Strategy and the Fat Smoker


I haven’t read his book yet, but David Maister’s new book on strategy seems to be right on target.

I recently read an article that he wrote by the same name in Consulting Magazine that shared some of the book’s ideas. The title? – Strategy and the Fat Smoker.

He makes the point that fat smokers know what they need to do to lose weight, and to ward off a heart attack and cancer. However, knowing what they need to do is just not enough. Instead, the
real question is whether or not they can do what it takes to sacrifice present discomfort for future gain.

Companies have habits, just like people, and changing habits takes diligence, discipline and perseverance, plus a tolerance for multiple failures.

On the smallest of micro-levels, it takes waking up each morning and starting the day on a different foot, determined to take actions that push the envelope on new-habit creation, or old-habit deletion. This is where the strategy gets implemented — on a person by person basis, in the quiet moments when they have a choice to act differently, and move out of their comfort zones in order to make it happen an inch at a time.

I happen to be doing an experiment of sorts to change some of my habits. Inspired by a blog I read on creating a ‘Scaffold’ for each day or repetitive actions, and also by the recent literature on what it takes to change a habit, I have been daily working through a checklist of new
habits that I am trying to follow.

I have been using a 30-day checklist that has helped tremendously as I keep the sheet in front of me as a guide to making sure that the essential actions are being followed each day.

I agree with him about the challenge it takes to change habitual actions. In his article, he says that “Discussing goals is stimulating, inspiring, and energizing. But it feels tough, awkward, annoying, frightening and completely unpleasant to discuss the discipline needed to reach those goals.”

This strikes a chord with me as I get to the end of the year, and notice which of my goals remain unfinished. When it comes down to it, for a few of them I just didn’t know how to accomplish the goal, but on others, I knew exactly what to do but didn’t muster up enough habit-breaking
will-power to get the job done, and that’s the truth.

The New Approach to Creating Slides


In an earlier post, I wrote about the new ways to use PowerPoint slides, emphasizing pictures rather than words.

I have some examples of how my slides have evolved over time from being full of bullet points, to being driven by emotional images that help the audience to focus on the words I am saying, rather than those on the screen.

I have found a book that goes even further and provides a template and a way of thinking about presentations that is just excellent.

In the book Beyond Bullet Points, the author, Cliff Atkinson, makes the point that a good presentation is like a movie script, and the different scenes that are shot in the making of a film.

He has done an excellent job of reducing a movie to its elements, and applying the elements to a different purpose.

Movies have a basic structure, he argues. They begin with a particular background setting, against which a protagonist (usually the star or main figure) is going along in their life until some tragedy strikes that must be resolved.

The movie is about the steps taken to resolve the crisis, and at the end there is some kind of wrap-up to bring things to completion.

(Of course, there are amazing films made as a departure from the basic structure, but most departures are amazingly awful.)

A presentation or speech is no different, and the template he provides to structure a speech in 3 acts like a movie or play is a real breakthrough in thinking. He also advocates using PowerPoint slides as pictures with a minimum of words to build emotions at different points of the presentation.

I recommend it highly.

Why Framework Sells the Way It Does


I recently had the opportunity to solidify the way Framework does its selling.

Most of what passes for “selling skills” focuses on making the quick sale, which involves convincing a single person that they need to make a buying decision.

Unfortunately, this approach does not work for complex projects, products and services that involve more than a single buyer, or a significant dollar amount. Here in the Caribbean, I consider a “significant” sale to be more than US$10,000.

It all usually starts with a call initiated by either a prospective client or ourselves in which we discuss a potential problem. At this point, we only have an inking that a potential collaboration might exist.

The next step is to validate the problem through a round of informal interviews, in which we ask those impacted by the problem if they agree an issue exists, and whether or not it is worth putting time, effort and money into a solution. We try to get at the nature of the problem — the cost of its continued existence, and also whether or not it is a priority item, or should be a priority for the company.

Once these interviews are done, and we agree with the company that the issue is real, we sit down with them to co-design a solution, and issue a discussion document describing the solution.

After the discussion document has been validated, the following three questions are asked:

  1. What is the problem costing the company?
  2. What return can the customer expect?
  3. How much should the customer invest to achieve the desired result?

Once these have been discussed, a proposal is written to capture in writing what usually has already been decided.

In an earlier post, I shared why I run from RFP’s, but that was before I read Exceptional Selling by Jeff Thull, which put my years of experience selling projects in perspective in a powerful way. He shares the same point of view, and urges a salesperson of complex products to walk away if their standard process cannot be accommodated.

The problem I have had in the past is that I have been too willing to write a proposal based on a single conversation, with one person. The results of these proposals are usually problematic for both Framework and the prospective client — in short, no-one wins.

There just is no short-cut to the trust that is built when a process like this one is used.

Swinging the Pendulum of Change


I am listening to Lou Gerstner’s book – “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance” and am struck by the similarity between his account of his leadership and IBM, and that of every other CEO-turns-around-company book I have ever read.

This is not to say that the recording is boring, which it is not. It’s just that there is a common plot behind each of his stories.

In the same way that all operas have 3 parts (I think) and all cricket matches revolve around batting and bowling, I have come to believe all successful turnaround CEOs basically have the same story to tell.

In essence, all companies that are unsuccessful fail because a gap develops between them and their customers. Often, the gap is created when what they have always done successfully stops working.

At a very basic level, the company could just “stop doing it.” With simple changes, this is easy enough to do.

However, for complex changes involving hundreds or thousands of people who are entrenched in decade-long practices, the insight that change needs to happen is only the first step. What is much harder to bring about is the large-scale change in thinking that each individual must undergo – a change that cannot be forced into happen with carrots and sticks.

Instead, it must be articulated repeatedly until people are able to convince themselves.

To perform this kind of miracle, CEOs need to be able to identify the frameworks that underly the weak positions that companies fall into.

Imagine that the culture of a company as a huge collection of pendulums. Each swings very slowly from one extreme position to another. Each pathway is distinct from the other. Only a subset can be seen clearly at any given time.

What do the pendulums represent?

Each pendulum describes a particular dimension of awareness.

For example, some companies are market-driven while others are driven by innovation. Neither position is absolutely better, but it IS possible for a company to get stuck in one extreme or the other without knowing it.
Some of the other extremes include :

  • ethnically monolithic vs. diverse
  • revenue vs. expense driven
  • centralized vs. decentralized
  • diversification of products vs. consolidation
  • faster processes vs. quality processes
  • incentive pay vs. base pay
  • individual vs. group measurements
  • reengineering vs. process improvement
  • job security vs. talent turnover
  • focus on strengths vs. focus on weaknesses
  • strategy vs. tactics
  • vision vs. execution

In his book, Gerstner mentions that the quote most attributed to him is the one in which he said “The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.”

Basically, he was saying that the company had gone too far in the direction of visioning, and that, for the time being, it needed to swing the pendulum back to the more practical matters of doing business on a day to day basis.

It is the job of every CEO (and every manager) to swing pendulums.

However, based on experience and training, no 2 managers are the same – they “see” different pendulums. There is, after all, some truth to the notion that if you give a man a hammer, he is likely to see every problem as a collection of nails.

A manager will always attempt to solve a business problem by looking at the pendulums that he can see most clearly. Indeed, he must.

It is also the job of CEOs to point out, and distinguish new pendulums for the executives and employees in a company, so that they can see what he/she sees. Without this ability, a CEO is stuck trying to change a company on their own, and are unlikely to be successful.

Books I am Reading Now — October


Someone asked me where I find all the time that I do, to undertake all this reading. Well, given that this month’s reading list looks a lot like August’s should say something about how little reading I have done lately!

Reading List (paper)

  • Words to Our Now by Thomas Glave
  • Presence by Senge, Schwarmer, Jaworski, Flowers
  • A Course in Miracles (text)
  • Culture Matters by Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington
  • Return on Customer by Don Peppers and Martha Roges
  • The Right Move by Delano Franklyn
  • The Answer to How is Yes by Peter Block
  • 2 academic journals on Carnival

Listening List ( mp3’s on Creative MuVo Slim)

  • Lectures by Marianne Williamson
  • A mystery novel
  • Nickle and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  • Fast Company Magazine Monthly Summary
  • The Right Use of Power — Peter Block

eBook list (Palm Tungsten eReader or PC)

  • InfoGuru marketing by Robert Middleton
  • Create Your Own Information Products by Alice Seba

Added to my usual list of magazines is a list of ezines:

  • Multisports. com
  • Total Immersion
  • The Economist
  • Nerve Insider
  • A new Christianity for a New World
  • ConsultingWire
  • The McKinsey Quarterly
  • Performance Bike…. to name a few

I am also using Google and Yahoo Alerts to tell me when there is any mention of Human Resources and various Caribbean countries. I also look to see where my firm’s name has been mentioned, of late using a Google alert.

Books I am Reading Now — August


Yet another quick update on the books that have recently attracted my attention:

Reading List (paper)

  • Words to Our Now by Thomas Glave
  • Weinberg on Writing by Gerald Weinberg
  • Presence by Senge, Schwarmer, Jaworski, Flowers
  • The McKinsey Mind by Ethan Rasiel and Paul Friga
  • A Course in Miracles (text)
  • Triathlon Swimming Made Easy by Terry Laughlin
  • Culture Matters by Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington
  • Return on Customer by Don Peppers and Martha Roges
  • The Right Move by Delano Franklyn
  • The Answer to How is Yes by Peter Block

Listening List ( mp3’s on Creative MuVo Slim)
— Lctures by Marianne Williamson
— The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith
— I Need Your Love, Is That True? — Byron Katie
— Fast Company Magazine Monthly Summary
— The Right Use of Power — Peter Block

eBook list (Palm Tungsten eReader or PC)
— InfoGuru marketing by Robert Middleton
— Create Your Own Information Products by Alice Seba

I have my usual list of magazines: Time, Runners World, Bicycling, Tritahlete, plus the occasional others. And of course, there is my daily reading list of : Jamaica Observer, Jamaica Gleaner, Trinidad Guardian, Trinidad Express, New York Times, Sun-Sentinel — and now and then I read the Barbados Advocate.

I am also using Google and Yahoo Alerts to tell me when there is any mention of Human Resources and various Caribbean countries. I also look to see where my firm’s name has been mentioned, of late using a Google alert.

I think I must be crazy to try to read this much…! But, it is fun.

Weinberg on Writing


Several years ago, I picked up my first Gerald Weinberg book — The Secrets of Consulting.

He is a computer programmer who, in that book, stunned me with the unique insights he had about the consulting profession. It was one of the seminal consulting books I read at the time when I was learning that there was more to the craft than just knowing a bunch of good stuff and being really smart.

When I read that he had a new book called Weinberg on Writing, I jumped at the chance to read the book, thinking that it would once again marry some lines of thinking that normally do not go together.

I was right on this one. His book is like nothing I have ever read, and now that I am thinking of myself as a writer (of more than lots of emails) his advice on how to organize ideas and writing energy explained a lot to me about my own writing behaviour, why I like to blog and how to organize ideas by following ones own level of inner energy.

The Fieldstone Method is one that he has invented and named. It has to do with gathering ideas and points of inspiration for writing, in the same way that someone who builds fences from stones found in a field (i.e. fieldstones) must find just the right stones to build the structures they want. Here in Jamaica, we have them all over the country, and we like to build retaining walls and gully walls from football size limestones (and the aid of a lot of cement.)

The book, which is all about building bits and pieces of ideas into a coherent whole gives me some comfort. Even though I am not using Mrs. Richardson’s format from my days at St. Andrew Prep School, I have still been following a relatively coherent method that I am going to improve and enhance using the ideas from this book.

In short — I recommend it!

The Power of Writing


Since I started blogging last year the number of words that I have written for public consumption has gone up dramatically. It has really been an amazing outlet for me, and an avenue for ideas and self-expression that has been fun and mind-opening at the same time.

Only now can I imagine writing a full fledged book — how many blog entries would it take to write a book after all?

However, I have not been as successful in convincing other consultants that they also must write.

I read the following article from Robert Middleton today, sent to my inbox as an ezine. I decided to share a link, but I cannot find a link so here is the email I received in total:

Hi Francis,

As you go through the InfoGuru Manual you might have noticed that I talk about writing quite a bit. In fact almost every chapter has something about writing – writing your marketing materials and web site copy, writing articles and talks, writing eZine copy and writing motivational copy.

In my opinion, writing is THE KEY to marketing professional services. There’s no way to really get around it. Someone once said that writing was simply ‘salesmanship in print.’

Sure, you can network and meet a lot of people, but by committing information about your services to writing you can ‘meet’ hundreds, if not thousands of people and tell them all exactly the same message about your services.

I was once struck by the power of writing when I was leading a business support group many years ago. I was demonstrating the power of ad copy and showed them a little ad in a local directory of services. This ad was about massage therapy. The headline, the copy the appeal were so interesting and attractive that one of the participants wrote down the telephone number to call the advertiser.

The interesting thing is that we had a massage therapist in our group who offered substantially the same services and had been sharing what she did with the group for several weeks. But the power of that little ad had more impact on our participant than meeting and talking with a massage therapist on a regular basis!

The Core of InfoGuru Marketing is sharing what you know and leveraging that knowledge to attract all the clients you can handle. This isn’t just an empty marketing phrase. It really works. And it starts with writing.

If you’ve gotten a few chapters into the manual and you haven’t written anything yet, it’s time to start. It might be your Executive Summary that gives an overview of your services or a short article or an outline for a talk. It doesn’t matter. Start somewhere.

One of my mentors, Alan Weiss, the author of Million Dollar Consulting, writes every morning. I actually suggest you do the same. Take the time to write something that will forward your business. With this writing you’ll have the ammunition to start promoting your business with real impact.

And, of course, there’s a lot of information in the manual itself on how to write more effectively. don’t just skim over these sections. Take the time to do the exercises and build some momentum in communicating the value of what you do.

All the best,

Robert Middleton

Action Plan Marketing
210 Riverside Drive
Boulder Creek, CA 95006

If you no longer wish to receive communication from us:

To update your contact information:

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Mastery and the Plateau


I recently completed a wonderful, short book entitled Mastery, written by George Leonard.

The first wonderful thing to report is that the book is based entirely on his own experience of learning aikido, from the novice stages to the point where he is a black belt, with his own school. This gives a certain gravity to what he says, coming from a serious discipline that requires a certain kind of devotion that cannot be short-cut, or faked. Also, the fact that this is a sport, as opposed to a part of his work, makes it that much easier to appreciate, and hopefully to apply to other parts of life.

The second wonderful thing is that he really says some new things that I have never heard before about the journey that each human being must take to advance themselves along their chosen path of interest in life — no matter what the path is. It is fascinating to me to realize that each and every chosen path is worthy of mastery — even plumbing, as I mentioned in an earlier blog on this topic!

Regardless of the path, there is a certain humanity that we must all deal with that is inescapable, even if we have Tiger Woods’ sized talent in our field of interest. The author’s observations about this path are what struck me as unique.

In the book he rightly observed that most of use do not demonstrate what it takes to become masters in the fields that we pursue, mostly because we simply love to find shortcuts and easy payoffs. He introduces three ways in which people try to avoid the long, slow struggle to mastery.

The three ineffective ways of being that people adopt are what he called The Dabbler, The Obsessive and the Hacker. I believe that we indulge in all these ways at different times in different fields, as we are confronted by what it takes to become a real master in one or more areas.

The Dabbler is someone who approaches each area of interest with enormous enthusiasm, whether it be a new sport, career opportunity, or relationship. This person loves the newness of getting started, and the new equipment, clothing, people and language that mark the beginning phases of any new interest.

They are overjoyed with their new find, and are willing to talk with anyone who will listen about their new interest. The first few lessons are eagerly anticipated, and as the early gains come there is a sense of euphoria.

The excitement continues until the first wall comes which marks the start of the first plateau in improvement. It starts to look as if nothing is happening, and to the Dabbler this is unacceptable — something must be going wrong.

The Dabbler’s response is to rationalize that this must be the wrong sport, career choice or paramour. They start to blame the hobby, the coach, the manager, the lover — whatever they must do to explain to themselves what is happening.

Starting all over again with another new interest is the only option, and the Dabbler quickly finds something new, or someone new, or some new place to be excited about all over again. Nothing gets accomplished, because the Dabbler is always… dabbling, and never spend enough concentrated time and effort in becoming masterful.

Over time, the Dabbler’s progress might look like the diagram at left.

The Obsessive, however, loses him or herself in the all the activity of their new interest. They devote tremendous amounts of time, energy and money acquiring information about their new area of interest. In a sport, they seek extra coaching wherever possible, and spend extra time practicing wherever they can. They purchase every book they can get their hands on.

In a relationship they virtually study their partner and cannot bear to be away or out of contact for very long — as if the other person’s presence is the most important thing to have.

This person is hooked on immediate results — the immediate knowledge, the felt thrill of learning and improving quickly. When the results slow down by virtue of hitting the inevitable plateau, the Obsessive redoubles their efforts. They work harder than ever, and put in even more effort to try to break out of the plateau. Long hours, late nights and 7 day a week work-weeks are their trademark.

In a relationship, they are the ones who crowd out their partner, stifling them with unceasing and eventually unwanted attention. They will not allow the plateau to run its course, and instead do whatever they can to force improvements and results to come.

Eventually, the Obsessive overdoes it, and the inevitable result is either burn-out or crash-out, sometimes carrying others with them in what is often a painful fall for everyone involved.

Over time, the Obsessive’s progress might look like the following diagram:

The Hacker, by contrast, is someone who hits a wall in performance and never generates enough intention to get past it. They are content to stay in the plateau indefinitely, hanging around without improvement, and never expecting to get any better.

They might just be involved for the “fellowship,” or the free food or the security, but the fact is they are satisfied with never ever doing any better at the particular interest. At work, they do just enough to never get fired. In a marriage, they simply enjoy the security of the relationship, without worrying themselves about learning and growing in the relationship.

For them, keeping things the same is of paramount importance, and their time is spent dealing with threats that might disrupt the status quo, either positively or negatively. The Hacker’s progress over time is shown in the diagram at left.

Obviously, most people are not one type or another in every place in life. Most of us live lives in combination — e.g. being a Dabbler in playing sports, and being a Hacker in relationships. The net effect is the same however — Mastery in nothing.

The Master, however, is someone who is able to deal effectively with the walls that inevitably comes in attempting to improve performance.

In the early stages of a new interest, there is steady improvement, and then a spurt of gains as everything seems to come together all at once. The body and mind which have been learning at different rates cooperate to produce the perfect result, and all of a sudden there is a breakthrough in performance.

However, once the breakthrough has been completed, there is always an immediate drop off in performance, followed by a plateau, as the body and mind consolidate and organize at this new level, and begin to prepare for the next improvement.

Therefore, improvement does not come as a steady graph of upward improvement. Instead, improvement comes in spurts, and usually all at once after spending significant time on the plateau in which nothing seems to be happening. See the diagram at left.

A couple of weeks ago, on my regular 4:00 a.m. bicycle ride here in Kingston (described in this blog entry) I suddenly realized that I was riding stronger than ever before. The experience was unmistakable — instead of barely hanging on at the back of the pack of the riders, I felt as if I was cruising with additional strength to spare at what was about a 25 – 27 mph pace. I actually was able to be up with the fastest riders at the front, and to participate in the final sprint at the end, which took us up to 32mph or so.

The improvement was stunning to me and to several others who, on the ride back up Mountain View, remarked that I was riding much stronger than before. I had clearly broken out of the plateau I had been on since February, when I first started riding with this group.

It is during the plateau that the dysfunctional behaviour of the Dabbler, Obsessive and Hacker occur.

The Master, however, reacts differently, neither quitting, nor becoming neurotic, not giving up on further improvement.

Instead, the Master devotes him or herself to practice, because that is all that there is to do in the plateau. Patience, discipline and diligence are their watchwords as they immerse themselves in perfecting their craft.

When the plateau is described to most people, their mind (which has been trained by the current culture to think in terms of immediate gratification) reacts with a feeling of boredom or fatigue. However, the Master is able to do more than just be bored — they are able to find satisfaction, joy and challenge even while they endure the lack of improvement.

The Master’s focus is not on the immediate results, but instead it is on the practice itself, and on perfecting the drills that are required in this phase to eke out the invisible small improvements that are the hidden building blocks of the sudden improvements that occur days, months and even years later.

Is the source of Brian Lara’s achievements his talent, or is it the millions of balls he has faced in the nets practicing the same strokes over and over again for over twenty years? Clearly, talent has its place, but it is only a starting point.

Is the source of Tiger Woods’ achievement his father who encouraged him, or is it the millions of shots he has taken and the minute changes he has made to his game over the years? Obviously, early coaching has its place, but that cannot replace the solitary practice he has undertaken over most of his life.

In the moments when I have enjoyed the plateau, there has been a profound feeling of being alive, and awake to what is around me. In the Total Immersion swimming technique that I have used for almost ten years, there is an emphasis on doing drill after drill, and looking for
small improvements in technique and in one’s feel for the water.

Recently, I switched from breathing every 2 strokes to every 3 strokes, a change I tried several years ago without success. Only now, after years and miles of practice, could I make the switch and get my body and mind to cooperate, with the result being an instant boost in sped, and an ability to use the new stroke without feeling as if I am drowning!

Other areas of mastery that I realized I have committed myself to after reading this book include: public speaking, managing my company, growing in my relationship with my wife, expanding my relationship with the Divine and leading high-stake interventions in organizations.

Of course, I have many other areas of minor interest that I have no commitment to become Masterful in, such as fixing computers, university teaching, cooking and playing cricket and football.

The challenge for our people here in the Caribbean is that they are becoming more and more like their counterparts in North America — trained to seek instant satisfaction from life around them. Nowhere in our school curriculum are students taught to value, to enjoy, even to love the plateau, the long stretch of diligent effort, with no seeming progress (according to the author.)

This is a tragedy, not only in accomplishment, but also in personal enjoyment because accomplishing anything worthwhile involves a commitment to Mastery. Granted, there is a thrill in winning the lottery, but that is a fleeting victory and comes from luck rather than diligent effort and application.

Often, the gifted athlete makes the worst coach, simply because they are ill-acquainted with the plateaus that an athlete must learn to love in order to reach the higher levels of accomplishment. They find it hard to help an athlete go through these plateaus simply because they do not know of their existence from first-hand experience.

The author, in closing, makes the overall observation that on a daily basis we are not present to each and every moment, and therefore rob ourselves of the joy that is available. We wake up and hurry to take a bath (taking a bath isn’t important). We hurry up and “grab a bite” to eat (eating is not important). We rush to put on our clothes (also inconsequential). We rush to drop off the children and to get to work through the unimportant” rush hour” traffic. We engage in some light chatting, because we are too busy to really talk (more important things await). Perhaps work will be challenging and interesting and different (but most days, it is not).Maybe lunch will bring a stimulating conversation… but it usually doesn’t.

And so on.

The fact is, life consists mostly of plateau-like activities, and even a World Cup footballer will play at most 2-3 matches of ninety minutes each per week during the season, which equates to at most 4.5 hours out of a possible 126 waking hours — some 4%.

If our experience of our lives has more to do with our moment by moment experience, than anything else, then teaching ourselves to love the practice that is required in the plateaus may be the beginning of actually leading a Masterful life.