StillWaters, KickStarter and Hi-Tech Cardboard Creativity…

Teaching college has been an energizing event. It’s a nice reminder as the grown-ups have difficulty getting along that there is a great batch of excited, imaginative youth coming up the road – ready to disrupt with gusto.

What I’m seeing up close now is the impact new tools have on the ability jump-start ideas.  Wasn’t that long ago that the VC’s of Silicon Valley were the enlightened financial doorkeepers to the innovation community. They’re still driving – but new tools are bringing the ability to drive entrepreneurship downstream. Moving from a technical focus to all things business.

A few years ago I described Cardboard Theatre, a production my daughter helped initiate. She’s at it again this time using the latest start-up tool on the net – KickStarter.

Three things I’ve noticed about KickStarter:

  • It’s a great pre-order tool – allowing start-ups to get the customers they need before investing in production.
  • It’s a great Creative’s Tool – Many art and theater projects are finding funding through the site. It’s provides ‘patrons’ for performances just getting off the ground.
  • It’s a great social tool – The goal is to raise money for something you would like to see happen. Sometimes there is a deliverable (a product) sometimes a happening, always a thank you.

By creating a way for interested parties to invest in an idea – with clear indications about what they can expect if it is accomplished – a whole new world is opened for getting imaginative projects off the ground.

Sarah’s latest project is the Stillwaters Street Theater Project (Kickstarter link) – bringing voice to the millennium generation.

“A generation shaped by the advent of Myspace, Facebook, blogging, and twitter we [the millennial generation] find ourselves surrounded by a wealth of opportunity to communicate.  Suddenly supporting a cause is as easy as hitting a “like” button and just as easy to forget.  Where generations before us had to step onto the streets to express their voice ours does it from the safety of a computer keyboard.  Our voices merge into the deceptively still waters of our generation.

The purpose of the Still Waters Street Theatre Project is to explore the depths of this generation in the public forum of the streets of the Bay Area through original works created by the voices of this generation.  We have three great shows by three great playwrights.”

Advanced communication explored through the oldest form of communication where the revolution began. I find it to be an interesting confluence of ideas made possible by an advanced method of funding.

Cool. Hi-tech cardboard creativity.

Leadership on a Cliff

What was a harrowing descent had just become worse, the steep scree slope ended in a cliff of unknown dimensions. We had all bought into our guide’s decision to take the short-cut. Down was bad. Now we had to go back up. (from events recounted below…)

Leadership fascinates me. Of course, recommended flavors and real life often don’t seem to line up as neatly as rah-rah management guides try to make us believe. While it would be nice to think that every successful conclusion was due to good leadership and every failure was due to bad, the lessons tend to be individualistic, full of false positives and negatives. Often the ability of followers to succeed in spite of leadership inanities is a more fascinating process question. That’s why it was refreshing to see that the 8 management points (and 3 pitfalls) put forward by Google appeared to be good common sense backed by quantitative research.

Reading the 8 points reminded me of this little episode when I was a tad more physically adventurous than today:

Image of a scree slope in Rocky Mountain National Park

I believe this is from the trail in question, although memory may be playing tricks on me.

We reached our third peak of the afternoon via a razorback ridge that left two choices for falling – right and left. Some places narrow enough that even my teenage bones felt a tinge of anxiety.

We were later in the day than planned. Well past noon on exposed rock in an area that had been seeing regular afternoon lightning. We had pressed on because I, the youngest in the group, was stressed about notching my belt with more peaks. I needed to complete this hike to have a shot at Longs Peak later in the week.

Rick and Mary (real names lost in the fog I’m afraid) were at the other end of the spectrum, both in their 70’s and experienced hikers. Mary was looking to photograph a few last alpine blooms. Both attacked the difficult trail with quiet strength. In truth, they helped control the pace of our guide – at first slowing our tidy group of 8 and in the end speeding us up. Consistency is a hard thing to learn. Our guide paid attention.

I was unfamiliar with this type of trek. At dawn we were quickly out of the woods and crossing ankle-cracking rubble. Map and compass were our guide, all the peaks were out of site, captured in a stoney valley – the only indication that we were on the right path were successively more distant carin trail markers. Searching for the small pile of rocks that made up each carin we needed took time.

While breaking with a view at the third peak, Mike, our replacement guide, found a shortcut down to the rock strewn valley below. He was an experienced guide but had never traveled this trail before and truth-be-told he didn’t have a map properly scaled to make that kind of a call. The guide trained for this trip had taken sick that morning and Mike stepped up to the challenge. I liked him. As I recall he let me do a bit of the compass and map work early on. Leading with back-up is good practice for a kid. Builds confidence.

The shortcut looked simple enough. A scree slope leading down to the valley would help us avoid retracing our steps up and down the successive peaks. It made sense to me, but I wasn’t really experienced enough to recognize the look Mary and Rick gave each other. Mike gave us instructions on how to follow him. Mary described why we needed to follow his instructions closely. She’d been on this type of slope before.

Traveling down a slope of scree you take a diagonal path, hairpin turning at each edge of the passable slope. It is critical to keep the line of hikers from traveling above one another, so you pause at each turn, hopefully on a stable enough piece of rock.

Three dangers confront you on this type of slope.

  1. Loosing your footing and sliding or rolling down the slope.
  2. Knocking a batch of scree lose and sliding down the slope with the rubble.
  3. Being hit from sliding rocks coming from above.

While the slope looks like small stones and gravel, truth is there are plenty of rocks large enough to do serious damage once they pick up steam. I think we were about half-way down when I began to feel like we had made a mistake. The footing was becoming worse, the slope was gradually increasing. Yet even with the gradual increase in slope, it was becoming obvious that something below us was missing.

Because the rubble field was the same shade all the way to the valley below, a cliff of at least 30 feet was hidden from view.

What was a harrowing descent had just become worse, the steep scree slope ended in a cliff of unknown dimensions. We had all bought into our guide’s decision to take the short cut. Down was bad. Now we had to go back up.

Mike knew he had made a mistake. You could read it in his posture. He was responsible for us. Learning that the cliff was there meant that a mistake that was likely have resulted in serious injury now would end in death. No slips allowed. No mistakes.

Rick and Mary were tight lipped. Mike’s decision would not have been their’s and now it had reached a dead end. An easy point of accusation and disarray. But there was no fighting, no accusation. Mike, Rick and Mary discussed what needed to happen with the group and we started our way back up. Now Rick and Mary were leading and Mike taking what was the more dangerous position, below the group. I’d never really thought of that as a conscious decision, but today, I’m pretty sure it was.

Through skill and a bit of luck we reached our earlier trail without serious incident. Mike had to shout encouragement to a few in our band to keep the line moving. We all had to step to the directions given, follow the safer placed foot falls of the leading hikers. For a group of eight who had only met that morning it was a nicely performed extraction.

Reaching a cliff and Google’s 8 Good Behaviors

The thing about leadership is – sometimes you lead people into a bad situation. Leading them out again is a neat trick and Google’s management points can help make that more likely to happen.

For example – #5 Be a good communicator and listen to your team. We all have things to learn. It is likely that the folks you are leading know at least a few things you don’t. Mike listened to Rick and Mary – sometimes subconsciously as with the pacing and sometimes explicitly as when we were stuck.

Or #8 Have key technical skills so you can help advise the team. Mike was a skillful guide who made a mistake. He also had the knowledge and experience necessary to mitigate that mistake. When you are put in a position to manage a particular project it behooves you to understand all aspects of the technology, processes and manufacturing elements. You can’t manage if you don’t know what your team is doing. Walking down and up that slope of scree would have been a disaster if we had not done it technically correct. Stones fell. We didn’t.

Or #1 Be a good coach. Scouting has this down to a science. Teaching, feedback, providing opportunity for experience. When Mike let me lead the group it gave me a feel for making decisions in an environment where I knew he wouldn’t let me screw-up to seriously. He did have fun letting me head off in the wrong direction once or twice though.

Funny how vibrantly a memory can be sparked in an unusual way. Getting cliffed has been a story I’ve told in the past, but I’ve never quite given credit to the quiet leadership shown by both our guide and Rick and Mary. In our everyday lives sometimes great leadership is almost invisible. It prods us on because we want to follow, not because we have to.


The Creative Drumbeat

Warning – I’m tying together a few loose ends here. Things may get tangled.

The application of scientific process to business practice has been one of the critical drivers in the success of modern enterprise. Observe, hypothesize, measure, analyze, apply, repeat. It drives efficiency and progress. Unfortunately things get dicey at the edges. There is an art to being a breakthrough business, in being able to observe the unobservable.

Sometimes our ability to envision surpasses our ability to measure. Sometimes you just have to leap.

“Leave space for things to come to you,” says Janice Cartier in her discussion of artistic process.

In a way, creativity’s feeling of random discovery is a scientific process we have not yet come to terms with. Robin Dickenson commented that for him the creative and scientific processes were modes of thinking that can be switched between. Kay Plantes commented that both the scientific and artistic states-of-mind need to recognize the value each brings to the toolbox of business thought. And then she brought Jeopardy Champ Watson into the discussion.

Ah, Watson. The knowledge workers’ nightmare…

Part of Watson’s strength is the programmers’ ability to dissect and understand the thought-processes of human Jeopardy champs of the past. Ken Jennings describes Watson’s intuition:

“I expected Watson’s bag of cognitive tricks to be fairly shallow, but I felt an uneasy sense of familiarity as its programmers briefed us before the big match: The computer’s techniques for unraveling Jeopardy! clues sounded just like mine. That machine zeroes in on key words in a clue, then combs its memory (in Watson’s case, a 15-terabyte data bank of human knowledge) for clusters of associations with those words. It rigorously checks the top hits against all the contextual information it can muster: the category name; the kind of answer being sought; the time, place, and gender hinted at in the clue; and so on. And when it feels “sure” enough, it decides to buzz. This is all an instant, intuitive process for a human Jeopardy! player, but I felt convinced that under the hood my brain was doing more or less the same thing.” Ken Jennings, Slate 2/16/2011

Is Watson imitating human intuition or have programers learned how the old synapses fire. Don’t know. Makes me feel vulnerable though.

Understanding and nurturing creative process is a critical competitive advantage, one that the US thought it had pretty much locked up. ‘Sure take our manufacturing jobs, we’ll all be imagineers.’ Now the alarm bells ring for U.S. creativity with a key measure (the Torrance score), falling each year since 1990.

“Instead of solving problems, our current mentality is to postpone dealing with them, either by ignoring them or trying to spend our way out of them,” Brad Shorr observed when commenting on the decline.

That particular methodology could be seen as a symptom of creative decline in and of itself. Creativity is all about solving, adding, discovering.

Maybe a part of the problem is that our ability to measure has suddenly surpassed our ability to absorb. The amount of data flying at the average manager is much higher than ever in history, does it free managers to move or lock them in a narrow pathway?

“What if I had been taught that the science of writing is also an expression of art?” Deb Brown asked.

ART - Photo by Joanna Paterson at

We all need to be reminded that some aspect of what we do is art — is creative. No matter how hard we try to bury it. Diane’s question reminded me of this Postcard Project image from Joanna Paterson’s Confident Writing site where she was reminded that “Your Words Are Art.” I like that. More wisdom form Janice, by the way. Learn from the artist. They are closest to the paint.

Could we also say, “Your Actions Are Creative.”

This post has the distinct feeling of a random walk, but sometimes my ideas do come from strange places, so walk with me a moment longer please.

If someone beats a drum and says, “Don’t disrupt the production line. You are not creative. You should not be creative. It is not your job to be creative.” Most of us would laugh, and consider the drummer to be silly.

As a matter of fact, I’ve never met anyone who would knowingly drum such a beat.

But the drummer exists. Self-doubt. Social mores. Wave avoidance. ‘Go with the flow.’ Odd reward structures.

Recognize the beat. It’s background noise which we all hum without realizing.

A devastating drumbeat.

Makes you want to cover your ears and run screaming for the woods. Thoreau did. He was on to something.

“Imagination is at the heart of great strategy — we need to reconnect with the 9 year old kid living in the back of our head,” commented Bill Welter.

I’d say it’s at the heart of a great life as well.

I’ve had the pleasure to speak with a number of individuals over the past few months who have brought a deep sense of imagination to solving problems others shy from. Dean Cycon changing the world through coffee, Raphel O Tyson through microfinance in Ghana or Jon Rycek through play. (I owe posts on the later two. Jon just left for Peru to train individuals who plan to build playgrounds for schools in the country as part of Playground Ideas.) They understand the traditional bottom-line, but believe there is something more that a company needs to be measured by.

Know anyone who is making a difference bringing social entrepreneurship to life? My students and I would be interested in knowing about them. Let me know in comments or by email. Thanks!


I’m One of Many Seeds, and Happy To Be…

“My positioning statement is two words: “Empower people.” What’s your’s?” Guy Kawasaki, Enchantment

Bringing about change is a lot like swimming upstream.  Everything and everyone pushes you to run fast with them promising safer, faster, easier waters via alternative compass headings. But changemakers in the world not only swim against the current, they pull thousands upstream with them.

Motivating movement with the force of an idea.

Guy Kawasaki takes on this force in his latest book Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions. I’ve long enjoyed reading Kawasaki for his ability to present ideas that can help you move mountains in ways that are both motivating and realistically grounded.  So I was delighted to receive a pre-release copy from his publisher last month to review if I felt so inclined.

You have to enjoy a book that wraps up with a chapter on how to avoid being wrongly captivated by individuals who use the Enchantment techniques just outlined against your better interests.  Reminds you that in this world of ours there is always someone looking to sway and influence — You are the only gatekeeper who can wholly own the decisions of what is in your own self interest. An important item to remember so that you honestly evaluate the opportunities that come your way as well as avoid becoming cynical about techniques that used honestly can improve your ability to understand, communicate, and motivate.

Communicating passion is hard for many.  We fall into the trap of listing benefit and feature bullet points that don’t get at the heartbeat of why we believe in what we are doing. Kawasaki describes the idea of immersing people in your cause (chapter 5):

“When you captivate people this way, they lose track of time, suspend their cynicism and skepticism, and may also break into a sweat.” Guy Kawasaki, Enchantment

So much better than yawning through a powerpoint deck.

This is a book about embedding enchantment into your organization, whether start-up or existing. Kawasaki balances the need to be personally enchanting with the need for having an enchanting cause. In other words, it’s fine to be a likable, trustable person, but there has to be depth to what you want to do well beyond just, “trust me.”  This depth can provide an employer with tools to motivate with more than just money:

“Motivating people is not as simple as feeding money into employees and getting out results as if they were vending machines. Providing an opportunity for employees to achieve mastery, autonomy, and purpose (MAP) is more important than money.” Guy Kawasaki, Enchantment

Which brings up why I’m a seed. Hard to miss reviews of Enchantment around the web. Easy to see he has taken his own advice to plant many seeds:

“This is a strategy of big numbers: The more seeds, the more nobodies you’ll reach, and the more likely they turn into somebodies for your cause.” Guy Kawasaki, Enchantment

Of course, he means nobody in only the most positive way, 🙂

I enjoyed the read and can recommend it. It provides ideas and techniques in a comfortable context that makes you feel they can be integrated into what you are doing today. So in the best of worlds, it may just help you change your world and that’s a good thing.

Until midnight on the 7th you can get a copy of his previous book Reality Check free with the purchase of Enchantment. Details are here.



Sustainable Business: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

I just clicked ‘checkout’ for a few pounds of Dean’s Beans. Haven’t tried them before, but wanted to after hearing Dean Cycon, CEO of Dean’s Beans and author of Javatrekker: Dispatches From the World of Fair Trade Coffeespeak tonight at Indiana University.

“I don’t believe social justice is a formula, I believe it is a process.”

Passionate and positive, he shared his ideas on how socially responsible business practice and respect for quality of life can help change the world.

Sustainable business is all the rage, but efforts at many companies seem to get holed up in the marketing department or as purely charitable exercises. I asked Dean if he thought large organizations could change over to the sustainable thinking his company emulates:

“For a pre-existing large scale organization it’s hard because people are already in there looking for profit. […] However, when a corporation starts out and says these are our values: ‘We’re a triple bottom line corporation. Yes, we’re going to try and maximize profit but not at the expense of the third world sourcing ecology, or the health of the communities we buy from. We’re not going to do profit on the backs of people to the point it damages their air, water, or food, or their communities. Were going to balance that. Were going to give up a little of this to get that.’

So if you start like that there is a sufficient investment community out right now who’s willing to say, ‘I’ll vote my dollars there.’ “

Interesting take. Old business models are often replaced by new thinking.  Some organizations transform, but more often they decline and are replaced. A core difference between old and new thinking is the idea of profit maximization and value maximization for shareholders. The difficulty has been and continues to be a question of measurement and recognition. The ability to recognize the value of social responsibility for shareholders is key to the idea’s growth.

Efforts to elevate sustainability and Corporate Responsibility are being highlighted publicly by companies in annual reports (See Inditex’s annual report here pg 57), special reports (Apple recently released this supplier responsibility report) and in the media. Right now much of this work is justified to protect corporate reputations (avoiding negative customer reaction), as well as to improve operations (social problems impact supply chains).  This transparency helps, but the efforts show differences from Dean’s.

Dean says his company takes a three tier approach to meet the corporate responsibilities they have set for themselves. Environmental, Economic, and Social.  I had not realized the extent of pesticide use in the coffee industry, second only to cotton, and including multiple chemicals that have been banned for use in the United States. Dean’s Beans helps the co-ops they buy from go through the process of becoming Organically Certified (as he says, ‘organic by design.’) This is more than just ending pesticide use (something he calls ‘organic by neglect’).

Dean’s Beans also internally funds what Dean calls People Centered Development. I found the approach interesting: they work with the community itself, they listen and observe, and then help facilitate something the community is going to run. The variety of projects highlights the community specific approach. For example a revolving well fund in Ethiopia called Miriam’s Well, a tree planting project (over 100 thousand trees planted) in Peru, and a prosthetic program in Nicaragua.  The goal was to start projects that would self fund over time and last.  This approach appears to rely heavily on a very personal relationship between company and community and a belief that the programs must outlast the start-up efforts of Dean’s Beans.

When asked what makes a community development program sustainable:

“Buy in, community buy in.  The community must feel that it owns the program, that it’s not being forced on them and its not going to be taken away from them. But rather its their program, they own and operate it then and will invest their energy in it even in rough times.”

So, a great evening even if I was drinking the wrong brand of joe. In the next few days I hope to be enjoying a cup of Uprising!