Category Archives: Uncommon Sense


David Mamet, playwright and screenwriter extraordinaire is at it again. His electrifying play Oleanna is back in New York. When it was last here, at a time when political correctness was far more charged as a topic, couples left the theater polarized, some people even came to blows! The subtitle of the play warns you that whichever side you take, you’re wrong.

Perhaps that’s because this isn’t a play about “sides”. There is no one to cheer. As one commentator said in the “Talk Back” series that takes place after every performance on Broadway (with a facilitator and two panelists), “He’s a fool and she’s a tool.” Hmmm.

Okay, a bit of background. “Oleanna” is probably “Oleana”, the settlement that Ole Bull, the famed Norwegian virtuoso violinist established for himself and fellow Norwegian emigres in the 1800’s to escape the strictures of their home country. Alas the land was unsuitable for farming, much money was lost by the settlers, and most, including Ole Bull had to flee back to Norway. Today the site is commemorated by “Ole Bull National Park” in Pennsylvania. An “Oleana” now refers to any hopeless pursuit of a Utopian state of affairs where it is naively believed anything is possible.

One wonders if Mamet is chastising society for having myopic views of political correctness or relations between the sexes, or if he’s referring to an idealistic view of education held by the professor, or an idealized view of “class” and “elites” and “power” expressed by the student and the political support group she seems to be a part of. Perhaps all of the above?

On the surface, a student on the verge of failing, desperate not to, visits her teacher and vacillates between self-pity, hopelessness and accusation towards the professor, who in turn seems to trivialize her plight, evidently distracted by a pending house purchase and the hen-pecking telephone attentions of his wife. However in her flailing the student says he is implying she is stupid and will never succeed. This triggers a reaction, as the professor then cathartically (it seems) reveals how he was accused of stupidity growing up, and then proceeds to regale her with a narcissistic diatribe about the shortcomings of college education, equating it to a form of “hazing” where education is secondary to protocol. With an evident Savior complex, he claims that if she will re-engage relative to the course with him, he will give her an A to remove any stress and they’ll start over — he’ll ensure she gets the education she deserves from this course  because he “likes her”.

In the second act, we find she has lodged a complaint of inappropriate conduct and sexual harassment! His tenure which was all but confirmed, is now on hold, he can’t close on his house, which seems to vex his wife above all else, and he attempts to psychoanalyze the student’s accusations as “anger” at various aspects of life. She is having none of it, calling what she has claimed, not allegations but  “facts”. Towards the end as the encounter escalates, he tries to stop her from leaving , she struggles and cries out very vocally, if arguably excessively, for help.

By the third act, he is a mess. He’s being dismissed — after the last incident the university committee has come to believe her (we now know why offices today have glass walls and why people leave doors open or have third parties present!) — and now she explodes with derision at him, pointing out that she now has power as he once did, and making demands that his book be expunged from the curriculum — this apparently is a demand from her “group” who all feel each others pain we are told and clearly have an agenda. Some have described this as also a play about “intellectual terrorism”.

She calls him sexist, elitist, feeling entitled to a house, and advantages for his son and more. He keeps saying “I feel…” and she explodes, “I don’t care what you feel!”  Indeed, neither of them do care in that way about the other, and that’s the wick running through this.

The final violent confrontation is precipitated when she starts telling him not to call his wife “baby”. By so doing, she crosses a line that triggers him to cross the line too. He erupts into physical violence, leaving her to say in the aftermath, with grim if shaken satisfaction, “That’s right.” She’s wrung it out of him at last — he now has to obey her dictates and that of her group, or his life is irretrievably over.

He was indeed a fool. He frittered away his power by continuing the discussion when he could have ended it initially, by not listening fully when he then opened the door for her to share, and then made her a “project”, a demo for his own evangel. He never saw her as a real person, with her specific fragility, flaws and needs. He never sought to serve her, but his own vision of her when she mentioned feeling “stupid”, because suddenly he could personalize her plight, and the thought of helping her through this may even have been therapeutic for him.

For her, rather than aim to succeed in her subject and ask for real help, she translated her despair into anger, her scholastic challenge into a holier-than-thou sense of victimhood in search of an oppressor to bring down. She saw him as someone whose need for the status quo in life (tenure, family, home) made him vulnerable and able to potentially be manipulated.

The ultimate sin of both of them was to look at each other as objects, as means to their own ends — be those ends emotional, educational, career or political agenda related. She became an obstacle to a house closing (which seemed the only real relevance of tenure to him, certainly not pride in a calling), and he became a mode of dissemination of certain ideas and a means of censoring others. Martin Buber would have called this an “I-It” relationship rather than an “I-You” much less “I-Thou” relationship (from objectifying to respecting boundaries to valuing intrinsically someone else’s needs and feelings).

Let us all beware. People come to us for help. If we don’t wish to and don’t need to help them, don’t prolong their agony, don’t drag it out. Focus on the house closing or spousal phone call or whatever. Or reschedule if you want to help but can’t at that moment. If you opt to help, listen to them, look at them, feel with them — don’t look for undue parallels in your own life — no one has invited you to kick-off an emotional strip show. You might share a vulnerability, but know your motives, and your boundaries.

In engaging each other, let’s see if we can find and locate value in each other’s worlds, anxieties, hopes and dreams. We have to make sure that ISN’T an “Oleana” but a real possibility.

Sign Up For What?

Business Traveller Magazine announced that a famed hotel in Hong Kong was hosting a spectacular event. A group called “Premium Families of Wine” was doing a set of dinners, pairing top Estate wines from some of the world’s top wine families, with the cuisine of a Michelin-starred Chef.

I had our hotel call for details. After 48 hours of being assured details were “forthcoming”, they sent over a Credit Card authorization form and a price — but no specific event details!

I told them they were hanging on to sanity by a thread to have gone so far as to establish a price, and then having the gall to ask for a non-refundable payment, while providing no details of the menu, the wines, or their vintages. I have therefore no basis to assess the value being offered!

They responded with more rhetoric about a “superb chef” and “top vintages”.  I’m sure that’s the intent, but I’d like to see what’s actually on offer.

This led me to consider how often we make it difficult for clients to know what we’re offering. Agreements are imprecise, metrics fuzzy, and we attempt to overload people with verbal excess rather than clarity and simplicity. Why?

Might it not be an idea to be as transparent as possible? If not, why not?

It’s true that some requests are inappropriate. For example, asking a surgeon for a blow-by-blow game-plan of an upcoming surgery is beyond obtuse. We are counting on their skill and ability to adapt procedures to what they find as they proceed. Similarly as consultants, we rightfully chafe when people ask us for a blow-by-blow of a key engagement. We can and should agree and share outcomes and be answerable for them. But a pre-fabricated game-plan suggests that we are applying stodgy templates from the past, not current imagination.

Working with a client in Mumbai, I kept hearing the refrain, “We’re in a crisis, and we fear there’s too much random and scattered activity.” Smart people! Again, vague, ill-defined strategies and actions, absent any prioritization, can give the illusion of purposeful action. But a surfeit of this actually saps energy from strategically differentiated actions. And the largest lament from the team there was: tell us the larger vision, when we shift from established plans, tell us not only what we have to change but why, validated against the larger vision — the aligned upon “end in mind”.

Absence of clarity reveals an absence of the following: strategy, planning, prioritization or decisive action. Sometimes it reveals a deficit of all of these.

One of my Credit Cards was re-issued. I called to ask how many reward points I had. They said “zero”. I told them my last redemption was two years ago, and I had demonstrably spent a significant amount on this Card.  Hence logically, there cannot be zero points — unless some expired. They said there had been no expiry, but wondered if there was some technical error. I said, “Nothing to wonder about. Look at the expenditure. And as these points are generated by expenditure, tell me where they are. So there is definitely a technical error.” Dead silence, a complaint reference number, and a request to call back in 72 hours. Yet it took three repetitions to drive home the point, that on the face of it, there was clearly an issue. This customer service agent hadn’t bothered to consider with any clarity how these points were issued, and therefore the evident fact that there was a systems error.  So he aroused irritation, suspicion and distrust as to his organization’s collective competence. Hardly an impact to be desired.

So, in dealing with clients, customers, friends and colleagues, when enrolling them for something, make sure they know in terms of key parameters and anticipated value, what they’re signing up for. Try to be clear as to what counts, what matters, and how it will be evaluated. And then align those intuitions and judgments, so you’re not debating the basics over and over.

I continue to hope for the listing of wines and the menu from this venue in Hong Kong. As they sell this in tables of eight, there is a major sale waiting to happen. However, each day that passes, my interest wanes somewhat, the likelihood of my making alternative plans goes up. It’s an interesting insight that when we confuse our clients, leave them uncertain, or unclear, they too, despite evident interest, may take their intentions and interests elsewhere.

Reach out today and check understanding of salient outcomes and expectations with key stakeholders and partners. Insist on being impeccably clear in your dealings, agreements and transactions, as well as in your offerings and proposals. The act of arriving at that clarity is part of the very breakthrough that makes you valuable. So make that effort and ensure you come through here. You’ll find very little competition if you do. Even more importantly, you’ll find scores of grateful and avid clients and fans in your portfolio. You’ll find them, and you’ll be far more likely to keep them.

Make the Choice!

A dear friend and long-time client recently asked me whether I felt we in the United States were peculiarly afflicted with poor service. I had to confess that hotels and airports here do seek to redefine “rancid” in terms of service. He regaled me with a story of an endlessly snaking check-in line at his hotel after a long flight. When finally, with a glacial pace that would have done any immigration inspector proud, he made it to the front, he heard a canned greeting: “Hello sir, and how are you today?”

It was clear he was seething, had been inconvenienced, and the last thing he wanted was to exchange banter about his state of health. A more situationally observant service provider would likely have said, “I’m SO sorry for the long line, let’s get you to your room right away…” And then having aligned on that priority, very likely having somewhat defused his frustration, rapport could have been more naturally built as the inevitable check-in process chugged along. Scripted, mechanically delivered inanities are not service, any more than what you hear in the elevator is really music.

Truth be told, most countries have service blind spots. Nitwits abound everywhere, as do stars. It comes down to a fundamental choice.

And service isn’t just smiles and bedside manner, it’s also what’s delivered. A famous hotel in Singapore abounds with gushing smiles, and yet delivers substandard croissants, despite being a legend in the industry. A small inn in the Languedoc in France, delivers that same croissant, moist and glistening with buttery appeal. The morning smiles are a tad more restrained at the inn. Which is providing the better service? Well, it truly depends. Singapore is not necessarily famous for breakfast croissants and Nasi Lemak there is pretty good. Add that to the smiles, and you can give them a pass (though truly, a Julia Child cookbook could cure the problem). The inn isn’t known for morning cheerleading sessions, and yet the staff is attentive, friendly and IS in a region known for exceptional croissants. Service is as service does. It’s situational to a large extent and depends on what you’re after and the expectations created.

However, the really diabolical service is usually not the failure of expertise, but the unwillingness to make a key choice. That choice is this: whether this is a job you wish to continue in, whether you rail against an imperfect cosmos for obliging you to take such a job or not, it is not the fault of the person you are serving! Hence, for the sake of God and Mammon (more on this momentarily), don’t take it out on them! Choose to have who you are reflected by how you serve.

If instead, you take your life not being perfect out on customers, you’ll drive them away, your gratuities will diminish, and you’ll be another commodity. Instead make the choice, that while you are here, you will shine, and make people grateful and glad to interact with you.  Commit to being a rock star in this role, and you’ll command more revenue, your prowess will likely be noticed, and you’ll cultivate critical interactive and responsive skills for whatever higher calling you may aspire to. Why do people who feel they could be so much more, insist on acting like so much less?

I went to Boston to deliver a speech. For my sins, I had to stay at a Sheraton (no other hotels at a sane distance, believe me), deliver at a Conference Center about 20 minutes away, and then return late night, and back home the next day. I booked a car service. Everything was duly confirmed back to me. Arrival at Boston, no problem. Trip from Sheraton to Conference Center, fine. At 10:30 pm when I emerged…no car. When I called I was told, “We don’t have a booking for you.” This was said as if it settled the matter. I asked if they’d like me to forward the confirmation I received. Silence. Then, a grudging confession: well that’s done out of LA and they’re supposed to fax us the confirmed runs. Fax? As I asked if they had checked the century we were in recently, they finally sprang into action, and got a car there in 30 minutes. Great! But it was 30 minutes longer than I needed to be hanging around. It was stress and aggravation that I was paying them not to have to endure (by calling a local cab company, which probably would have done the trick otherwise).

It’s this kind of service gaffe, which takes place every day, where you have to continuously check to see if people have ‘clicked’ to things they’ve confirmed to you, that makes you despair. On the other hand,  for those making the alternative choice, it means there’s ample room to shine…and scant competition.

We often in New York run across bartenders and wait-staff who are aspiring actors. Many are charming and clearly talented, at least insofar as you can intuit from their repartee, voice modulation, alertness and more. But some sport an attitude, as if to convey that we should consider ourselves fortunate to get their antipathy and churlishness. I am often tempted to say, “You say you can act? Prove it, try acting like a waiter. Put on a show for tonight called “I’m here to serve.”

We all have bad days. Never take them out on people you serve. They deserve better. And delivering that service, despite being down, despite the vicissitudes in our own personal lives, is the essence of being a professional. And thereby you build your brand. So be impeccable. Offer enthusiasm — generate it by delivering it if it’s in short supply naturally that day. Empower yourself to make someone’s day better.

Make the choice!

Make Sure Something’s Missing!

Dee Hock, founder of the “charodic” (the fusion of chaos and order as Mr. Hock so insightfully observed) Visa corporation, observed that the trick is not how to get new ideas in but rather how to get the old ideas out.

We’ll find this predominates everywhere. Look at Iran and the new ideas are bursting to express themselves, but the old ideas tenaciously cling on. Look at the problems between Israel and the Palestinians and you’ll see again the challenge is not a paucity of new ideas, it’s the dogmatic fixation on old definitions, paradigms, boundaries and conceptions that have to be tackled.

Carl Jung once pointed out that any real problem can’t be solved, it can only be outgrown. Then you don’t consider it a sacrifice, you just draw new rules of engagement. Then President de Klerk of South Africa said when apartheid was effectively defeated at the polls, “Today the South African people transcended themselves.”

A recent book, IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE, argues that what we leave out is as important, if not more so, than what we leave in. The author refers to the darkening of the screen in the pivotal last few minutes of the SOPRANO’s final episode: vexing, infuriating, titillating and irresistible. Toyota has long been studied for its principles of lean production and team and individual empowerment on the line — but it is as instructive to study all the things Toyota doesn’t do, that more ponderous and less effective competitors are addicted to.

Consultants beware! How many consulting firms tout endless product offerings: strategy, change management, organizational redesign, leadership development, employee relations, world peace and the kitchen sink. If the Elegance book is right, then we need instead a different sweet spot: simplicity — albeit concepts that are both simple and powerful. We should look for and infuse what we do with that power, not substitute for it by proliferating seemingly encyclopedic offerings.

Lao Tzu is evoked (he often is, being so inscrutable, his highly elegant, simple and compelling elegy to the Tao is timeless and adaptable to numerous interpretations) in pointing out that the hole at the center of the wheel matters more than any individual spoke. The space between the walls makes the home, the gaps between the notes make the music. It’s not just what is present, it’s what is absent. It’s the breathing room we have to create for ourselves, our services and our offerings that so often matters most. And if we can shed the peripherals (careful: one person’s peripherals are another person’s poetry), we can spotlight what’s essential. We can find and offer our passion and our genius, not an attic laden with ubiquitous  jargon and piles of second-hand consulting gewgaws.

A consultant without that essential simplicity can hardly be a credible advisor or coach in helping a business leader seeking something like that for themselves. It took us a long time at Sensei to realize that we excelled at locating the link between strategic business results and human performance — that engaging leaders and teams to deliver such results in global contexts was our particular strength. All the other things could be jettisoned.

So review your business, your marketing, your life. Absolutely make sure they express what matters most to you. But also make sure enough is missing. Make sure you de-clutter your business, your marketing and your life. Decide what you will not do and redirect that energy into creating the future.

And if certain old ideas continue to battle for dominance, stop fighting. Work on growing up  instead, and therefore “out”.

How? Ah, therein lies the the rub. But a great way to begin is to start living the new ideas (even if the old ones are still clinging on), live with the contradiction for awhile if you must, and then let the superior, the saner value win. It’ll be that much easier if there’s more space…in your day, priorities and life. When too much is afoot we hit our default switch. When we have some breathing room, we more readily set off in fresh directions — those more likely to get us where we wish to go.

Onomastics Isn’t Enough!

Companies sometimes line up to change their names as if the shift of a name will lead to a shift of identity, reality and possibility, all rolled into one.

Onomasts are not psycho-sexual (or other) deviants…but rather those who study names and naming. They claim this study is a “science”.  That usually means it is awash in technical sounding minutiae — the trappings of any pseudo-science and the affliction of much applied science. However not even the most rabid onomast will claim that changing the name has much to do with changing the game.

Currently writing from the UK I read of the UK insurance giant changing their name from Norwich Union to Aviva. Viva Aviva! Meaningless, Latin-sounding new name changes are all the rage here as Tony Thorne has pointed out (Diageo, Altria, Solana). I remember the furor some years ago when PwC decided to call their consulting arm “Monday”. One person heard it as “mundane”. Another said it came about when they asked their marketing people if they had come up with a name, and they answered “perhaps Monday”. Unlikely to be true, but amusing.

When asked about the change from “Blackwater” to “Xe” (pronounced “Zee”), a spokesman for the now infamous security contractor said,  “There is no meaning to the new name. It was just a choice of a name, we thought of it internally.” Wonderful! We internally came up with something that has no meaning! And we thought we should be represented by a random, meaningless set of letters. It would have been interesting to hear less about the self-confessed mindlessness of the change of name and more about how they were aiming to transform themselves otherwise.

We change appearances, we change logos, we change names (The British Museum did so after some consideration, changing the “t” in “The” to uppercase!), we change everything it seems except that which matters. In other words we change the cosmetics, the incidentals rather than the essentials. If someone is silly enough to be hoodwinked by some change in the gloss on our lettering, that may be their bad luck. But it’s an insulting use of valuable resources…which in corporate settings can also include collective credulity.

Of course names have emotive content. And they either amplify or inhibit our ability to communicate who we are and what we do. We have to test drive names at times. But what we call ourselves matters less than what we deliver and offer, and how. Unless there is a change at that epicenter, spray painting a new sign won’t help.

When Andersen switched to Accenture, it took $100 million to communicate that change. When Cingular was dropped by AT&T, $2 billion was needed to communicate that fact! If that’s the best use of several hundred million dollars much less a few billion, that’s a  terrifying indictment of the value equation being engaged in by leaders.  Maybe a recession can be a sanity-restoring experience after all!

Change is an inside job, and it requires changes in more than the marquee. Change is needed in your leaders, your priorities, your reward systems, your team structures, your strategic and tactical priorities, your customer engagement…and indeed your market communication. But let that last accompany these other initiatives…not substitute for them.

What’s Reality Got to Do With It?

My Partner and colleague-in-arms, Malcolm Follos attended a Conference recently where he heard musician and community activist Dave Stewart point out that we often hear of turning dreams into reality, but what he had to do at a challenging juncture of his life was to turn reality into dreams.

Fascinating to consider as leaders. On the one hand leaders have to take “visions” and “ideals” and grand aspirations and build a bridge from those lofty heights into the valleys of everyday execution. Far more leaders can summon dizzying rhetoric than can claim inspiring, focused, execution — much less execution with a relevant and living dashboard and an aligning of the rewards and performance culture or their organization, accordingly.

Those that do this with some combination of manic focus yet keep that balanced with openness to ongoing input from the world-at-large, engagement of people and yet leaving no doubts about what everyone is accountable for, with relentless imagination yet a fact-based commitment to facing what is “real” today, become business winners and take on the hue of legend. It’s conceptually straightforward, but personally exacting. It’s energy-intensive and requires us to shelve our personal ego and take on a corporate ego to a large extent. We take a stand for a possibility we will enroll others to help us manifest and call forth.

But as the line from Dave Stewart reminds us, leaders also have to take today’s realities, often tough and demanding realities, often energy-sapping and confidence-depleting realities — realities of downturns and recessions, war and peace, customer defections, breakdown of teams, intransigent external or internal bureaucracies to contend with — and transform them into a path forward. And often we have to, in the midst of the turmoil, create our equivalent rallying commitment to say taking down the Berlin Wall or transcending apartheid.

Only then can we summon and galvanize the individual energies and collective passion needed to turn today’s base metal into tomorrow’s performance gold. Leaders earlier we said had to be bridge builders — bridging from an end in mind to today’s actions. We are now saying, they also have to be alchemists: taking  what we encounter today and converting our obstacles into source material for our progress.

There are less grand applications of this as well. In our personal lives, we have to have larger goals that drive us. And we have to translate those larger goals into habitual daily and weekly behaviors that can deliver them. We have to behave our way to our vision as I so often relate in sessions. How else will we possibly get there?

Equally in our personal life we often see wreckage — dysfunctional habits or relationships, messes, areas we aren’t proud of. Here we have to take the wreckage and be architects. We have to dream forward from our most challenging realities. As Robert Browning said so unforgettably, Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?”

These are wonderful twin capacities, bridging from our visions to today’s actions, and transforming today’s realities into the future-focused application whereby we galvanize dreams. As leaders and as individuals, we need to get good at both. Arguably, together, they are a large part of what success is all about…and what life as a whole could be, or perhaps even should be, all about as well.

The Waste of Training

We can see that organizations, made up as they are of people who find change no more appetizing than most of us do, will go to great lengths to look for panaceas and band-aids, rather than grapple with real issues of human change and growth.

When what faces bosses seems cerebral, analytical, diagnostic, detached from the leaders they personally are, they are quite happy to go for consulting solutions. They will look for firms with pedigrees, fixate on theoretical models that are conceptually compelling and leave the sordid matter of “implementation” for later.

When what faces them has to do with people, how they act and interact, their skills and what they are capable of delivering, the most common approach is either to exhort them at Conferences, or subject them to “workshops”. These workshops are often selected by HR on “methodology” grounds, and they look for consultants who are congenial to them — who wouldn’t have the temerity to suggest the Emperor has no clothes — so to speak.

Then running these workshops provides a seemingly “heroic” demonstration of remedial action, even though the precise business aims these workshops are meant to address are rarely spelled out — nor is there much accountability from senior leaders to coach application when their direct reports return to them. Part of the reason for this is, that in order to coach application credibly, leaders would have to model the way — at least to some extent.

When we decouple adaptive problems from senior leadership behavior, then we look to training as a sort of vaccination. And this way, under the guise of “development”, large amounts of money are expended without much by way of tracking. If we measure anything it may be the popularity with the audience of the deliverer and perhaps workshop effectiveness as an isolated event. The workshop is evaluated as a performance and whether it was found stimulating at that time and place.

Training instead needs to evolve into a form of true consulting. That is to say it should only be undertaken to advance strategic business objectives, which of course can include developing leaders at all levels. But then evaluation has to be built into the design.

Then we have to spell out the type of leaders needed by the organization taking that example, how they will be evaluated, how we will know if we have them, the relevance of such leadership to business success as well as individual progress… all this has to be settled in advance. Whoever is nominating the person has to work with them at the outset to create buy-in, establish relevance, and ensure there is some shared expectation of what will occur as a result of the training. An action-plan then should be generated in the immediate aftermath and diligently tracked. And only then, based on the results achieved, the training or other input should be assessed, re-calibrated, enhanced, or ditched. How enjoyable it was, the quality of delivery performance, are relative peripherals and should not take center-stage.

The above seems highly time and energy intensive. It is! And so it should be part of a continuum of efforts to engage and develop our leaders and teams as they seek to add strategic business value to organizational assets.

David Maister rightly suggests that first the systems of  a company have to be in place to underwrite whatever the training is preparing people for, the organization has to duly motivate people to take full advantage of the training by establishing its strategic importance, knowledge has to be provided of what it is participants are to do as a result, and then and only then can the development of skills have any chance of not only taking place, but also taking hold.

Moreover, for it to be called “training” in any common sense usage of the word, the session has to be high on practice, application, coaching, feedback and feedforward (future-based performance goals) and a chance to be assessed and improve from an initial base-line. This may require not an “event” but a real “process”.

If we truly wish to be cost-effective during a difficult period, we should remove generic training budgets. We should separate training as Paul Kearns has suggested into those things people have to learn for their role or position, and things they should learn to truly fulfill the potential of their role or position or as part of their citizenship requirements in that organization.

Anything else, the “nice to do” items, can be postponed, or carefully provided as incentives or at least as frosting on the overall development effort. And then those things people in the organization DO need to know and those things they should know, particularly non-technical abilities required of leaders as they move into successive roles (how to manage people, understanding the difference between strategy and tactics, getting teams to work effectively, process improvement, guiding innovation, delivering projects, selling ideas or actual products or services, coaching and mentoring others who report to them, etc) should be linked to some line of sight business improvement. And then all interventions should be designed accordingly, require significant line manager or boss-engagement, and whenever possible be undertaken with the very people the person will have to deliver this with (rather than a random assemblage of people who have never, and may never, see each other in action in this regard).

Shockingly different? Possibly.  But if so, it’s only because it’s shockingly sane, sensible, practical, amenable to ROI, and only when these conditions are met, really valuable.

Choose Profitable Hallucinations

The word “hallucination” doesn’t usually conjure up positive associations. But when I first started out in the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), I learned that most of what we call “reality” is our hallucination…i.e. our projection, or interpretation imposed on what we experience. In other words we perceive “x”, and then we add our subjective take on it to transform it into “my x. We therefore customize what we experience to our chosen perceptions. And by choosing how we package our perceptions, we also to a large extent, select our responses and responsiveness.

Some research indicates that if you do a predictive competition between optimists and pessimists, you find an interesting anomaly. Pessimists are right more often than optimists — Murphy assures that things go wrong more reliably than they go right. Entropy, natural decay is built into the fabric of life, evolution requires energy. But fascinatingly, despite that, optimists tend to be more successful.

Why? They hallucinate better! In other words, even setbacks become “milestones” or “learnings”. There is the famous anecdote about the almost one thousand “failures” by Thomas Edison en route to inventing the incandescent light bulb. He is reported to have replied when asked if he was discouraged, “What failure? I discovered one more way not to invent the light bulb! That’s progress!” Well, it’s certainly a far more effective hallucination or “frame” to adopt given the iterative and uncertain reality of so much progress and innovation.

George Bernard Shaw, the great playwright, pointed out that reasonable people adapt their dreams to reality, whereas unreasonable people seek to get reality to adapt to their dreams. All progress he therefore concluded, depends on unreasonable people. In other words, those who hallucinate more audaciously and then are willing to act as audaciously to manifest what they imagine.

Companies no less than individuals have to decide what frames to use. You can look at the debris of destroyed companies during this extended financial suicide we’ve experienced in global financial markets and decide to retreat behind corporate bunkers, slashing all discretionary expenses, freezing all benefits, and going to the corporate equivalent of war footing. Or we can decide to clean up our act in wasteful areas yes, but also to prioritize key innovations, to deepen customer insight and loyalty, to improve our talent bench strength, to amplify engagement to get our teams to fight for productive gains, to reward more judiciously but to do so meaningfully where merited, and to see how we can emerge more competitive rather than bereft of vision or capability or future-creating potential. This isn’t a matter of “truth”, but of the frame we place on crisis, the hallucination we opt for.

Unreasonable people tell their countrymen in the midst of an historic economic meltdown, all we have to fear is fear itself. Unreasonable people look at the tide of Nazi victories and tell their embattled island, “we shall never surrender”. Unreasonable people looking at Russian space technology superiority throw a gauntlet down to put a man on the moon safely in a decade. Unreasonable people stand up at a time one hundred years after a Civil War failed to effectively remove segregation and unforgettably emote, “I have a dream!” Unreasonable people take their learnings in a calligraphy class and create wide-scale innovations in computer fonts (as Steve Jobs did). Unreasonable people believe micro-enterprise is a viable option for the once destitute as a mode of both dignity and pragmatic empowerment (as Nobel-prize winner Muhammed Yunus did through his Grameen Bank in Bangladesh).

So let’s choose profitable hallucinations for our clients, for our companies, for our lives. No matter what we face, we need to face the obstacles with the eyes of possibility. Why? Why not? Possibility is the fossil fuel for entrepreneurship, imagination, drive, creativity.

Chris Gardner, whose story we became familiar with through his best-selling book and Will Smith’s portrayal of him in a laudable movie, was homeless for a time while being a single dad, before transforming his circumstances, building a company, significant personal wealth, and a rich life. His new book sums up the best possible hallucination, start from where you are. But start as you mean to go on…committed to finding your next step towards reasonable or even unreasonable progress. And treat everything as “feedback” and “learning” along the way. You may not be right (whatever that means), but you will certainly succeed far more often.

At every juncture, ask,  “What is the most profitable, productive hallucination I can choose?”

And then lead, live, collaborate and innovate to make that hallucination REAL!

What a Return!

Eighteen years ago I stopped last at the Inn at Little Washington. It was already a famous, special place. Please see the podcast below, The “Inn” Place, as to the many aspects that make the town and Inn so distinctively captivating.

I’ve been married just over seventeen years, and this is one place my wife and I had never visited as a couple. My birthday was looming and we decided to experience it anew, together.

The culinary finesse of Patrick O’Connell, a true innovator, beggars description. Thirty two years of operating the Inn and the experience still takes your breath away.

The first picture you see is the extraordinary kitchen, custom designed in France, based on the dairy room of Windsor Castle, with Gregorian chants soothing and focusing the chefs who deliver such a virtuoso performance each night.

The second picture is us, with a glass of superb rose champagne and a bit of whimsy, truffled popcorn to accompany it in the stunning lounge (the popcorn has truffle oil AND shaved truffles on top — talk about “finger licking good”). Simplicity and artistry in one.

The third picture is the cheese cow. The cheese selection is European in sweep and balance, delivered on this cow which even makes a mooing sound as she approaches. What a blend of elegance and humor, of Old World art and New World impertinence!

Even the dishes are more than they seem. The caviar you see in the picture seems as if it’s just Ossetra in a tin. But underneath is a silky and exquisite crab and cucumber rilette that just amazingly flatters the caviar in undreamt of ways. The subtlety isn’t compromised, and the flavors are wonderfully enhanced.

Each dish leaves you puckering your palate as it experiences both sophistication and also at least a few unusually tantalizing overtones…like the warm limoncello souffle with zesty lemon ice cream. We were there two nights and other than the menu below, I can particularly recommend other dazzling highlights like hot and cold foie gras on a single plate (a revelation!), lamb carpaccio with caesar salad ice cream, and a shockingly, decadently alluring butter pecan ice cream sandwich with warm caramel.

Taken all in, it is everything a performance should be — delivered by service personalities who show up for each “act” presciently and yet unobtrusively, contributing appropriate charm and warmth. And I was even given a lovely Boutonniere (the elegant flower in the lapel) as I entered! A lovely tradition rarely preserved today…except at bastions of civility and taste like the Inn.

This is the stuff that memories are truly made on!

Passion comes first, then vision, then devoted execution…success follows, and is almost then incidental. Having chatted with Patrick O’Connel I found he had perused my website and Blog, knew who was inhouse, his team had recommendations in hand for us to enjoy the environs, and he was clearly determined we’d be back well before another eighteen years!

We will…much sooner.

Care that much and I can pretty much guarantee you’ll more than make it in whatever you choose to go for.


A Tin of Sin: Ossetra Caviar with a Crab and Cucumber Rillette with Gatinois, Grand Cru, Ay, Brut, Champagne, 2002

A Quartet of Island Creek Oyster Slurpies

Lightly Scrambled Local Farm Eggs with Creme Fraiche, Wild Morels and Asparagus in a Crystal Egg with Bodegas Escoda-Sanahuja, Conca de Barbera, Els Bassots, Catalunya, Spain 2006

Pecan-Crusted Soft Shell Crab Tempura with Italian Mustard Fruit and Marinated Cabbage Slaw with Jermann, Pinot Grigio, Venezia Giulia, Friuli, Italy 2006

Pan Seared Four Story Hill Farm’s Peking Duck Breast on Red Wine Risotto with Caramelized Endive and Foie Gras “Croutons” with Thierry Allemand, Cornas, Rhone,  France 2002 and La Grange Meritage, Virginia 2007

Strawberry Basil Bubble Tea

Limoncello Souffle with Lemon Ice Cream with Le Mandolare, Recioto di Soave Classico, Le Schiavette, Veneto, Italy 2005

BONUS: Iced Birthday Cake with Dark Chocoloate and Pistachio

Where Value Really Resides

Companies are prone to confusing ‘activity’ with ‘value’, ‘technicalities’ with the real ‘adaption’ required to solve real problems.

Our company Sensei focuses on improving business results by improving human performance. You would therefore think I’m a fan of human capital management strategies. Well I’m not a fan of any strategies decoupled from real value.

As an example from a not-too-distant past, Shell was known as a leader in progressive people management initiatives. They set up a corporate learning university, they developed intranet systems for sharing knowledge, and more. But tools don’t provide results in and of themselves. It depends on how you use them.

Now if you spend your time crowing about the technical quality of your intranet, or the “professionalism” of your internal university, you can get seduced by irrelevant metrics. Check out actual performance and see if there’s any correlation.

Shell over declared proven reserves by 20%, had a major expense overrun (in the billions of dollars) in Canada, lost its chairman, was pilloried in the business press for a cumbersome bureaucracy and a prickly intransigence to outside views and inputs. Many factors doubtless conspired to produce some of these unfortunate results. But in “human capital” terms the over declaration of oil reserves, for example,  was a stark indictment of either probity, or internal communication (intranet or not), or the absence of a reality-facing culture (where messengers aren’t shot).

The knock-on effect of this affected their share price, depletion rate assessments, costs of finding and developing new fields and more.  Shell has now hopefully moved on. This is only relevant as a demonstration that despite Shell clearly being awash with talented people, somehow those people were not  coming together with their capabilities to produce the right type of overall corporate performance or competence.

In a nutshell, that’s the rub, in companies far and wide. Talent often isn’t being converted effectively into collective competence.

Non-value advocates, people who propose ‘initiatives’ in the abstract, always prefer to go for less intellectually taxing or emotionally demanding solutions — those that require less leadership adaptation. But leadership adaptation is inescapable, and only that will ripple out into adaptations in the behavior of individuals and teams throughout the organization.

Staying with the same industry, BP doubled its corporate advertising budget in a $150 million bid to portray a “greener” image (circa 2005).  When value gets downgraded as a consideration, particularly if it will call on an expenditure of leadership energy in a personal way, then spin seems particularly attractive. When a major refinery leak took place in Texas and then more recently in Alaska, one wonders what that did to BP’s green credentials. Perhaps some of the money might have been better spent towards actual environmental safe-guards and less on appearances! Not having done so preventively, they ended up committing over a billion dollars to US operations subsequently, including very notably into “pipe replacement”.

Larger lesson: don’t get waylaid by activity posing as results, or initiatives without a clear line of sight to business value. The cosmetics of leadership can be purchased. The reality of leadership engagement, the type that leads to real business success, can only be earned. And one of the best ways of earning it is to look for where the real value in your business resides, and to spend the best of your talent, your energy, and your leadership, there.