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Innovation the FORTH Way

13 Jun

Much of what we do at the nonprofit where I work involves innovation. My supervisor recently shared the FORTH innovation method with us as a process for rapid concept development and testing. FORTH stands for these five steps:

1 – Full Steam Ahead

2 – Observe and Learn

3 – Raise Ideas

4 – Test Ideas

5 – Home Coming

I am going to read this book about FORTH and report back. From everything I’m seeing, it seems like a fresh approach to idea generation and refinement.

Also interested in incorporating the approach as part of a writing process that can help my graduate students improve their final work.

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The Two Sides of Steve Jobs

30 Nov

All four of my readers will remember my post-mortem post on Steve Jobs. This post is further reflection on his life and accomplishments.

I’ve been reading the new Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson and have some information to report back:

Steve Jobs was a genius and a nut.

He was emotionally immature, interpersonally inept, and an unbelievable hypocrite. When he didn’t get what he wanted in professional settings, he cried to manipulate people.  When he needed to encourage staff to take ideas to the next level, he tended to berate and belittle them instead. And despite the fact that he was himself given up for adoption by his mother and abandoned by his father, he refused to accept his own fatherhood for his oldest child until he was pretty much forced to after positive DNA testing.

This biography is not a tell-all, but Jobs wanted people to know the truth so wanted no censoring of content. I give him points for that. Isaacson conducted interviews with Jobs as well as hundreds of people Jobs knew–people with all kinds of opinions about what made him tick. It’s fascinating to read these insights into his process.

One of the things most intriguing to me is that, like George Harrison, Jobs sought spiritual enlightenment. I was surprised to find that he went to India to study Eastern philosophy and was a student of Buddhism. But unlike Harrison, Jobs did not seem to absorb any of the spiritual tenets around respect for other sentient beings. He used more of an end justifies the means type of approach to management,  putting people who worked for him on temporary pedestals to bolster their confidence one moment, while the very next telling them that what they created was “shit.” Apparently, he said this a lot. Jobs’ main takeaway from Buddhism, in particular Zen, seemed to be not the spirituality but the influence his  product design aesthetic: spartan, clean lines, and no fuss.

Another angle that Isaacson explores is the famous Jobs “reality distortion field.” If Steve Jobs believe that something was possible–even the impossible–he so strongly and passionately integrated this belief with his own worldview that for him and everyone around him it became reality. What that says to me is that he was so able to suspend his own disbelief that he had the power to persuade others to bend reality in very interesting ways…ways that beat deadlines and over-delivered on features.

All of this is interesting because it seems that the combination of these characteristics gave him the ability to manipulate his own and others’ thinking beyond the expected, giving us revolutionary products that are truly a pleasure to use. I’ve been wondering if all of the bad karma that Jobs created along the way of driving this technology to fruition outweighs the benefits of the products, and how they’ve impacted our lives in such positive ways. I think that you could argue it either way, and the answer is very subjective.

I’ve worked for people that I did not like at all interpersonally but whom I respected professionally, and who drove my thinking to the next level even though I despised their methods. I hated them for being so mean, but I still loved them for being geniuses. I’m a better professional for having worked with them, despite the pain. I think Steve Jobs left a slew of people behind with this very impression. He wasn’t good, he wasn’t bad. He was something in between: imperfect and himself.

Never Enough Tufte

29 Nov

Edward Tufte is the guru of info design…I published this three years ago but unearthing from the vault for a redux.

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I highly recommend the works of Edward Tufte to anyone who (1) likes diagrams of any sort, (2) enjoys communications about data, and/or (3) gets personal satisfaction from bridging the gap between a highly technical topic and an extremely non-technical audience.

Tufte is a Yale professor emeritus probably best known among statisticians, engineers and designers. These audiences tend to appreciate diagrams, and developing a meaningful, clean and well organized visual explanation is not easy. Edward Tufte explains how using pictures to convey information is both an art and a science. His works provide case studies of well-done and poorly executed diagrams, both of which are well worth studying. It’s good for anyone to learn how best to handle these matters and how to avoid others’ mistakes. Buying Tufte’s books is recommended for those (like me) who are tactile. The paper quality and fold-out sections deliver the adult version of a pop-up book.

Writers of any sort should better get to know Tufte. Probably the biggest reason is that many writers do not have a natural affinity for data. By nature, most people either “do” words or numbers. Some juggle both well, and those sorts will lap up Tufte like a cat with a bowl of milk. Those writers who do not take well to numbers can learn how to integrate data into copy in an engaging way, by using accurate and interesting narrative descriptions and visuals that help to tell the story.

Edward Tufte is a revolutionary communicator, in a practical way. His Powerpoint essay explains why. This is a must-read for anyone as an introduction to his approach. The Gettysburg address a la Powerpoint will make you laugh. The NASA Columbia engineers’ plight when forced to grapple with the inadequacies of Powerpoint will make you cry. Tufte’s post mortem lays out how a seemingly helpful tool such as Powerpoint contributed to the Columbia disaster. He explains, blow by blow, the right way to share highly important technical information with a business audience. Powerpoint is not the tool to use. At its best, it’s a sales tool. At its worst, it squeezes important information into a hierarchical outline format that requires a very small amount of information per slide, when it’s a proven point that people in general can absorb so much more. The comparisons to Pravda are revealing. Everything that we’ve been taught about what’s “proper” to include on a given slide in terms of information volume is sorely lacking, and Tufte explains why in his Powerpoint essay.

There are larger issues beyond Powerpoint. At the heart of Tufte’s method is a lesson for every writer willing to grow in his or her chosen field. We all know that feeling when we “nail it”–when the audience reads or hears what we are writing or presenting about, and they absorb it and take it to the next level for their own purposes. We also know when we are not able to make a meaningful translation–when the information just doesn’t stick. This is a bad feeling for us and for the reader/audience, because it wastes time. Why burn time when it could be used to communicate more productively?

In our information-rich world, it’s critical for any writer to understand how best to separate the wheat from the chaff, and Edward Tufte pioneers a quality approach. Prioritizing critical information from non-critical “phluff” is what it’s all about. If you are a writer, Tufte is worth your time.

Flour Sacks, Ketchup and Thrift

12 Oct

Reflecting back on this post from a year ago….branding in a time of thrift, aka the “spend shift.”

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I’ve heard stories about the Great Depression and WWII economy from my family. Losing the family farm just before President Hoover changed policies so that loans were more accessible, my grandmother later described feeling “very lucky” that she never had to dress her kids in flour sacks. It could always be worse, as they say.

Eating ketchup sandwiches sounds like a novel idea to my kids, but it was less than romantic for my mom in the early 1940s when nutritious food was rationed. Ketchup is not a vegetable, despite what Ronald Reagan and the USDA said in 1981.

But this post is not really about flour sacks or ketchup sandwiches. It is about a set of hard-core self-determinism and conservative (I am not talking politics here) values that got us through those tough years. And apparently the American consumer is returning to a model of saving rather than spending, focusing on time with family and friends rather than outward-oriented and ambitious ideas of success, and more consciousness for community benefit rather than self-aggrandizement.

What’s really important in life: continued acquisition or living more simply?  Is it better to encourage my son to save his money for the newest video game system or sock it away for something he may need in the future? Does it matter, in the end?

I heard an interesting talk by consumer expert John Gerzema at the Inc. 500 conference in D.C. over the weekend. Look at my twitter feed or search on #werthinc for my posts on his talk and others’. His discussion prompted me to buy two of his books, Spend Shift and The Brand Bubble. This is a man standing atop mountains of data gleaned from tens of thousands of consumers, all telling a story about buying behavior in the past and predictions for the future. It’s fascinating stuff.

This quote stood out for me: “As we stopped acquiring, we became more inquiring.” Apparently, 68 percent of Americans now have library cards — the highest number ever. I like this, although browsing in a library is different now. I like browsing books online and “buying” the free books from Amazon for Kindle. There are a lot of classics there gratis.

Here’s another: “The badge of awesomeness means being more nimble, adaptable and thrifty.” I’ve been on both sides of the coin here. I’ve had my moments of being shopaholic. Once I spent three hundred dollars in one trip at a Banana Republic for things I really didn’t need. My three hundred dollars didn’t take me far, but that was three years ago and I’m still wearing the stuff, except for one wool sweater that mistakenly was washed and put into the dryer. My daughter could wear it for a year, but soon it was too small for both of us. It’s been relegated to the doll-clothes container.

On the flip side, I decided that I wasn’t going to break the bank for the Inc. 500 conference formal. Not regularly attending such highbrow events, I needed to buy a gown and all the trappings. So here’s how I approached it:

  • From Clintonville consignment shop Rag-o-Rama, a black taffeta one-shoulder full-length clean line gown, not a designer label: $10
  • Dry cleaning the gown at Caskey Cleaners: $10
  • Patent leather shoes, beaded silk purse and black velvet/silk wrap from Grandview consignment shop One More Time: $30
  • Same earrings I wore for the rest of the conference
  • A seed beaded cuff I bought for $15 from the Columbus Museum of Art gift shop several months ago.

Grand total: $65. And I will totally wear that dress again. It fit great and made me happy because the price tag was my secret. Both my grandmothers would be proud.

So there you go, John Gerzema. I am looking forward to reading both books, but as you might guess I’ve started with Spend Shift. I’m hoping to unlock some new learnings to help communicate with this new brand of consumer. I can see applications here for work and home life.

Strunked, or ‘Omit Needless Words’

10 Sep

Every year, there are two books that I re-read, at different seasons. At Christmastime, it’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (a poem, but the size of a book) because it has end of old year and start of new year themes. At back-to-school time, I re-read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. This post tells a bit about why.

I’m a bit of a language geek. I think about it a lot in my spare time. I enjoyed diagramming sentences in 8th grade, and I wrote my honors thesis for undergrad on Cajun French morphemes.

Words matter to me, and putting them together smartly, in particular in the business world, is the difference between grabbing or losing an important person’s attention. I write for a living, so for me it’s a practical matter. And it’s just plain enjoyable for me to read this tightly written book about being a better writer.

While the book includes many “how-to’s,” it is also chock-full of humor on the side.  For instance:

Rather, very, little, pretty–these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.

(First sentence to explain the rule: “Avoid the use of qualifiers.”)

The history of the book is also worth knowing. Many don’t realize that E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web) kept the book alive “with” his Cornell professor William Strunk Jr, albeit after Strunk had passed. Professor Strunk wrote the book for his English undergraduates in the early 1910s, and White was one of them. Years later, the publisher Macmillan asked White to re-work the book for more widespread use, and White stayed true to the “little book” that Strunk created. The first edition was published in 1959, and since then there have been another four additions, each containing updates that keep it current.

The Elements of Style has become a necessary and nearby bookshelf item for all writers. Consider these words of wisdom that everyone tries to remember, without realizing their origins in the mind of Strunk (and White):

  • Omit needless words.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Use definite, specific, concrete language.
  • Nice: A shaggy, all-purpose word, to be used sparingly in formal composition.
  • Do not overwrite.
  • Write in a way that comes naturally.
  • Revise and rewrite.
  • Avoid fancy words.
  • Be clear.

I received my most recent edition from Bob Boltz (the most precise writer and honest editor I know) when working at Columbus, Ohio PR firm the Cochran Group. Bob would probably appreciate that I have threatened to give my daughter, newly a freshman at The Charles School, her very own copy of the book. She has indicated more than once that she’d rather I didn’t. If only these young kids would appreciate the wisdom buried in Strunk’s “little book!”

Here’s a closing thought from Strunk, called in E.B. White’s preface to the 1979 edition:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word should tell.

“Tell,” indeed. Every piece of writing should tell a story without “unnecessary” embellishment.

What’s the point? The best writing is created from the heart but polished by the discipline of the mind.

No More “What’s Next?

3 Oct

For most of my life I’ve been aspiring to get to whatever was next. High school. College. Career. Marriage. Children. Always looking to that next point on the horizon. Not ever perfectly content with where I’ve been, always pushing forward with the thought in mind that whatever was next would be better than what came before.

Now, what’s next? The major milestones have been met. I’ve been restless the past few months and am just now realizing why.

I am at a midterm point. A crossroads. Middle age. I can now look backward and forward with some perspective on life. This is a point of dissatisfaction and “midlife crisis” for some. I’ll admit I went through that a few years ago and after an honest self-assessment determined that I am quite fortunate to be loved by a husband and family that are sometimes too patient with me. I am not perfect, and they love me anyway. This is a blessing that not everyone fully appreciates.

Now, the life decisions are more nuanced. Not about what I have, but about how I want to live in this world. More about form than function, such as:

  • Will I continue to do things the same way I’ve always done them, or will I change?
  • Will I truly know myself — my limitations and strengths — and accept both?
  • Will I make conscious choices to have the experiences that are most fulfilling, with the people in my life who can best share in that joy?

I think that adolescence is about determining the who am I and the why, young adulthood is determining the what and middle age is about the how and the with whom. I am feeling like the next decade or so will help me to learn more about people, care about the human interactions that energize life,  change the habits that are no longer helpful for me and accept the things about myself and others that are never going to change.

Animal House

28 Sep

I heard an intriguing piece on NPR today, about the new David Sedaris book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary. He discussed how freeing it is to write about people who remind him of animals, without having to make apologies for writing about them.

Confession: People often remind me of characters in fairy tales, classic novels and movies. While bored in long meetings, I have from time to time let my mind wander and imagine how their characters would fall down rabbit holes…

So it’s safe to say that I get where he’s coming from with this book. Childish, immature? Probably. But it works.

There is a part of me that thinks it’s bad to criticize people for character flaws, so I will think of them in more forgiving ways by letting them take on character roles. It helps me to be less angry. As characters, they have permission to do what they will do, in character, naturally and innately. Why wouldn’t they be themselves? Full-tilt, head-on, no holds barred.

I did this with my blog series for working with difficult people. There was the Corner Office Troll. The Change Agent. The Vampire. The Neglectful Boss. The Friday Afternoon Surprise. I’ve worked with all of these people and have seen them at their best and worst. At their core, I am enthralled with all of these difficult characters. Which is the reason I wrote about them. They’ve all taught me lessons, about how to be more compassionate, less obnoxious or more patient — with myself and others.

I did a similar writing exercise with a dog of mine. For a while, I gave him a Twitter account. The kids and I would come up with things he’d say, like:

5:30 am, Saturday: “Hellloooooooooooooo, yard! Here again?”

And so forth. But he kept saying the same things, so I’m interested in how Sedaris deals with the “goldfish world view.”

What I like about the Sedaris concept with his bestiary short stories is that there’s no line drawn between good and bad. Animals are animals, being themselves. And so many times people are that way, too. Sometimes it’s good not to pass judgment, just to accept people for who they are. I’ll report back once I start reading this, to let you know whether or not the book is as good as the concept.