The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Don’t play too small – that’s the name of one of my stories. I’ve told it countless times, have it culled down
to a fairly brief tale, but can expand and elaborate if necessary. The bare facts are short and to the
point. Early in my career, I made a mistake in my job as president of a small company – forgot to process
some piece of paperwork – and found myself feeling pretty bad about it. When I wrote it up to the people I
reported to, I gave them all the facts and accepted full responsibility for the error (a possible $3,000 mistake).
Their response: “oh, a boo-boo”. It makes me laugh now, but it was an eye-opening experience at
the time. I had thought that I had made major error, would negate our entire quarter profits by this action
and had come down pretty hard on myself. What I realized, after seeing the absurdity of it, was that if you
want to have a large business, you need to be able to make large decisions. If I was too afraid of making a
$3,000 mistake, how could I ever hope to make a $3,000,000 mistake. Not that I dream of making $3M
mistakes, but I realized that it’s the level of risk that defines the playing field. And bigger risks allow for
bigger visions.
I’ve learned and grown over the years. I’ve had numerous life-changing experiences, both large and
small. Many of these experiences were translated into my “stories” – those shorthand versions of lessons
learned, values formed, and character developed.
Just as individuals do, I think that often organizations evolve out of the “stories we tell ourselves”. These
stories create the reality for both the organization and the people who work there. New people are attracted
to the ‘story’; others are repelled. We’ve often seen how new hires either ‘get it’ or don’t, often leaving
within a short period of time in an organization that has a strong culture. If the company, with its values,
mores and culture fits with your personal system, all will go well and you will likely have a lengthy and productive
engagement. If, on the other hand, there is no ‘fit’, then even the most talented of hires will likely
not last.
Recently I’ve been working on a great project – helping a small company redesign their business model to
deal with the new realities of their industry (travel) and still grow and prosper. In working through all the
parts of the project that one might assume would be present (financial model, marketing strategy, competitive
analysis, etc.) I was serendipitously privileged to learn some great new skills that fit into my overall
model of how I see organizations functioning as they relate to internal and external story telling.
This organization’s restructure created an environment in which new hiring was necessary. As a result, I got
the privilege of working with a professional HR consultant who had spent years in the business. I usually find
their gatekeeper function extremely frustrating, so it was quite an experience working with someone who not
only understood business, but had an amazing grasp of human dynamics and could quickly and easily identify
operating styles and cut right to the point of what was needed.
What was needed in this small organization was ‘behavioral-based’ interviewing, because what this type of
interviewing does is ferret out the ‘stories’ of your interviewee so that you can check for their unstated values,
goals, dreams, fears and issues. A good match does not rely only on skill sets, but on the ability to
work within the organization as it is, as well as help to shape the organization that will emerge.
Almost everyone thinks they know how to hire – you post a job listing, get a few resumes, call in the best
ones, ask them a bunch of questions about their last few jobs, throw in some gut feelings and make a decision.
Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Que sera sera. Does this sound like how your organization
does hiring and, perhaps, how you’ve felt your hiring process has gone in the past?
Imagine a scenario where the type of feedback you get all during the interview process is “you ask really
good questions” and “oh, that’s a hard question” immediately followed by a thoughtful and complete response.
This was the type of interaction that we found when we based our questions not on a hypothetical
exploration of what they wanted, to see if it matched our ideal (‘where do you want to be in five years?), but
on an in-depth exploration of what their stories were and what they told us about the candidate.
A few concrete examples are in order.
One of the mainstays of this type of interview is the “Tell me about a time…” question. It’s a great way to
address your concerns about a person’s resume without asking them directly. Since this was a small company
with many virtual employees and few people located in their office, we used the question “Tell me about
a time when you worked in a small office – what did you like about it; what didn’t you like about it.” The
answers ranged, as one might expect. The messages though, were clear – a person who didn’t like small
offices and preferred the vast camaraderie and structure of a large organization struggled to come up with
the ‘like about it’ section. Another who preferred small companies, breezed through this question, offering a
clear assessment of her personal preference and comparing it with her negative experience in larger offices.
The details of their stories enabled us to make the contextual shifts necessary to determine if we
thought they would be able to handle our specific situation.
Our telephone pre-screening questions enabled us to eliminate over half the resumes we liked, including
some that under the old method we might have had in for an interview. Our initial phone screens only took
5-10 minutes, but we knew within that time whether it made any sense to conduct a full interview. Compare
that with how many times you’ve pulled in a candidate for a face-to-face and knew in the first 5 minutes that
it wasn’t going to work… Our screening questions were simple – what caught your attention about this
job? What caught your attention about our company? What do you do well? What don’t you do very
well? For a key management position, we found that the ‘don’t do well’ question provided great insight. An
ability to clearly understand the limits of your own skills, especially as a manager, is a key indicator of management
maturity. We usually knew the person wasn’t ready to manage a staff (despite their stated history),
if they couldn’t confidently speak to what they knew they would need to delegate to more qualified
“Tell me about a great coworker/boss, and one that was not so great.” Talk about being put on the spot. Yet
this is a question that everyone should be able to answer. We’ve all worked with great people – what was it
that made them great? And we’ve all worked with some that weren’t so great – what was it that made them
not so great? Our new manager wanted to ask directly about on-time performance and absenteeism. I
dissuaded her from doing that, telling her that for people for whom this is important, it almost always shows
up in the behavioral questions. Sure enough – our best candidates often cited ‘worst’ co-workers as those
who were late, absent, didn’t meet obligations, etc. It was clear that this was important to them and we
didn’t have to ask them to self-report. This oblique method also seems more reliable – everyone says
they’re punctual.
The candidate’s stories about those times when they stepped into the fray (Tell me about a time when you
had to deal with a crisis?), took on extra work (Tell me about a time when you had an operational difficulty?),
successfully dealt with a difficult co-worker (Tell me about a time when you had a difficult personal interaction
at work – how did you deal with it and what did you learn?) and managed a project through to completion
lay bare whether their personal stories would fit in with the stories of the hiring organization.
The Organization’s Stories
In order to make a good hiring decision, though, it is necessary to do more than elicit the stories of your
candidates. It’s just as important to really understand the organization’s stories. These fall into several
broad categories such as history and founding, how we operate (in the trenches), war stories, great successes
and great failures.
Some stories are well-documented, some are passed on only verbally, some just seem to be suspended in
the air and some are lost as people and personnel change. The better these stories are understood, the
better they can be matched up with potential candidates. For insance, companies that basically make decisions
‘by the seat of their pants’ will not likely find that a candidate who describes one of her best accomplishments
as spending 6 -months creating a plan, aligning resources and bringing various areas together into
consensus is a good match. One of the hardest things for an organization to do is to recognize those aspects
of itself that are “concrete”, that are part of the very fabric of the organization, and those that are changeable
and adaptable.
I have a close friend who once took a job as marketing director at a small, specialty manufacturing company
which offered a large number of highly technical consumer products (over 200 versions of the same product).
While the company espoused the need for marketing, and thought that they actually wanted good
marketing (hence, the decision to hire a marketing director), in fact, their entire culture was antithetical to
making good marketing decisions. The president didn’t really “believe in all the marketing mumbo -jumbo”
and decisions on which products to promote were not based on marginal return, customer response or market
share. They were based on what caught the engineers attention and what their direct (and very much
hated) competitor was offering. As with many niche markets, there was an incestuous back-and-forth
among employees at the two or three main companies in the market, and significant animosity had build up
over the years. Many important business decisions were made based on this festering hostility, thereby
making it very difficult for a new marketing director to influence or change the prevailing culture (the stories
they told themselves) and to be successful. The stories this company told themselves reinforced the idea
that they were victims of the competitor, that nothing they could do would change that, that standard business
practices wouldn’t work in their environment and that “they were special”.
In fact, the myth that “our company is different” is one of the key points that consultants look for in working
with companies. Yes – all companies are different. And no – it’s highly unlikely that your company is SO
different that its problems haven’t been encountered before. The key to defining the company’s differences
is to be able to recognize the stories you tell yourself about them. If you use your stories to create a distraction
from the real issues, to build a case for never changing, to justify continuing bad practices, then you will
be perpetuating a culture of failure. If, on the other hand, you can use your success stories to encourage
and motivate your employees to continually improve, to contribute, to assist their colleagues and to build the
business to an ever-greater level of excellence, then you have stories that are working for you.
Our Own Stories
So while the purpose of this commentary is not to help you revamp your hiring practices directly (although it
might be a serendipitous result), it is to make you think about both your stories and your company’s.
What are the stories you tell about your work life? Do you have a short list? I have a list Nine Story/Lessons
that I tell. I tell mine to people I meet, new friends, new co-workers, family and (probably too many times)
old friends. They are the stories that shape our business life. Each of these could have a title. Mine sum up
over 20 years of work experience:
1) Follow the leader – most of the time people will behave as they see the leadership doing,
whether good or bad
2) Don’t play too small – you need to take bigger risks to play a bigger game
3) It’s OK to Play the Chain – sometimes it makes the most sense to follow the chain of command
and not try to end-run
4) The Pocket Theory – there are good pockets of people/workgroups in bad companies and
5) Act as you mean to go on – from the very first day, know your boundaries and act accordingly
(don’t promise more than you’re willing to deliver every day over the long -haul)
6) Know when it’s time to go – or, leave before you’re really bored and irritable
7) Grow where you’re planted – learn something in everything you do
8) The Road Less Traveled – take the harder job, it may lead to more interesting opportunities
9) If an email doesn’t do through, thank God and re-write it – sometimes there’s a reason for
the little errors that plague us, the unconscious knows
And finally – what are the stories from your company? Many organizations have formalized these, others
take a more informal approach. When working with strategy, especially when trying to move an organization
in a new strategic direction or effect cultural change, it is imperative that the strategist work with an understanding
of the current culture.
So take some time to revel in your own stories. Explore what they mean. Explore the patterns. Get to know
yourself again. Compare them to your company’s. Compare them to your clients. Compare them to your
dreams. Being a Human Strategist calls for being aware of our human love of the story and how it ennobles
our lives.

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I’ll Take the Usual

The Human Strategist – I’ll Take the Usual



I worked my way through college waiting on tables in a variety of restaurants over the back half of my teenage years.  The job itself had a certain measure of drudgery and detachment from true human discourse, but there were always certain customers that I recognized and who served to lighten my load.  It usually took about three interactions before a face became familiar.  The first time he or she was just another customer.  The second time they looked vaguely familiar.  The third time confirmed the recognition from the second encounter and put them in a new category – “regulars”.  By about the fifth visit I could usually tell what they were going to order and we’d converse on topics other than their choice of condiments.


Later, while commuting to my first job out of college, I used to take the number 11 bus – it was an odd bus route – at the end of its run after it had dropped off all the Virginia commuters coming into the District for work.  It looped back through DC, ran by the Library of Congress on the right and the Capitol on the left, then arrived almost empty at the Supreme Court building, where I caught it every morning at about 8:15 for the 5 minute ride down Pennsylvania avenue to the IRS building (full disclosure – I did work for the IRS at one point in my career).  What was so great about this particular bus (because there was another route that would take me closer to my actual building entrance on Constitution) was that it was almost empty and so the driver was willing to wait for me.  Sometimes he would wait while I walked/ran the entire block from third to second street when he saw that I was coming down the cross street.  This wasn’t a courtesy he was required to do and, in fact, it probably would have been frowned upon by his supervisors.  But it meant a lot to me and I was always grateful for his cheerful cooperation with my personal foibles.


So let’s talk of “regulars”.  Almost all service businesses have them. They are the backbone client base that marketers so idolize.  A critical marketing metric is the cost of customer retention, which is usually far lower than the much more expensive one of customer acquisition.  It’s a lot less expensive to keep customers than to get new ones.  But when was the last time you examined all the components of the customer retention model?   How much is human interaction a component of your brand value and customer experience? And, more importantly, as we move towards greater and greater impersonalization in our interactions, has your company’s strategy incorporated a true understanding of all the ways that human interaction and the development of community can enhance your customer’s delight in your product and your brand’s strength?  What makes customers “regulars” and how do your strategies and systems support this?
What is Customer Service?


I think that for the most part it is the experience of the service, and the people providing the service, that brings back customers.  This isn’t exactly a news flash.  Marketers and customer service types have been on to this equation for a long time.  However, I think that one of the ways that companies go astray is when they figure the ‘service’ to be only the technology enablement of the service – the process – and do not include the actual human touch into their plans, strategies and business models.


Recently I attended a presentation by Dan Bane, CEO of Trader Joe’s on how the firm’s values underlie all its strategic decisions.  If you’re not familiar with Trader Joe’s, the national/local grocery store chain that originated in California, I can only lament your loss.  Trader Joe’s has established an extremely loyal following of dedicated customers, including myself, through some very simple expressions of its key values such as product, customer experience, quality, and price.  One of the ways they do this is by treating each store as a neighborhood store – the captain of the store has significant decision making capabilities, the organization is all about product experience and employees are chosen for their personality and their ability to interact with and establish good customer relationships.  As an example of service to a “regular”, Mr. Bane cited an anecdotal story about how a regular client was shopping one day and for some reason her credit card was declined.  The person waiting on her took out his own credit card and charged the purchase.  This type of experience creates a customer for life.  But more importantly, this type of situation can only be set up in a company that doesn’t forego the value of human interaction in planning their business strategies.


CRM  – Help or Hurt?


This commentary was triggered by reading several articles on CRM, the current consultant-hyped, systems integrators solution to allowing companies to ‘get closer’ to their customers, to make the interaction one-to-one, to provide data to be mined and enhance service opportunities.  But what the articles do not often relate is how, in the process of installing and instituting CRM measures, the human interaction that provides so much of the customer retention part of the equation can get lost in the equation.


Programs are set up that sluice clients through streams of phone options and menus in order to arrive, hopefully, at a dulcet (and helpful) human voice at the end of the process.  Data displayed on the operators’ screens can tell them the client’s balances and various interactions with the organization.  They even project their lifetime customer value and give them star ratings to let the customer service reps know how much latitude to extend the person on the other end of the line.   Systems and procedures can help the back office staff do accounting, special orders, focused discounting, order management, shipping and delivering, all without ever personally interacting with the client in question – there are never people at the other end of the interaction, only account numbers to be billed, seats to be filled, and metrics to be optimized.  The Fedex delivery person probably knows your customer better than you do.


What adds real value to people in a world of increasing complexity, emotional distance (isolation) and an ever-increasing pace, is the opportunity to interact in a small but real fashion.  Stepping into the deli that you’ve been going to for years and having the counterman just raise a questioning eyebrow signaling the unasked question – ‘the usual?’ – provides a small moment of relief from the isolation that we are surrounded with daily.   The grocery store clerk who asks about how your new car is doing or whether your kid finally managed a hit in his little league games gives us a sense that we are somehow connected to our community and to the other people in the world, and not just to organizations, brands and markets.  Some membership-based clubs have “members tables”, where unaccompanied members can sit together and chat during a meal, rather than eating alone.  Coffee shops subtly encourage human interaction and development of a sense of “community” by having long tables with stools for individual seating, where a newcomer can easily strike up a casual conversation with a stranger.


Human interaction is the reason that some people still use travel agents.  I know that the airlines take advantage of the fact that many travelers are price sensitive and so they incent travelers to deal directly with them as opposed to working with travel agents.  But when I travel on business, I want to deal with someone who already knows that I need a window seat (and will take a different flight in order to get one) because of my motion sickness, or who doesn’t need to ask which hotel I need in Chicago because I’ve been on the same project for the past three months.  When I call the airline, even the highest level of premier desk – I still get a collection of Missy’s and Catherine’s and Howard’s and Linda’s.  And each time we have to start over again and I have to explain all my personal foibles, exposing them to the daily emotional whims of an army of customer service reps who don’t know me from a hole-in-the-wall.  I’m an **EXP** on their computer screen and that tells them they better treat me well, but they’re not treating me well because they see me every week and know that maybe I went through a rough patch a few months ago or that I’m excited about a new job or that I need this vacation so much it hurts and I really need this process to be very easy today.  And even worse, I don’t know anything about them—even when I do find out that Cathy used to live in Southern Cal and that her brother just moved here or that Howard is also a big Redskins fan, I never get to talk to Cathy or Howard again.  Those moments become part of the flotsam and jetsam of life, rather than the small building blocks of community, contact and intimacy that provide us growth and sustenance in our daily routine.


Integrating the Human Part of the Equation


Wisely led companies take the time to figure out how to integrate the human into their systems approach.  Take for instance, the aforementioned Trader Joe’s.  They have made a conscious decision to slow down the pace of technology adoption while they test how to retain the neighborhood feel of their stores that is such an important component of their brand.  They could have gone straight for the bottom line cost savings – wholesale change to bar code checkout registers and detached checkers throwing your food (your sustenance…) in the bag.  Instead, they decided to step back, look at what value they receive from their checkout interactions, and figure out a way to integrate technology so as not to lose that value, and, hopefully, to enhance it.


On the other hand, some companies go so far down the technology path that they don’t even realize they’ve cut off their own lifeblood.  For many, a glaring example of this is those technology companies that moved employees from tech support (where they were truly getting to know the customer and interact in a helpful, knowledgeable way), into sales and marketing, where they are rewarded only for closing the sale, not building and maintaining the long-term personal relationships.  These are companies who did not take the time to identify the critical human interaction points – not decision points, not sales points, not complaint points – but those points where the human side of their company interacted with the human in their customers and subtly enhanced their brand value.


The pace of our evolution is quickening and as part of it, we will be continually fighting the trend towards greater and greater impersonalization in every aspect of our lives.  The point of this is not to say that systems don’t belong in business – hardly a position a former systems analyst, integration and strategy consultant is likely to take.  The point is that companies need to rely on more than systems (especially primitive, dehumanizing, first-generation technological systems) in their efforts to increase their business, retain their customers and provide a human environment for their employees.  These are considerations that strategists must put into the equation when making recommendations on how organizations business models are translated into practice.  There is much to be gained by permitting, encouraging and enhancing the opportunities for human interaction.  And there is much to be lost, both for us and for our evolving society, by continually closing more and more of the doors of our humanity.

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Dancing on the Edge of the Possible

Neutrinos make for small extra dimensions
Fundamental theories of particle physics and cosmology often require the use of extra dimensions that might be “curled up” to small scales. The existence of oscillating neutrinos (as recently confirmed by Sudbury Neutrino Observatory data) places constraints on how large any extra dimensions could be. Using the latest neutrino data, the authors’ most conservative bound suggests that extra dimension should only be visible on a scale less than 0.82 micrometers (approx. one millionth of a meter). Thus, currently planned gravitational experiments are unlikely to detect these dimensions if they exist.

Computational capacity of the universe
All physical systems register and process information. The laws of physics determine the amount of information that a physical system can register (number of bits) and the number of elementary logic operations that a system can perform (number of ops). The amount of information that the Universe can register and the number of elementary operations that it can have performed over its history are calculated. The Universe can have performed 10^120 ops on 10^90 bits (10^120 bits including gravitational degrees of freedom).

Patterns in food web structures
Natural ecosystems are connected via intricate networks. Past modeling of these “food webs” involving small systems has not allowed discovery of significant universal factors across all webs. Now a larger study of seven sufficiently detailed webs has led researchers to discover that a single parameter, the linkage density, determines many important properties such as distribution of prey and number of predators. The advantage is that measuring the linkage density in real-life ecosystems is relatively easy and may allow a greater understanding of ecosystem interactions.

Single photon LED
A light-emitting diode that fires one photon at a time has been created. It is a potentially inexpensive, easily manufactured component for quantum cryptography and other applications. The researchers believe this is the first electrically driven single-photon source.

Short pulses of entangled light for quantum communication
Researchers have created pairs of entangled photons, the basic resource for quantum communication, in a form that is suitable for transmission over long-distance optical fibers. This will allow for realistic complex quantum communication protocols.

This is what is called “fringe” research in my domain. It’s a process of keeping abreast of items in one or more disciplines that have not yet entered the mainstream. It can also be done in fashion or pop culture or politics, anthropology, philosophy, biology, medical research or Shakespeare studies. Every discipline available to us continues to develop and progress – new ideas come forward, there is an interplay between the disciplines and progress occurs.

Dancing on the Edge of the Possible

What I like about reading material that varies so widely is that it stirs the thinking processes in my primary occupation – business strategy. Doing excellent work in business strategy requires a broad understanding of a number of disciplines, including business model design, markets and competition, specialized industry and/or industries knowledge, macro- and micro-economics, business functions, financial markets, globalization, politics, regulatory and legal environment, human dynamics and organizational behavior, leadership and corporate governance. This is actually just the tip of the iceberg, but it gives an idea of the breadth of background required of a good strategist.

To expand the above list further, though, are two critical skills that enable strategists to really see the potential application of developing technology and its impact on an organization’s strategy and business. In order to do that, one has to establish a mental framework for becoming aware of the fringes of technology. The first skill is the ability to do divergent thinking. Creative Destruction by Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan has an excellent description of this skill: “The tool of intuitive genius, divergent thinking can readily change the definition of the problem to be solved, or the context in which the problem is solved. It involves the ability to switch from one perspective to another fluently, as well as an ability to pick up on or make unusual associations.”

The second skill needed is the ability to make use of a creative style which has been labeled ”Observer” and derives from the power to notice details. In her book, the Five Faces of Genius, author Annette Moser-Wellman describes five different creativity styles and advocated creating working environments that support the use of all five. She also suggests that individuals can expand their creative ability by learning how to use styles that are not their natural style. It is the power to notice details, combined with the “Alchemist”, the power to connect domains, that makes the use of science and technology research so exciting in a strategy context. Combining these together allows a strategist to dance on the tightrope edge of the possible, balancing current reality against an unknown but possible future and a mythical dream world of ideas which may never come to fruition.

Boundaries for the Future

As strategists, it seems to me that we are called upon not just to codify the organization’s view of itself and its future, but to help create that future. We help to frame the issues that will drive the creation of a vision. We set the boundaries on the length of view that we look at (do we look at 3 years out, or ten, or twenty?). We set the boundaries on how we define our products (do we make objects to sell consumers or a dream to sell our markets?). We set the boundaries on the organization’s structure and its ability to meet the needs of customers (do we expand customer service or quality control or the back-office?). We set boundaries in defining stakeholders to be addressed and prioritizing these needs (do we directly address the needs of globalization and social constituencies or do we focus on our product and known customers?).

In order to set boundaries, however, it is necessary to stretch and test boundaries. Most parents of young children and teenagers are pretty familiar with this process in action. It seems to be the modus operandi of youth to test the boundaries imposed by parents, society, school, and just about everyone else. In our very young, we relish this testing and see it as positive when our two year old starts to explore her world more directly. Somehow we expect older children to grow out of it – we don’t relish it quite so much when our teenage son starts to push the boundary of independence and disappears for a night on the town with his friends. And later, when we enter into the world of work, pushing the boundaries is an even less sought-after behavior. It is often actively discouraged in many companies. Even progressive companies prefer to channel their boundary pushing activities into very narrow channels, such as research and development, where it can be ‘controlled’.

So strategists have the enviable, and yet challenging, job of becoming boundary pushers in their own companies. They’re the ones who have to ask questions like:

What if a new form of power, based on nano-technology or biomass conversion supplants the power systems in our products in the next five years and its adoption curve is more rapid than we anticipate?
What can we learn about the linkage density in food webs that could be applied to our understanding of our industry’s inherent network and what does that mean about future alliance opportunities?
How might the single-photon source technology encourage cheaper encryption and jeopardize our company’s internal security mechanisms?
How might new findings in particle physics change the outlook of the next generation of consumers, much as the Newtonian mechanics and Einstein’s relativism changed previous generations?
How will our company deal with the accelerating rate of change in scientific development?

Logically, and economically, our companies cannot afford to have everyone on their staffs engaged in the active pursuit of these longer-term boundary-setting exercises. However, in order to provide a good strategic planning environment, it must be recognized that someone at the company has to be thinking this way. This type of boundary stretching cannot be outsourced to the occasional consultant (although they can certainly assist in broadening a corporation’s outlook), nor can it fall onto the over-filled plate to of the CEO. Whether undertaken by a designated staff or delegated out to various functional areas that then maintain internal communication, this is an exercise that must take place. It is imperative if companies are to survive and adapt, to continue to serve their constituencies and to provide for the greatest value to their stakeholders. It will be necessary to prepare your staff to dance on the edge of the possible in order to recognize the probable.

Originally published Fall 2002 issue of Virtual

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Liftoff to a Dream

The Foundation of Vision

While in B-school I saw a movie in the required Organizational Development class called “What You Are Is Where You Were When” by Morris Massey. It talked about the value system that each successive generation demonstrates in the workplace and how it derives from experiences at key points and experiences from their childhood. I suspect that for me, and for a lot of other middle class kids growing up in the 1960s, one of the determining events was the space program and all that it represented.

The men and women who put together our space program were driven by so many reasons: to beat the Russians, to honor a fallen president, to further science, to expand humanity’s boundaries beyond the earth. What they may not have realized, however, was that the most valuable thing they built was the belief in a generation of children that anything was possible. And now it is our turn to create that hope – to pass on to the next generation the belief and hope that life will continually improve.

There has been a key structural shift in how people progress which occurred in the 20th century – velocity. The 20th century was really the first century in which each successive generation saw a significant change in living standards from the previous one. If you had been brought up in 13th century England, there’s a good chance that the way your parents lived would not be appreciably different from the way you would live your life. There’s a reason Hobbes called the life of man “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Hope was a commodity in short supply and primarily under the purview of the clergy.

Fast forward to the latter half of the 20th century. We have now reached a point where each successive generation has a significantly different lifestyle from that of the preceding one. We may not see the change or think about it on a regular basis. But it’s there – permeating our daily lives. For anyone born after 1950, just look around at your home and note the changes.   We sometimes think that since we had TV while growing up (the BIG change from the previous generation), that things are pretty similar. But a child of 6 or 10 growing up today never knew a television without a remote, cable, 100 stations, a VCR, a DVD, a Playstation and probably Internet access to grandma across the country. Phones aren’t attached to walls; or even to houses and offices. More than one computer sits on a desk somewhere in the house, and by now there may even be one relegated to the garage. Dinner can be cooked in 10 minutes in the microwave. Cars have VCR players, talking directions, built in child-seats and a lot of families have two or three of them. Anything that happens anywhere in the world can be in your living room in less than a minute (unless it’s happening someplace really obscure – then it may take an hour or two – but who’d care if it’s too obscure anyway?).

And how did we get to this point? By creating generation after generation of dreamers and believers and entrepreneurs and people with the imagination and vision to see that what can be dreamed can be built. And by nurturing each generation and its dreams as they started to build.

Why Do We Build?

So why do we build? What are the many motivations for building, or creating new things?

We build for all the forms of ego gratification – to be the first, to be the best, to be the biggest, to be the tallest – to have honor and glory and perpetuity. It’s easy enough to place a value judgment on these endeavors, to deride and belittle them for their excess and extravagance. But these are the dreams that stretch our boundaries, the ones that offer a glimpse of the possible and form the foundation for the next generation’s dreams.

We build for simple expediency – to make our lives and the lives of our progeny better. These are the infrastructure projects that enhance our daily lives and provide the platform for developing our economies, our societies and our homes. We evolve as a people when we offer up the opportunities of a better life to all our citizens through infrastructure enhancement. The Interstate freeway system started as a plan to provide for the defense of our homeland – it turned out to be one of the driving forces in creating new lifestyles and opportunities for vast numbers of middle class Americans.   The electric conduction and generation system was initially built as infrastructure, but it wasn’t the original electric companies that made money – few companies survived the purging and consolidation phase.– The real growth of wealth took place in the manufacturers and businesses which figured out how to use this new source of power to produce better products more efficiently and then market them to the emerging pool of workers – conveniently created by that very same infrastructure.

We build to reconstruct, to replace that which has been destroyed, whether by nature or man. This is the most basic form of building, continually repeated throughout history as wars, aggression, famine, pestilence and natural disasters took their toll. And yet one of the most common elements of rebuilding is that humans rarely just rebuild. They rebuild stronger, better, more efficiently, more wisely.

And yes, we build for greed. We would not be human if we did not allow for that motivation in what we do.

But we also build for the greater good. Ask any architect or engineer, any designer or artist, any mother or father. We build for the future – for adventure – to reaffirm that we will be here. And helping to formulate that future are the strategists.

Strategists as Vanguard

We strategists are the vanguard of the future we are preparing for. We take the longer view. We look for opportunities where others see only obstacles. We must keep in mind that the systems and products and companies that we are building are not merely for ourselves, but to lay the foundation of future dreams. How do we, as strategists, do our part – now that the battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation is engaged again?

We must be willing to put ourselves in the line of fire. Be willing to make recommendations that may not have an immediate fiscal reward, but must be made because it is right, and good, for the building of our future. We must lead by example – to show the next generation that it is not only greed that drives us, but that we too can see a better world. We must make recommendations and take actions that respect our environmental resources, the lives and health of those less fortunate than ourselves, and that consider the issues of globalization, regionalization and nationalism.   And we must encourage those who follow to change everything – to not constrain their expansion in order to savor our own accomplishments longer.

Imagine what today’s youth will be able to accomplish from the foundation we build them. Step back for a moment and think of all the creativity, ingenuity and the imaginative solutions that will come from a generation of young people who have instant access to worldwide information at their fingertips, simultaneous translation into multiple languages, the greatest understanding and meeting of their nutritional needs since the dawn of man and the economic power to bring their dreams to reality. We are constantly improving the physical foundation of our society. An even more important groundwork, though, is the attitudinal foundation we are laying down. It is the foundation of belief and faith and hope in a better tomorrow. This too can become an era when we show our children that anything is possible, when countdowns happen all the time and when we can lift off to a dream.


Description of Morris Massey’s categories:

Hobbes reference:

Originally published Spring 2002 in

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Leapfrogging Into the Global Future

In early June, a commentary piece in the LA Times, written by Marc Cooper and reprinted from The Nation, drew my attention and shocked me into a new course of thought. It made the claim that “any talk about a wholesale switch-over of broadcasts from the airwaves to the Web is an absurd notion in a world in which 60% of its population has yet to make a single phone call.” What gripped me was the staggering simplicity of this number (six-oh), with its images of young barefooted boys prodding emaciated cattle with sticks, and gap-toothed fishermen hauling their catches to market. How will THESE people be served by our technological revolution? And how are we to serve them with the work we do?
The statistics of Internet and e-commerce growth are adeptly documented by the media, the analysts, the CNBCs, and the Forresters of our isolated technological world. We live in an age of media and analytical hype, which sometimes distorts the wide chasm between the haves and the have-nots. We hear that by 2005 there will be 975 million worldwide users of the internet, and that we’ve passed the 50% adoption rate in the United States and are rapidly heading for a 75% adoption rate. The missing part of the message is that those 975 million users will represent only 15% of the worldwide population. Even at the exorbitant growth rates predicted for the next 4 years, the adoption rate in the developing nations will still be a paltry 1%.

So where are we going astray? How will our technology start to serve the greater good of humanity, outside of all the hype and analysis? How will we reach the other 99% of the potential users? What is the change on the horizon that has the potential to blindside us, while simultaneously changing all facets of life in our current civilization?

New technology is coming on board that will enable Third world populations to leapfrog into the global community of the 21st century, leveraging both the physical and knowledge-based infrastructure already created by the developed nations. The people of the developing world do not need 802.11b and interconnected devices — they need basic answers to age-old problems: how do I get help for my sick baby, how can we get clean water from our aging well, how can we construct better housing, what will this years rainfall be and what’s the best crop to plant, and how will I manage my life as I age?

There are solutions to these problems — solutions that will enable vast numbers of people to move up the economic food chain and into productive contribution to society, solutions which require only small, marginal increases in infrastructure development. These are the leapfrog solutions. These are the responsibilities of the strategists.

Why This Isn’t Just The Digital Divide

I know that by this point you may be thinking of that over-used phrase digital divide “that’s all this is”, you might say. Yet we business strategists can sometimes be so limited in our vision. We think that if we can just get computers for “the poor kids in East Palo Alto”, then well have done our part to bring our children, and somehow the world’s children, into the new global era. The “digital divide” is a convenient platitude that the ambitious subset of technophile America uses to cover the yawning chasm between where they are going and where the rest of the world still is. The “divide”, however, is not a chasm to be crossed with used PCs and broadband in elementary schools. It is a call to action for innovative ways to use technology to leapfrog the limitations of previous technological evolutions which were never fully disseminated to the global population.

Our challenge, as strategists, isn’t just to use our capabilities to sell CDs on-line, or to check the status of our tech-stock portfolios using our wireless PDAs. The bigger challenge is to use our creativity and technical prowess to sustain indigenous cultures, to enhance the fertile minds of children being born into an inter-connected world, and to create an environment where all people breathe freely (physically, economically, psychologically and politically.)

One would think from that last tirade that I am one of those liberal visionaries who believes that all business is evil and that subsidized social welfare is the protected “right” of the people. Far from it — Adam Smith and a Chicago business degree have formed the foundation of my thinking for too many years. A viable business needs to earn a profit and create economic value. Our economic evolution is indeed based on moral and social principles. There is great good to be had from the success of business endeavors, and the creation of wealth, while it may be unbalanced, still benefits all of society over time. Yet self-interested opportunism, when balanced with an enlightened understanding of political and social economics, could not sanction leaving behind 99% of the population. There is no question that our society is on the threshold of an amazing and dynamic expansion, which is unlike any in human history. The question is whether we’re wise enough to make the most of it.

The greatest benefits will not be strictly economic or political, but human, as these new technologies enable smaller, indigenous solutions for local problems. People need to have the dignity of their lives maintained — to be able to contribute to their own well-being and that of their families and communities. Local solutions enable this type of self-honoring involvement. We as business strategists are called to come up with imaginative and forward-looking ways of creating marginal value from the structures already in place — not just for the good of our employers and clients, but for the good of society as well.

Originally published: July 2001

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