True Detective?

TheInnocenceOfFB-UK-4From the first time I opened up A Study in Scarlet as a young boy and was introduced to Sherlock Holmes I wanted to become the detective who could spot some whiskers and a tattoo from across a street and know someone was a retired Royal Marine sergeant, or recreate an entire crime scene from wheel ruts, some tobacco ash and footprints in the dust. So I purchased The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook and set off.

It did not go as planned.

Contrary to what juvenile fiction authors would have you believe, major crimes did not happen with regularity in my suburban elementary school. Moreover, even my off-duty deductions were disappointing. The details that might allow you to make insightful conclusions were all there but so were millions of other details which were completely unimportant, and it was darned difficult to tell one from the other. Sherlock Holmes deduced with inescapable logic that allowed for no other interpretation of the facts. Holmes’ very appeal was the utter certainty of his conclusion, a certainty I did not achieve then, and rarely experience now.

Which is why later in life I have grown to appreciate another detective, Father Brown, the unassuming little priest in G. K. Chesterton’s series of stories. One of my very favorite scenes in all of detective literature comes from The Honour of Israel Gow, in which the priest and his colleagues, Flambeau and Inspector Craven, are investigating an apparent murder in Glengyle Castle. The pieces of evidence are varied and perplexing: diamonds with no settings, tiny metal wheels and springs, wax candles with no candlesticks, and heaps of loose snuff. Inspector Craven is flummoxed:

“By no stretch of the imagination can the human mind connect together snuff and diamonds and wax and loose clockwork.”

But not Father Brown:

“I think I see a connection,” said the priest.

Father Brown then calmly described to his colleagues how the incongruous clues could actually be bound together by an infatuation with the last Bourbon rulers of France.

“Both the other men were staring at him with round eyes. “What a perfectly extraordinary notion!” cried Flambeau. “Do you really think that is the truth?”

“I am perfectly sure it isn’t,” answered Father Brown, “only you said that nobody could connect snuff and diamonds and clockwork and candles. I give you that connection off-hand. The real truth, I am sure lies deeper.”

The little Essex priest then took all the very same pieces of evidence and demonstrated that they all could be tools for burglary so the suspected killer must have been a thief caught in the act of robbing the castle.

“Diamonds and small wheels,” repeated Craven ruminating. “Is that all that makes you think it the true explanation?”

“I don’t think it the true explanation,” replied the priest placidly; but you said that nobody could connect the four things. The true tale, of course, is something much more humdrum.”

A third time, Father Brown took the same four items and built yet another scenario involving nearby shepherds and a buried treasure.

“Is that all? Asked Flambeau after a long pause. “Have we got to the dull truth at last?”

“Oh no,” said Father Brown.

…“I only suggested that because you said one could not plausibly connect snuff with clockwork or candles or bright stones. Ten false philosophies will fit the universe; ten false theories will fit Glengyle Castle. But we want the real explanation of the castle and the universe.”

Whether Chesterton is using the priest’s more humble approach to the evidence to take a playful jab at the Sherlock Holmes’ conceit of certainty, I don’t know. But I think about Father Brown today as I search the Internet. “Ten false philosophies will fit the universe…” The data points are manifold; there are whiskers and ashes and candles and gemstones strewn across my digital landscape “…but we want the real explanation…”  In so many cases it isn’t the first explanation, or the most obvious, or the cleverest that is the “real” one. Would that we all had Father Brown’s ability to perceive multiple potential solutions, because only in doing so do we discipline ourselves to be patient until one reveals itself as authority.

Father Brown reminds me of three competing truths. The first is that there are, of course, multiple explanations to any set of data points. But the second is that all explanations are not equally valid. There is a “real” truth. There are some perspectives that are better than others just as, in the detective metaphor, there is an interpretation of the evidence that reveals the true killer.

But there is a more sobering third truth: transcendent uncertainty. Though there may be real truth, we may not always, often, or easily comprehend it. In commerce, politics, relationships, even religion we are called upon to make business decisions, to vote, to love, to purchase, to pray when the facts are uncertain or insufficient, or when they are too complex to know thoroughly and when our expert guides have become biased or partisan. Performing well within uncertainty has become a civic prerequisite made so much more ironic and acute in our age by the masses of electronic data at our disposal.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Father Brown is a priest. In an odd way people of faith may be advantaged in a world defined by ambiguity. The author of the biblical book of Hebrews calls faith “the assurance of things hoped for” a beguiling tribute to both the conviction and uncertainty that mark the experience of every mature believer.

But religious or not, we must all develop the subtle capacity for complex thinking and humility such that when required, we can evaluate, contemplate, and decide even with incomplete and insufficient knowledge.

I once had a manager whose intelligence frustrated his colleagues because, as one privately said “he saw so many sides of an issue that it rendered him completely incapable of making a decision.” It is right to want the real explanation of the universe; but we will likely be forced to decide a great many things without it.


Three Odd Questions

number-three-mdHow often have you heard a CEO pronounce that “everyone here is a salesperson”? As an actual sales executive for 30 years I take a little offense. After all, no one ever says “everyone in the company is a network engineer” or “everyone is a cost accountant” even though I have been in enterprises that would have benefited by more attention to both. But everyone should be a salesperson…as if it is so simple that absolutely anyone can do it.

I know what is meant, of course. Everyone should consider themselves an active positive representation of his or her company no matter if their actual job title is salesperson, accountant, lawyer, assembly worker, IT manager, etc. It is a good reminder to me that what we do is usually much more subtle and complex than what we are called.

There are a number of very healthy ways of exploring that notion; I’d like to suggest, for instance, three odd questions that you might pose about your job. Answer them for yourself or answer them as part of a work team, a civic or charitable organization, even an extended family. You may be surprised at the novel perspective you get:

1) Whom do I connect?

Most all of us are conduits of some sort, structurally it is often between your superior and your subordinates, your customers to your business, etc. But forget about the organization chart and think of specific individuals you connect in your business, organization, or extended family. Every human structure has a web of informal connections that grow up around the need for sharing information and activity. You likely play a role in that web and the larger and more complex the organization the more important the network of individual conduits is.

Think about where you help make connections happen and then ask whether those connections are speeded or slowed because of you.

2) Where is my time arbitraged?

When I was a very young manager I spent a year as the executive assistant to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Much of the job was not very glamorous nor did it seem important: drafting remarks for a charitable luncheon, following up on customer issues on his behalf, setting his staff meeting agenda. But what I was really doing was arbitraging time. Every minute of work that I, an inexperienced (and inexpensive) young manager could perform in his place allowed the CEO to spend his experienced and expensive minutes on the most difficult and crucial problems.

So whose time are we freeing? If by doing our jobs we are liberating other more senior, or skilled, or specialized talent to tackle more vital or difficult issues then our organization has benefitted, and if that is happening from the top to the bottom of the enterprise then it is efficient indeed. If, on the other hand, we are doing work that could easily be done by someone less trained and experienced then, well…uh-oh.

3) What workflow do I direct or redirect?

Think of the great goals of your organization as a waterwheel which turns through the force of the current that flows past it. We all create flow intensity or reduce it. When we reduce the force of the stream’s flow it is most often by actions that divert resources to smaller tributaries or streams that, though seemingly important, nonetheless reduce the power of the river downstream to turn the wheel. We can be diversions that siphon flow or we can be barriers that redirect flow back toward the water wheel; often we are both at different times. But it helps to think of tasks in that simple little metaphor of a flowing river since its confluence is not indifferent to our influence.

Many years ago the Japanese manufacturer I was working for sent a new manager from Kyoto to be the head of our offices in the U.S. It was my job to take him around and introduce him to his American staff which I did by giving him their name and job title as we met each one. Invariably, as we were walking away from meeting someone he would tug my shoulder and say “what does he do, anyway?”

Only later in life have I realized how very profound that question can be.

Berlin Boxes


Question: What is the first thing you need in order to think outside the box?

Answer: A box.

Boxes, boundaries and borders get a very bad rap in popular culture where they often represent inflexibility, limitations on freedom, or bureaucratic small-mindedness. But the truth is we need structure…to define our organizations, to order how we go to market, to insure processes are efficient and fair and for many other things. For most human associations, well-made “boxes” are vital assets. It is so for businesses, non-profits, churches, civic organizations, government agencies, teams, and so on, but it is especially so for large enterprises.

That is not to suggest that structural borders always make sense. Consider the map of Africa.

When Otto Von Bismarck called together the Berlin Conference of 1884 it was ostensibly to deal with slavery and escalating trade disputes in Africa but in fact its principal effort centered on realizing the complete European colonization of the continent. Over three months, European diplomats, many of whom had never been to Africa, drew boundaries for approximately 50 new African client states whose primary rationale for existing was to define the spheres of interests of their great European overlords.

Much has been written on the imperialistic arrogance of the Berlin Conference boundary makers but what has always been more memorable to me was their sheer indifference to local reality. The new national borders included straight lines running for thousands of miles in complete disregard of natural geographical boundaries, cultural affinities, language, and other realistic inputs. Diplomats sat in Berlin conference rooms and divided the continent into national boxes that satisfied their own interests but bore no resemblance to natural African division. Even today Africa remains beset with political instability and tribal violence resulting from these inapt historical borders.

The lesson for us is that boundary-making, even in commercial organizations, is tricky. When ill-considered or poorly constructed, these borders and processes quickly become those famous boxes outside of which everyone is always being encouraged to think. Those of us who steer through organizational structures, market definitions, job descriptions, and other boundary impacting activities ought to guide our executive map-making by three great navigational lodestars:


A French proverb states “it’s all very well in practice but it will never work in theory”. Boundaries work best when built from reality in, not from theory out. For example, in my former industry, telecommunications, the traditional division between business and personal cellular user disappeared and yet the carriers were unable or unwilling to align appropriate organizational and go-to-market boundaries that reflect that compelling market reality. We persisted in viewing our customers conveniently to us; it is not how our customers viewed themselves.


No organizational structure, channel strategy or sales model is perfect; all have shortfalls and unintended consequences. Our choice is to accept the imperfections and tradeoffs of our current structure or replace it with a different set of imperfections and trade-offs from a new one. That is the only choice. There is no option in the real world that allows for perfection. We have no more chance of finding it than the conquistadores did El Dorado. Acknowledging imperfection will also make the inevitable criticism that comes our way seem exactly that…inevitable. We won’t be surprised or defensive about our shortfalls; we can defend them for what they are, the intentional price we pay for the best imperfect solution we can create.


Structure is the means to an end, it is not an end in itself. The end is enabling the most value out of your human resource. Get good people, build smart processes and let them contribute. They will creatively align to any variety of corporate structures so long as they have the expectation that the structure will be around long enough to justify their effort in adapting to it. I have worked in enterprises that changed organization structures, sales territories, and market definitions like socks. But even bad borders are difficult and costly to change so make your border choices to last. That structure designed to fix your short term revenue growth problem may look pretty silly two quarters from now when your shareholders are worried about profitability. It is often out of your control but insofar as it is up to you, build for the long haul.

There is great appeal in being the guy who thinks outside the box. But far more valuable to any human organization is the guy who designs the very best box in the first place.

Big Idea. Free!



With the attention commanded by the IPOs of sexy consumer Internet startups like Facebook, Yelp, and Twitter it sometimes surprises people that the most consistent performers among new Internet startups are those providing services for the B2B, not the B2C space. Many entrepreneurial advice columns recommend that new innovators focus on enterprise applications because the business case is easier to create, the payoff is usually more assured, and venture funding is more available.

But most of the really cool ideas are in the consumer space (“online Lego rentals for a monthly fee!”) so where do you come up with the great enterprise application? Here’s an idea. Why not just re-purpose some of the consumer apps? For example

Throwback is a consumer photo-sharing app with a twist of nostalgia. Users can take photos and then tag contacts with whom to share them. The nostalgia part comes in the fact that users can pick anytime between one month and 5 years in the future to share them, effectively sending the photo to your future self (and your friends) along with a comment. Had a great trip to Hawaii? Remind yourself and your tripmates in exactly one year later by sending a future photo message. That selfie with your college girlfriend on graduation day? Send it to both of you in five years and see where you are, whether you found a job and whether that girl is still speaking to you. You get the idea.

There is even a function called “Surprise Me” in which the app itself decides at what random future date you will receive the photo. One day, clear out of the blue, your study for the bar exam might be interrupted by a photo of that trip to Las Vegas three years, two months and eight days ago.

But to my idea…what if this same functionality could send not just photos, but business case templates to your future self? I call this app Blowback. That project you fought so hard for and won approval because of the surefire 12 month payback? Blowback could trigger an email in exactly 12 months reminding your boss, your colleagues, even your board of directors of your personal commitment to be achieving $5 million in sales in the first year. Imagine your excitement as everyone in senior management receives a reminder containing your promised achievement. Nostalgia in Throwback becomes accountability in Blowback.

We could rename the “Surprise Me!” function something like “I Promised What??”

Upgrades of the app might allow templates breaking down business cases into separate deliverables for sales, marketing, product development, finance, etc. and staggering their future delivery as appropriate. For example, six months before release of a new product Blowback can send out message to the product team with their template and the message “You guys better be in beta tests by now!” Or marketing two weeks before launch with “How’s the $3M advertising campaign you promised going?” Tag the rest of the senior management team and the board of directors and watch the interdepartmental fun.

One of Throwback’s catchphrases is “Wait for the past to catch up to the present”. We don’t even have to change it. We can use the very same catchphrase for Blowback; of course it becomes less a promise and more of a threat.

Blowback could be tied into the company’s technology so that when the specified future date arrived the app could automatically query the financial reporting software and if the actual results missed the promise, the Blowback notifications could come in a bright red color; when promises are achieved notifications are green. The mobile version could use ring tones, achieved forecasts get delivered with a few bars of Pharrell Williams; missed ones come with Chopin’s Funeral March.

I haven’t decided whether Blowback should be fee based or advertising based. Fee based gives revenue stability, but between outplacement firms and Maserati dealerships, an entire consequences industry might grow up around advertising on the app, regardless of which way the results go. Tracking the aggregate national number of red versus green Blowback future messages might even become a leading US economic indicator (“the Blowback Ratio”) which the company could then sell to analysts at a tidy profit.

Blowback could introduce disciplined accountability back into routine business decisions. Then again, it might simply make already skittish executives even less likely to take important risks if they knew they would be held up to unavoidable, specific, future public scrutiny. Not to worry. There’s an app for that too. It is my yet-to-be created Snapchat derivative: Trapstat. All the statistics associated with your original business case commitments are trapped and made to disappear within ten seconds of receipt. No one can prove you really said any of it.

It’s available for commercialization. Just remember me with some stock options when you make it big.

“Who Is John Rawls?”

130723123817-john-rawls-story-topA few years back I was discussing our company’s annual quota-setting process when one of our sales directors had enough: “That’s socialistic”, he fumed. We were customizing quotas for each salesperson based upon the prior year results but the director believed that quotas should be uniform. My interest was justice, which I defined as a fair-handed attempt, insofar as was possible, to insure each salesperson within wildly different markets enjoyed the same relative opportunity to achieve his annual plan. The sales director’s interest was…well, justice, too. But he defined it as insuring that each sales rep contributed equally to the company’s growth.

There are quite literally hundreds of sales compensation alternatives and I don’t bring up this instance because my method was necessarily superior. Rather, it reminds me how stupid I was in overlooking a vital part of the process, namely articulating the philosophical assumptions within which the specific quota process should be judged. We were arguing about small methodologies when the real disagreement came from what grand governing principles the entire quota-setting system was built on.

That mistake was on my mind as I was came across the work of the late American philosopher, John Rawls. His book, A Theory of Justice, was published in 1971 so he is already familiar to many philosophers but somehow I had missed learning about him. Perhaps he is new to you too. Rawls intended to create a new general moral and political philosophy. To discover it, he proposed a thought experiment which he called a “veil of ignorance”. What type of hypothetical social structure, Rawls asked, would you build if you were completely ignorant of what your place in it would be?

This may help explain what he meant. As all young siblings do, my brother and I would often argue about who got the biggest piece of cake. My mother’s simple solution was to have one of us cut the cake and the other choose between the pieces. I thought my mother was brilliant (even after discovering that everyone’s mother did something similar) because my older brother had to divide the cake as fairly as possible since he was ignorant of which piece would be his. Rawls demanded that we use this veil of ignorance to think about how we would cut society’s “cake” if we did not know what piece we personally would be served, by which he meant we could not know in advance our station, class, gender, ethnicity, inheritance, and so on.

Rawls went on to argue that the result of this hypothetical thought experiment by any rational person would be what he named “justice as fairness”. It had two key principles. The first was equality in a basic set of rights and liberties which must be secured as extensively as possible insofar as it can be done equally to all citizens.

The second principle of justice as fairness states that once basic rights and liberties are secured, there may be allowed social or economic inequalities in the civic structure so long as they can reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, particularly society’s lowest. According to Rawls, the “higher expectations of those better situated are just if and only if they work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society.“

Rawls believed that this structure would be intuitively fair to any sensible person. Our starting position in life (whether we are born prince or slave, male or female, bright or dull) has real effect on how we will get on, but it is not a result of our choice so fairness says we cannot hold citizens accountable for that which is beyond their control. Justice as fairness addresses this inequality but is not egalitarian. It allows for a broad spectrum of inequality; it simply demands that the underlying structure for that inequality rest on real benefit to the least advantaged.

A business career setting sales quotas and allocating compensation opportunities, has given me a quirky insight to the current debate on growing income inequality. Looking back, I could have avoided many needless arguments or at least made them more productive arguments had I been better at clarifying to my team the overarching fairness principles within which we built the company’s compensation processes.

Looking forward, the current public raging about the nature of income inequality lacks a common view on exactly what a just society looks like. Maybe it is time to have that discussion and Rawls is a good place to start. Only then can the civic community publicly ask the operational questions of its institutions. Is every liberty reasonably applied? Are we certain that accepted inequalities generate real social value to the least advantaged? Can we protect those inequalities that do grow opportunity? Do we have the discipline and the data to assess our current social structure from behind a veil of ignorance?

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s controversial novel of builders and moochers, begins with the famous question: “Who is John Galt?” As income inequality demands our attention, here’s hoping liberals and conservatives alike will lift the debate by resurrecting a healthy interest in a far better question, “Who is John Rawls?”



A Theory of Justice is confusing, poorly organized and hard to read unless you are a practicing philosopher with a nose for heady concepts. I recommend the much clearer “book about the book” which I found much more helpful: Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, by Frank Lovett.

Still too much? Then just ponder Whitman’s words written more than a century before Rawls:

“Of  Equality—as if it harm’d me, giving others the same chances and rights as myself—as if it were not indispensable to my own rights that others possess the same.”   Walt Whitman, Thought (1860)


Batter Up! Scouting for the Best Corporate Leaders

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Since at least the 5th century BC thinkers have wondered about the makeup of human character and the curious combination of “humours” that creates the ideal personality types. But when outfield grasses begin to grow in spring sunshine the contemplation of the perfect mixture of human attributes shifts from the philosophers to the baseball scouts who comb the legions of young players searching to add to their team that most perfect concoction of the five classic skills: arm strength, running speed, fielding ability, hitting for average, hitting with power.

My youthful baseball experience was brief and unremarkable (“no hit, no field”), but after 30 years in the technology industry I have seen successful management skills in play and am often asked what makes up excellence in organizational leadership. Like the five physical skills in baseball there are five mental skills for corporate talent scouts. Top future leaders must show capabilities in the following:

1)      Analyze information without bias. This is harder than it sounds. We all are attracted to that information that reinforces our preconceived beliefs. But social scientists are only now realizing how deep rooted our confirmation bias is. University of Michigan researchers found in 2006 that when passionate partisans were exposed to corrected facts that contradicted their earlier suppositions, not only did they fail to change their beliefs but in many cases they became even more devoted to their original position. Other similar studies warn us of the dangers of an inflexible point of view. The great leader must overcome his own bias in order to lead clearly.

2)      Think strategically (depth and breadth): Too often strategic thinking focuses on planning years into the future and while this is important, it is not sufficient. Strategic thinking is not denominated in breadth of time but in depth of understanding: perceiving subterranean connections, anticipating secondary or tertiary consequences to actions, divining what is important from what is merely urgent.

3)      Communicate well…both clearly and persuasively: Many can communicate clearly, less can communicate persuasively, still less can do both. We want data but we also crave its context delivered in a way that tells a story of how we succeed as a team.  This happens not just with corporate sermons from the podium, but in every single interaction with every co-worker. Communicating is not simply delivering; it is also receiving. Though you would not know it from the business self-help books devoted to communications, it has as much to do with listening with purpose as it does with speaking or writing skills.

4)      Confront unanticipated obstacles: It is often said that anyone can execute plan A; it is the real leader who can execute plan B or plan C. Angela Duckworth, from the University of Pennsylvania, and several colleagues looked at success predictors among several high demand populations (West Point cadets, National Spelling Bee contestants, Ivy League students) and were able to demonstrate that “grit” which they defined as “perseverance and passion for long term goals” was a key success determiner. Each January I confidently tell my teams that the coming year will be one of unanticipated challenges. How do I know this? Because if you are in a competitive marketplace every year contains unexpected challenges. The gritty, resilient leader knows that and does not flounder or panic.

5)      Maintain humility and self-awareness: “Know thyself” was the maxim inscribed on the ancient Greek temple at Delphi but it could just as usefully be the first instruction on every sign-in screen on every computer in corporate America. The great leaders understand that a well performing team is far more effective than the most outstanding individual contributor. I have rarely seen an instance when a highly performing organization fails to reflect positively back on its leader. I have seen all too many instances where unjustified pride, egoism, and craving for credit by the leader sucks the passion for performance from the team.

These are the five mental skills in my corporate scouting report. Show me the person with them and I’ll show you a major leaguer.

My Vermeer

300px-Jan_Vermeer_van_Delft_014The new movie, Tim’s Vermeer, produced by Penn Jillette and directed by his stage partner Teller, tells the story of inventor Tim Jenison and his attempt to prove that the great 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer relied heavily upon optical devices and mirrors as tools to create the photo-realism for which his great masterworks are revered. Jenison set out to prove this thesis by building an exact replica of the room Vermeer used for his painting, The Music Lesson, and then, with no training or experience as a painter, to recreate the work himself using only the tools he surmised Vermeer had available at the time of original painting.

The narrative leaves us wondering whether Vermeer was a remarkable artist or simply an innovative technologist. I admit that my view of him as a great master lessened as I became more convinced of his use of these optical crutches. Exiting the theater I found myself wondering why I felt that way. The Music Lesson, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Vermeer’s other masterpieces exist in the canon of great Western art. Why does my knowledge of how they were created impede my appreciation of his talent?

Perhaps because it seems somehow unfair, like steroids in bicycle racing. If Vermeer’s greatest accomplishments truly were “done with mirrors” then the free-handed paint strokes at the core of creative execution were abetted in a way unavailable to his peers. But 17th century Vermeer was not painting for inclusion in a 21st century list of Dutch Masters. He was responding to immediate pressures to feed and clothe his family using all the image manipulation tools at his disposal to generate better artistic products, the type of process that, three centuries later, admiring business academicians would call “competitive advantage”.

My real reservation about Vermeer may simply reflect my own exaggerated affection for convention. Most of my career was spent in large commercial organizations whose very scale demanded precise labels, hierarchy, structure and processes in order to function efficiently. I have been tutored to approve of structure over idiosyncrasy, the organizational utilitarianism of what is best for the largest group of value creators even if at the expense of the truly unorthodox. My reaction to Tim’s Vermeer reminded me once again that I have this natural bias which, if unattended, has consequences.

Once I had a salesperson several levels down in our organization who came to me because he felt that his personal sales methodology was superior to the one he and his peers were required by the company to utilize. He felt strongly he should be allowed to try his own method and fail or succeed. It was clear to me that even if he succeeded individually, his process was so personalized that it could not scale to the 2,500 other salespeople in our organization. Were he successful it would only tempt other, less gifted salespeople to abandon our sales procedures and try to invent their own with disastrous results for them and for the company. In the end I dissuaded the individual from practicing his iconoclastic techniques and he subsequently left the company.

I believe I made the right decision. But did it lose me the “Vermeer of sales”?

When Art Imitates Life…

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Among those feeds I follow on Twitter are TechCrunch, legitimate technology news, and The Onion, a satirical news parody. Recently I’ve noticed that it is hard to tell from the headlines which stories are true TechCrunch articles and which are The Onion satires. Here are six recent headlines, three from each. Recognize the real stories from the spoofs?

“After Losing A Half A Billion in Q4 Twitter Buys Two Real Log Cabins To Serve As Lunchrooms In Its HQ”

“Netflix Introduces New ‘Browse Endlessly’ Plan”

“Instagram Went Down And It Might Have Been Justin Bieber’s Fault”

 “Content Could Be Hotter, More Social”

“Compromising Company’s Values For Advertising Revenue Referred To As ‘Partnering’”

“It Took 122M Commands And 16.3 Days, But A Collaborative Horde Beat Pokemon Together”

See, it’s not so easy, is it? For your information 1, 3, and 6 are real headlines from TechCrunch. 2, 4, and 5 are parodies from The Onion. Caveat lector.

To Toil: Perchance to Dream

fuseliAt the end of 2013 when I was in a difficult and high stress position running the business sales team for a large technology company, I had the strangest dream.

It was London 2012 and my dream persona had just won a swimming bronze medal during the Summer Olympics. I awoke, however, not with euphoria, but rather to the groggy realization that even in my personally architected fantasy world the best I could muster was a third place finish. I knew then that my work was numbing my spirit.

A couple of months later, having taken a sabbatical from my job, I had another vivid dream, also set in London but in this dream the Church of England had just named me Archbishop of Canterbury (despite my not even being Anglican!). A few weeks of rest and perspective had nurtured my healthy self-esteem once again to full blossom.

Dreams can tell us much. In English we use the same word “dream” to mean both subconscious sleep images and also conscious aspirations. In either definition, tapping into them is a powerful personal and professional tool, though perhaps not in the way most people think. For instance, a common question modern sales teams ask business customers is “what keeps you awake at night?” It is a well-meaning question but an undistinguished one. Through it we are saying, tell me what concerns you have and I will show you how my product or service will address them. Let me interpret your dreams.

How different in the Biblical book of Daniel, when King Nebuchadnezzar has a perplexing dream and calls together his Chaldean magicians and sorcerers for answers. They ask the king to relate his dream to them so they can interpret for him (“what keeps you awake at night?”). But the Babylonian ruler would have none of that; anyone can make up an interpretation once they hear the dream, if they are truly gifted, he decreed, they should be able to tell him exactly what he dreamt: “if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation you will be torn limb from limb and your houses will be made a rubbish heap.” Stern stuff. Yet among my customers and colleagues there have been Nebuchadnezzars yearning to marvel at someone possessing the gift to ascertain and resolve their own unuttered dreams. In essence telling them, rather than asking them, what keeps them up at nights, and getting it right.

I haven’t always gotten it right. Once when a product was performing poorly our salespeople across the country were quitting. The traditional corporate response was to pay better and reinforce how important their contributions were to the corporation. However, most regional salespeople dream of building a career for themselves and their families within their home communities, so their professional credibility with local customers was far more important to them than the company’s health or even their short term compensation. They needed the product fixed. Our response tapped into our own corporate dreams, not the dreams of our salesforce. We had failed to discern that.

Nick Bottom, the comical weaver/actor wakes from his enchanted sleep in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to say “I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”  But of course, Shakespeare had the wit to say precisely what the dream was and its telling became one of his most popular plays. If we have the wit to discern the dreams of those around us it can be just as magical. But that wit is an exceptional combination of intuition, empathy, intelligence and quiet. That is the real “rare vision” few of us get to experience.