgemini facilities in Herndon, VA in March 2008.
[2] Robert Frost, “On a Tree Fallen Across the Road,”

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Left Brain, Right Brain

Three events last week led to some interesting discussions about "left brain" and "right brain" thinking. Left Brain thinking is logical, detail oriented, facts-based and analytical. Right Brain thinking is more intuitive, sensory, "big picture" oriented and imagination-based. Mathematicians live more on the left and artists more on the right. You get the idea?

Let’s look at the three events.

The final class in Comparative Leadership focused on the case of the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. This was the case that brought together all of the elements of the leadership framework developed in the class. We read and watched. A week before the class we gathered one evening to see the documentary, “The Endurance” narrated by Liam Neeson (See ). It was a moving film. How Shakleton and his crew survived almost two years in the harshest conditions and one enormous obstacle after another was staggering.

During the class, the professor had us complete an individual exercise. We each drew a slip of paper from a hat that had one of the scenes from the story on it. We then had to write what we would say to the men as a result, and share it with the class when called on. My question was the following, which two other students also drew:

“You are Shackleton and it's Nov. 21, 1915. You have just watched the Endurance sink below the ice. What will you decide to do next? How will you communicate this to the men?”

The first student talked about the need for goals and planning, and sharing these with the men. This was a good answer. It was also very Left Brain. I volunteered a more Right Brain answer: “I’d hold a funeral,” I said, “for the ship.” "It is important for the men to face the reality, and have some time to grieve.” This was a significant loss. After the service—using the ship’s name—I would say, "and this is how we will honor her name: by enduring!"

This alternative sparked an interesting debate. It was obvious that the students were having difficulty wrapping their minds around this as a reasonable leadership action. Reasonable is the key word.

The second event was an announcement I received from the Academy of American Poets in celebration of National Poetry Month. The academy had designated April 17 as “Poem In Your Pocket Day,” encouraging readers to pick a poem and share it with friends and colleagues during the day. (See ).

Since email is a virtual pocket of sorts, and since good things come in threes, I shared three of my favorite authors’ work—all by poet laureates—in an attachment to an email, which I sent to everyone I knew at Tuck/Dartmouth with a note to “enjoy.” This was a very Right Brain email, which I used for the subject line. I included about 30 names on my distribution list.

Here’s what happened: only one recipient responded, saying they were looking forward to reading the poems during lunch. I presume the rest did not know what to do with this, or chalked it up as another bulk email at worst, or something weird from that Save the Children guy at best.

The third event was a discussion about stories over coffee with some Tuck colleagues. We were brainstorming how storytelling could be a part of business school education. Imagine that? We agreed that the most memorable political and business leaders were very good at telling stories. The rise in personal videos is perhaps related to this. Stories provide a way to communicate that draws the listener in and invites her to become part of the story, to make it her own. Steve Denning and others have written about this. You can find their work in that most Left Brain of publications, the Harvard Business Review.

So what’s my point? We need more Right Brain in our education. It's true that business school cases are a form of story. They are dissected before and during each class. But it is the “soft” aspects—the Right Brain stuff—that is often missed. Analysis is the bastion of a business school education. It’s important; I don’t want to denigrate that—after all, I’ve been accused of dreaming in spreadsheet cells. But analysis does not motivate change; it does not win the hearts and minds of people. And leadership is more often about winning hearts and minds.

Footnote: For a fun test on which side of the brain you are using, see the Herald Sun’s article and Left Brain, Right brain visual test, here,21985,22556281-661,00.html . Are you able to focus and make the figure reverse direction? Try reading a poem and looking again :-)

I’m headed to the NetHope Summit in San Jose, CA on the Cisco Campus this coming week. The theme is the power of collaboration. I’m excited about this event and the rich agenda we have set for ourselves. More on this as the week unfolds.