Predictions_HeaderOn Thanksgiving Day, one of my dinner guests handed me what she called “an early birthday present.” Inside the exquisitely wrapped package I found an original copy of the book Predictions by the historian John Durant. A.S. Barnes and Company published the book in 1956, fifty-eight years ago.   My guest works for a local used bookstore and had talked about the volume some weeks earlier. I’d expressed keen interest at the time, but never got around to going down to check it out.

Predictions is a compilation of illustrations and cartoons selected from a variety of vintage publications dating as far back as the early 1850’s “whose artists dipped pen and brush into the crystal ball and sketched the events of tomorrow.” Durant organized these pictorial predictions into general topic areas such as “The Airship to Come,” “Glimpses of the City of the Future,” and “When Women Get their Rights.” In all cases the author provided the date, source, and caption of the picture. In many cases, he also provided his own commentary about the content and context of the image.

I read the book through in a couple of evenings. As I did, I was struck more by Durant’s commentary than I was by the relative accuracy of the source material. In many cases, he was opining on a cartoon or image more than century old at the time he was writing. In my case, I was experiencing his viewpoint from the vantage of nearly sixty years later. In other words, the book has become source material for 1956 as well as 1856 simply because of the passage of time. Consider that the first working silicon transistor had only been developed two years before Predictions was published. The concept of the Internet was still over a decade away, along with many of the other conveniences of contemporary life that we take for granted.

John Durant himself is something of a mystery. His principle claim to fame was as a sports historian, beginning with The Story of Baseball in Words and Pictures (1947). His career in this vein continued into the 1970’s with such works as The Dodgers: An Illustrated History of those Unpredictable Bums (1948), The Yankees: A Pictorial History of Baseball’s Greatest Club (1949), Highlights of the World Series (1963), The Heavyweight Champions (1967), and Highlights of the Olympics from Ancient Times to the Present (1973). But during the 1950’s, he authored a series of books with his wife, Alice K (Rand) Durant such as Pictorial History of American Ships (1953), Pictorial History of American Presidents (1955), and Pictorial History of the American Circus (1957).  As you can see, the visual image was a primary element of his work.

But despite all of these publications, virtually nothing is known about John Durant the man. I have been completely unable to unearth a single biographical fact on him, save what I found in this undated post by baseball author and historian Marty Appel. “We learn in Highlights of the World Series… that Durant was a sportsman. The author bio on the jacket says he was on the Yale track team, and went to England to compete against the Oxford-Cambridge combined team on behalf of Harvard-Yale, and that he was a champion hurdler and a member of the New York Athletic Club track team. We believe he was Yale Class of ’25…He wrote prolifically for magazines, including Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated, Outdoor Life and others, and was a Florida west coast correspondent for the New York Times for many years, writing fishing pieces and other sportsman like articles from his home in Naples.” That is all I could uncover after spending more time than I should have looking.

Such anonymity hiding in plain sight adds further irony to this perspective on perspectives. To be a published historian who lived into the early years of the information age and to have disappeared so thoroughly is certainly ironic and borders on the eerie. It goes to the heart of just how ephemeral a perspective – any perspective – really is. Each of the original predictions has a strong point of view, but many now appear nonsensical, unrealistic, or politically incorrect. Durant’s perspective suffers less from the passage of time, largely because he limited his role to that of historian but also because he offered no overt predictions of is own. Nevertheless, many of his observations – absent the technological and social changes of the past sixty years – still appear dated from our perspective.

But perspective is important. It provides a sightline for our thoughts and actions in the moment. What Predictions demonstrates is how perspective changes over time. Viewing the difference over the span of a century or two is easy. One can identify changes in social and technological conditions that have taken place. Recognizing the difference over the course of months or days is more challenging. The changes may be imperceptible but they are there. My perspective on Predictions has changed in subtle ways just in the few days I have been writing this piece.

Similarly, no two people can share precisely the same perspective on any one thing. We could be standing side by side looking at the same picture but our perspectives will be different because we are seeing it from slightly different angles, have dissimilar senses of color, have diverse tastes in art, and do not share the same knowledge of the medium. This is one of the fundamental challenges in meeting facilitation. How do we harness the diverse perspectives of the participants in the service of group alignment?

This is most easily accomplished by focusing first on the articulation and organization of group values and purpose. These are the components of identity. By establishing group identity early in the process, the group also establishes group perspective. Group perspective does not replace individual perspective, but it does give participants a tool that helps them step away from their own perspectives in order to see a problem from other points of view.

Values and purpose are clearly in evidence throughout Predictions. They are behind the message in every single cartoon in the volume and help to throw the change of perspective between then and now into dramatic relief. One wonders how these artists and satirists would see their own work if they could view it from our perspective. By the same token, if we knew that we could see our efforts from a perspective so far in the future, I suspect most of us would become too self-conscious to write anything at all. And then what would be accomplished?

In the spirit of this essay, I will end by making a prediction or two of my own. First, I predict that someone sixty years from now will stumble upon my body of writing in some digital dustbin and wonder who in the world wrote such twaddle. I also predict that, unlike with John Durant, the information age will have made my life an open book to my future reader right down to the color of boxer shorts I ordered from Amazon.   I wonder if she will be appalled at my lack of fashion sense?

How do you reconcile diverse perspectives in your organization? Do you regularly examine core values and purpose?



Commitment_HeaderI do a lot of work with teams. Teams and working groups are an important part of my personal as well as my professional life. I work on project teams as part of my consulting and I participate on boards and commissions as part of my community service. For me, the quality of the team determines the quality of the result no matter the context. A strong team is a joy to be a part of; a weak team means misery. I have had cause of late to reflect on the characteristics of a strong team and how they enable success.

Six Characteristics of a Strong Team
There are six essential characteristics that I look for in a robust and successful team. While it is not reasonable to expect that all team members will have these attributes in equal measure, recognizing how individuals and their personalities align with these aspects makes assembling a high quality team more likely.

  • Diversity: There is nothing worse than being on a team where everyone thinks alike. The greater the diversity of background and viewpoint the healthier the team. Not only does diversity expand the available idea pool, it also increases the likelihood that some arcane aspect or lurking issue won’t be overlooked.
  • Skill: Having the appropriate skills on your team is a no-brainer. More important is having team members with the capacity to pick up new skills quickly. Situations arise frequently where unforeseen circumstances demand new or enhanced skills. This also has the benefit of creating cross-trained teams.
  • Flexibility: Flexibility allows a team to adapt to change, which is at the heart of every endeavor we undertake. Flexibility makes it possible for teams to harness their egos and consider alternative or conflicting perspectives. It enables a team to adapt templates to fit new and unique situations. It empowers teams to improve and mature.
  • Integrity: A good team has integrity on both the personal and group level. Personal integrity assures the team that each member will put forward his/her highest quality effort for the team and the project. The collective integrity is the team’s bond with the stakeholders.
  • Motivation: Hand in hand with integrity is motivation. The members of a strong team are motivated to do the best possible job, whatever it takes. This might mean long hours or extra effort, but the shared objectives of the team are paramount.
  • Respect: Respect builds trust both within the team and without. Respect for fellow team members fosters strong and trusting relationships. Similarly, respect for stakeholders fosters rapport between team and customer. Disrespect is a disease in any team.

In many ways, these characteristics are interrelated. There is overlap between them and the boundaries are indistinct. Nevertheless, all six are necessary for a team to be successful whether it is a project team, a civic commission, or a nonprofit board. There is, however, one essential element without which none of these characteristics really matter. That element is commitment. Team members must have skin in the game.

Commitment is the spark that ignites the six characteristics. It is the catalyst that brings the team together in action. Team members without commitment drag the team down. Team members without commitment can seldom be counted on when the going gets tough. Commitment is more than a mere promise. Commitment is doing. Commitment requires management.

Commitment requires management because very few of us – that is, very few who truly commit – commit to merely one interest or pursuit. Because of the deep commitment, they rapidly find themselves a commodity; someone sought after by teams and enterprises. All too soon if they are not careful, they become overcommitted.

I wish to differentiate commitment from a mere promise or agreement. Agreement without commitment is just the occupation of space (and not always even that). Commitment (or the lack of it) drives the quality of the actions we take.

  • Preparation: committed team members come to meetings prepared. They have read any pre-read materials and are ready for scheduled discussions.
  • Follow-through: committed team members complete their assigned tasks on time and follow through on action items they have taken.
  • Ownership: committed team members take ownership of their ideas. It is not enough to raise the problem or offer a solution during a meeting. The team member is not committed if he/she expects someone else to pick the idea up and run with it.
  • Respect: committed team members respect the time and effort of the others. By way of example, if there is important business to be transacted at a scheduled meeting and one of the team has a conflict, the committed team member calls this out in time to change the meeting to accommodate everyone’s availability.
  • Engagement: committed team members are engaged. They work continually to achieve the purpose and objectives of the team/board/commission. Their membership in that body is not passive.

Individuals with multiple commitments will invariably encounter conflicts that can affect their engagement in one or another commitment. Of course they will need to set priorities. But if it is the case that they cease to add value to one or more of their lower priority commitments, it is best that they should step down and help the group find a replacement who can meet the commitment. Otherwise, they should do what they must to remain engaged and involved.

Skin in the Game
Commitment, understandably, is difficult. Sometimes we don’t know how much work a commitment will require. We do not know how our personal priorities may change or need to change in the future. We certainly never know in advance what new challenges life may set in our path. At most, we must be ready to assess whether or not we have the bandwidth to truly commit each time we are faced with a new opportunity to make the world a better place. Sometimes it is difficult to say “No.”

I mentioned earlier about having “skin in the game.” Strictly speaking, the phrase refers to having a financial stake in an enterprise, which means that we have something to lose if the enterprise should fail. This represents an incentive to do everything possible to ensure success. It has also come to mean having a strong commitment in an endeavor even if a financial stake is not specifically involved. Personally, I do not like to see the original meaning of a good word or phrase diluted. So what is the “stake” in this usage if it is not monetary? It is personal integrity. One’s integrity is one’s gold. Personal integrity is our stake in commitment.

What are other characteristics of a strong team? How do you and your teams manage commitment?

Sharpen My Game

Sharpen_HeaderWe all have bad days. I had a doozy not long ago. I found myself standing in front of a room full of people, enduring some very angry and very personal criticism. It was only a few of the people in that meeting, but that did not make it any easier. It was necessary for me to stand alone, remain calm, listen carefully, offer no defense, and attempt to interject a clarifying question when I was able. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do.

The aspect that was most challenging was that the actions of which I was being accused were the very things I had worked for a year to prevent. I had worked hard to eliminate divisiveness and to raise the quality of conversation within the community by encouraging respect for those with whom we disagree. To be accused of being divisive, disrespectful, and of having “dissed everyone” was devastating. Most of the others who were present during the tirades remained, thankfully, silent. I learned later that many were too stunned to react. Whatever the reason, allowing one person to take the brunt of the attack diffused the anger much more quickly than an open brawl would have allowed.

I went through several stages of emotion in the days following. Initially, I was in shock– “gob struck” as a colleague of mine would say. Then followed several days of anger. This surprised me. What happened to the detached composure that served me so well during the meeting? Upon reflection, of course, anger was perfectly natural. The attacks had been personal and had gone to the core of my integrity. At last, anger gave way to sober self-reflection.


Sober Self-reflection
Many of my friends advised me not to dwell on the incident. “It was a small faction who spoke out,” my supporters reminded me, “and they certainly did not represent the preponderance of opinion.” While this is true, I could not let it rest there. There were certainly many things that I had gotten right, but clearly I had also gotten something terribly wrong. This was evidenced by the nature of the anger I observed in those individuals . Yes it was personal and in many ways inappropriate. But the key is that it was genuine. What did I get so wrong?

That question, “What did I get wrong?” is a fundamental leadership question. It demands continual improvement in our interpersonal relationships. Such improvement is critical because, as I have written in the past, each phase of our lives prepares us for the next (e.g., Learning from the Big Push). Each thing we learn becomes another tool to be used to improve the world (e.g., Blanket Order). Everything is in some way or another connected (e.g., Fugue). And at the end of the day, we always tend to learn more from our failures than our successes (e.g., My Favorite Failures). Bottom line, there are always more dots to be connected that will make us more perceptive and therefore more effective leaders.

In addition to being a key leadership question, “What did I get wrong?” is also an advanced class question. It is advanced class because it is a question one can rarely answer alone. At the same time, it is also rarely a question another person can answer for us. It requires a combination of personal root cause analysis combined with active listening (or, in this case, reading). It requires a high level of both self-awareness and humility. The latter, in particular, is not a quality that I have in abundance.

In my case, I did not have much opportunity to ask clarifying questions such as “Can you give me an example of that?” or “How could I have better included you in this process?” Even after the fact, those opportunities were not readily available. Nevertheless, I was able to sit down and make a list of events – some of them seemingly trivial in a reasonable, rational world – in which I might have caused offense without being consciously aware of it. A pattern was beginning to emerge but I was as yet unable to bring the pattern into focus, even as a partial picture.


The turning point for me came some weeks later as I was enjoying my morning cup o’ joe while reading that day’s helping of sagacity from my leadership guru Dan Rockwell’s blog.   I knew that I was about to strike gold as soon as I began reading the article. As I continued, the picture emerged quickly until…bam! There it was in black and white. What did I get wrong? I had spent most of a year spanking the gorilla.

Before explaining what that means, let me provide some background into the situation that precipitated the attack. Some nine months earlier, I had found myself in a leadership role in a small public institution. This organization has been in existence for only about fifteen years and many of its early staff members remain heavily involved. It is a close-knit community united behind a deep, common philosophy. It is a valid philosophy, but its practice has failed to align with changing government regulations. It has also caused a deep rift with the parent organization.

My team came in with three specific charges. We needed to heal the communication disconnect with the parent organization, bring a professional level of structure to the institution, and increase program funding. Our team was ideal from the standpoint of skills; we brought broad business and life experience coupled with the will to roll up our sleeves and get to work. By and large, we were successful in achieving these three goals. But success required change. Change was what most of our stakeholders desired. Not everyone shared that desire.

In this case, some individuals who had been with the institution the longest perceived change as criticism. For instance, the mere observation that a decline in attendance by one stakeholder group at a particular meeting – even though no speculation was given as to cause – was perceived as a reproof of that group. On the one hand, someone might say, “Well, that’s not reasonable.” My reply would be, “Perhaps it isn’t reasonable, but it is real.” This was a classic case of a failure to practice good organizational change management. Enter the gorilla.


Imagine my thrill as I read Dan’s post “Don’t Spank the Gorilla” and watched my own “pachinko balls” finally drop into place. He brought the full picture into focus for me near the end of the piece. “Don’t spank the gorilla. Give him what he wants. Appeal to his inner motivations. Make him feel safe.”

Make him feel safe. With those words, I saw my error. I had not recognized that even the slightest change might be threatening to someone who had pursued a labor of love in relative isolation for so many years. As a team, we did not seek a way to validate the effort and achievement that had come before us, much less manage acceptance of the need for change. Time was against us, but that is no excuse.

Dan wrote another paragraph in his piece that is one of my game-sharpening whetstones. “Start with others. Leaders who begin with themselves come off as arrogant and pressuring. That’s because they are. But leaders who start with others come off as humble and inviting.” It wasn’t that I had avoided this advice. It was that I failed to recognize that not everyone has needs and perceptions that can be addressed in the same tempo. Some people will become secure in a relationship and ready to accept change reasonably easily. For a variety of reasons, others may require more personal contact across a longer span of time before they might, if ever, be ready. It may have been tacit arrogance, but it was arrogance nevertheless. It is a difficult trait to admit, but it explains why the anger was so personal.


Connect the Dots
While there is much wisdom in this world, I do not believe that anyone has a monopoly on that commodity. I certainly do not. Dan Rockwell would be the first to admit that he does not either. But there is something in the way Dan looks at people and relationships (and writes about them) that helps me to connect my own dots. At the same time, I am convinced that the man has my office under surveillance. The morning after I had completed the first draft of this post, Dan published “10 Statements that Eliminate Misconceptions.” This short piece, too, is worth your time to read. One paragraph in particular drives my point home. “You interpret your heart. Others interpret your behavior.”

As with most bad days, something good came from it in the end. I sharpened my game by honing it on a combination of new whetstones. Restated, “What did I get wrong?” became not just a crucial question, but one that is best asked and answered in the context of honest self-reflection in conjunction with an awareness of how others perceive our actions. Lest I repeat this error, I have hung the photograph of a gorilla across from my desk. I trust that she will be a sufficient reminder.

What strategies do you use to sharpen your game? How do you help your organization manage change?


Sleigh_HeaderOur personal mode of being in the world is among the most important aspects of ourselves. The manner in which we interact with other human beings has the power to heal or hurt, inspire or discourage, empower or disenfranchise. A simple smile or gesture can have effects that ripple out across the ocean of souls, extending far beyond our horizon. The story you are about to read illustrates this principle.

I met Robert Lancaster nearly twenty years ago while I was working at The Walt Disney Company. Some of you know him. We worked together as part of a large software development team. A huge bear of a man with a bushy gray beard, Robert is an original. In spite of the outward appearance of a Disney villain (Robert’s words), he is a gentle and thoughtful man with an eclectic variety of interests. One of these is collecting decks of unusual playing cards, a hobby that persists to this day. Throughout his time at Disney, Robert maintained a “Gallery of Unusual Playing Cards” in his cubicle, and we all delighted in the whimsy and artistry of the displays.

Becoming Disabled
In 2008, Robert suffered a serious stroke that left him largely paralyzed. Consequently, he has needed to use a wheelchair (an electric mobility aid) for the past six years. Having one’s ability to move taken away in this manner is challenging on many levels. Robert and I have discussed several aspects of this change because my wife has needed a wheelchair most of her adult life. The biggest adjustments, though, have to do with how other people – including people in the health care industry, believe it or not – react to and treat people in wheelchairs.

Because of my wife’s situation, I have seen this most of my married life. Consequently, I can speak with some authority. On the whole, most folks treat people in wheelchairs in the same manner they treat everyone else. Those who do not, however, display a wide range of behaviors. Some cannot make eye contact. Others will speak only with the disabled person’s companion as if the person in the chair were mentally deficient. I have seen some raise their voices to the chair-bound individual as though she were deaf, not mobility challenged. A few are openly disdainful as though the disabled person had somehow conspired to ruin their day. In each case, the encounter requires the skin of an elephant and the tact of a diplomat. Then there are the children. I will let Robert tell his story in his own words.

Robert’s Story
“It was in December of 2009 and was one of the first times I was out in public since I had been in the chair. Susan and I were in the lobby of a Denny’s waiting to settle our bill when a young family entered the restaurant. It was a Mom and Dad with their two sons, about six and ten years old.

“As we were paying, the younger boy was eyeing me and my chair while slowly edging my way, his curiosity about the chair gradually overcoming his reservations about approaching the fat, gray-bearded guy in it. (I would later come to learn that just about all boys of that age are fascinated with the chair, apparently reasoning, “It has a joystick, so it has to be cool!”) When he got to within eight feet or so (his older brother right behind, ready to keep his kid brother safe), the child looked up at me and, pointing at my chair, asked, “What is that?”

“As I tried to think of the least-scary, age-appropriate yet true answer to that, the older brother stepped up to the younger, bent low so that his head was level with his kid brother’s. Once the six-year old turned to face him, the older and wiser brother gestured towards my chair and stage-whispered, “That’s his sleigh!” (Remember, Steve, this was in December).

“The younger’s eyes got wide as saucers, and he looked up at me in wonder for confirmation of this. I smiled, nodded, and with perhaps a touch more jolliness in my voice than usual said, “Yes, the reindeer are taking a break right now!”

“The older brother gave the younger one a “you see, what did I tell you?” look, exchanged a conspiratorial grin with me, and ushered his brother over to a far corner as I drove my sleigh out into the crisp night air.

“Suddenly, being in a wheel chair wasn’t such a bad thing after all.”

In his story, Robert passed his own initiation rite and became an ambassador. He chose not to be “the bitter guy in the wheelchair” but instead an emissary of magic. Every single encounter with a fellow human being – whether it is with someone who gets it or not – becomes an opportunity to spread the light. Both of those children will likely remember that moment, and who knows how it will be remembered in the years to come or what influence it might have? The effects of that gesture have already rippled out beyond Robert’s horizon.

The lesson, of course, is not just for the disabled. It is for all of us. We each have disabilities, some more obvious than others. Each of has the choice to be bitter and cynical or positive and gracious. In the process, perhaps we can lead a few others to the light. Through our mode of being in the world, we can pass on amazing magic while inspiring others to do the same. After all, isn’t that the point of having a sleigh?

What is your favorite Ambassador story? How has someone’s “mode of being” influenced you?

Card Courtesy of the

Robert Lancaster Gallery

of Unusual Playing Cards


Happiness_HeaderI had a wake up call the other morning. A colleague of mine – someone I consider an informal mentor and a major player in the profession – sent me an email a few minutes after I had posted an article on this site. She wrote, “Steven, what’s your Twitter handle? I think I’ve been tweeting these out using the wrong one!” I was caught. There was no elegant way out other than to dash to Twitter and create an account. Here someone had been paying me the supreme compliment by reposting my blog articles, and I was off napping in the weeds (metaphorically speaking, of course) with no Twitter presence. Say “Hello” to @TheBIMuse.

As I have mentioned before, my relationship with social media is uncomfortable on a good day, so adding yet another medium was intimidating. To be honest, it is going to take some time to find my level on Twitter. There is a very low signal to noise ratio, which I see as the main challenge for me to manage. Still, a gem will pass the window every now and again.

1-800 Got Aphorism?
Because of the 140-character limit on a post, #Twitter is a haven for the shallow #aphorism. My Twitter feed is littered with them like a field of #dandelions. And the older I get, the more #cynical I become about them. Do they really mean what they seem to mean? Because of the enforced brevity, have we turned an otherwise profound thought into #nonsense? Such was the case with one post. It read, “Success does not guarantee happiness.”

On the surface of it, the statement reads like a #truism. Of course success does not guarantee happiness. But if you let the #cynic demand that you define both “success” and “happiness,” the picture crumbles into confetti. Several of us picked up that definition ball and ran with it, and in the rapid little world of Twitter it ended with “Happiness is living your values” followed by “Success could be defined as living your values too.”

This brief exchange of ideas starting me thinking about what “happiness” really is and about its role in our lives and work. Why do we care so much about it? Why do we strive so hard to achieve it? In reality, I can only speculate about what happiness is for anyone else, so I will try to confine my metaphysical musing to my own experience. That said, I think the tweeter who posted “Happiness is living your values” came closest to nailing it for me. But even then, the phrase does not really capture the essence.

The Value of Values
What does it mean, “Living our Values?” I consulted my unabridged Random House dictionary for the meaning of “values” in order to establish a starting point. Get this: “…the ideals, customs, institutions, etc., of a society toward which the people of the group have an affective regard.” This is not very helpful and almost begs for a definition of the definition. I will cut to the chase. The reason that any society or group or individual holds anything in “affective regard” is because it delivers meaningful value to that group or individual. Values, therefore, are those behaviors we have identified that will achieve those conditions of meaningful value.

I used the word “behaviors” deliberately. A value cannot truly be a value if it is not actionable. If I value family, then my values are those actions I want to take in order to nurture my family and its members. If I value my integrity, then my values are those actions I want to take (or not take) in order to keep that value intact. Values cannot be passive; they must be active in order to be real. The more we are able to act on these values, the more fulfilled – the happier, perhaps – we are as human beings.

Because values guide how we might act, they are a key element in decision-making. In particular, values drive prioritization because they illuminate the expected return. If your values align more closely with profit than family, your prioritization of the family vacation on the calendar may be affected. We are confronted every day with choices requiring us to act based on our values.

Logical Values
Going back to the original question, though, let us test the syllogism with this new paradigm.

If success is living one’s values AND
If living one’s values delivers meaningful value AND
If happiness results from meaningful value THEN
Success delivers happiness

It is a well-formed syllogism, to be sure, but something is still wrong. It presumes that the person in question actually knows and understands his/her values. If a person believes that the accumulation of wealth will bring them happiness and it does not, then it is clear that there are one or more higher values toward which the person is not working, probably because they have not identified them. Let us adjust the syllogism.

If a person accurately understands his/her values AND
If all success is living one’s values AND
If living one’s values delivers meaningful value AND
If happiness results from meaningful value THEN
Success delivers happiness

I have gone to a great deal of trouble just to disprove the original aphorism. I have done this more out of puckish mischief than the need to elucidate any significant insight. Still, two truths emerge from the frippery. First is the importance of actively living one’s values in the pursuit of #happiness. The second is to beware the superficial #aphorism. You may find that you are not saying what you thought you were.

How do you keep your organization’s values at the front of mind? Do you find a correlation between values and fulfillment?

And by the way, how do you sort the value from the dross on #Twitter? Any #hints?

For those of you seeking happiness on the job, check out Tennis ball.



The Seven-Generation Perspective

Foundation_HeadingI had the good fortune recently to hear the Chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe speak to the local Chamber of Commerce.  The tribe is big business in our area with a recently-enlarged casino east of town, a golf course and activities center on the west end, a medical center directly in town, and more.  In addition, they have an expansion of the activities center in the works as well as plans for a resort to go with the casino.  The Chairman is a passionate man.  He is passionate about the tribe and their welfare.  He is passionate about the community.  He is passionate about education.  He is passionate about the environment.  And he is passionate about the future.

What resonated most for me was his passion for the financial foundation the tribe has laid over the past twenty years.  They have managed to do this extremely well, making them much less dependent on Federal funding.  This was particularly fortuitous during the recent government shutdown.  The goal continues to be to make the tribe self-sufficient, but not at any cost.  All decisions and everything they do must be from a seven-generation perspective.

This concept is profound.  Instead of focusing on short-term profits, the tribal leaders are concerned with both the welfare and the perspective of their descendants.  Will our descendants be able to look back and thank us for a job well done or will they curse us for a horrible legacy resulting from our greed and arrogance?  It is a concept that goes against corporate practice.  Many companies have long-term business plans, some as long as five years.  But the focus is usually quarterly performance.  There seems to be no place for a seven-generation perspective.

On the one hand, this is perhaps understandable.  Most companies are more about profits and shareholder equity than families and descendants. Unquestionably that was a provocative statement, but allow me to defer qualification for a bit.  I will return to it later in this article.  Nevertheless, the statement also bears a certain truth.  Decisions are made routinely on the basis of profitability as opposed to people, on the basis of financial value as opposed to human values. Downsizing is just one prevalent example.  It is good business.  Well, maybe.

Given the fact that companies come and go, perhaps a long-term perspective isn’t useful.  Think of all the big companies of the twentieth Century that are no longer with us for reasons of merger, acquisition, or simple failure to remain relevant.  These would include DEC, Studebaker, Gimbals, Arthur Anderson, Pan Am, Woolworth, American Motors Corporation, Standard Oil, Enron, and Bethlehem Steel. How would a seven-generation perspective have helped any of these?

I think the answer is in the nature of the questions that the seven-generation perspective forces one to ask.  These are questions that drive right to the foundation of value and values.

  • How does this decision increase value for my customers and employees?
  • What does “value” mean?
  • Does this decision make the world a better place or a worse place?  How?
  • What are the possible implications of this decision a year from now?  A decade from now?
  • What are the economic and human implications if this company were to fail because of this decision?
  • What would my descendants think of this decision?  How could it affect them?

I am by no means an expert on corporate failures, but certainly two of the now defunct companies listed above might still exist if questions like these had been asked routinely. The concept is by no means fool proof because we as human beings cannot guess the future.  But we can use due diligence and judgment in making decisions that satisfy the seven-generation questions.  Using core values to steer our actions provides the best possible defense against an uncertain future.  Could it have saved Studebaker or Bethlehem Steel?  I don’t know, but how about Arthur Anderson and Enron?

The most compelling argument in favor of the seven-generation perspective is that a successful businessman advocated it.  The chairman is the CEO of the entire operation.  He is university-educated and a member of countless business and advocacy organizations.  All of the tribe’s business concerns are thriving and employ hundreds of local people, which benefits not only the tribe but also the community at large as well.  Clearly there must be something in it.

It is also clear that this is not just a leadership philosophy.  It is too well grounded for that.  It is a life philosophy that permeates the organization.  It exhorts that everyone think long-term even when acting short-term. This means that everything we do is, in some form or another, foundational.  Everything we do, every act we take, and every decision we make has the potential to ripple effects into the future. Indeed, some of these effects could easily ripple into the seventh generation.

I was discussing this idea with a colleague whose initial reaction was that thinking about our business decisions in the light of consequences two hundred years from now is unrealistic.  And yet one simple example comes immediately to mind.  Right here in Sequim, we are experiencing an increase in instances of Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning in our local shellfish.  This is caused by naturally occurring bacteria in the algae upon which the shellfish feed.  But two external factors are causing huge increases in the amount of algae, and thus the bacteria.  One is the increase of agriculture in the area, resulting in the runoff of fertilizers and other nutrients that feed the algae.  The other is the gradual increase in the water temperature that is a consequence of global warming.  Both of these factors are the results of decisions and actions that go back more than a hundred years.  Some are local and some are global.  And while the case can be made that knowledge of these consequences was not possible a century ago, it is today.  I argue that thinking about the consequences of our decisions with a long-term point of view is both realistic and beneficial.  In the case of the shellfish, the negative impact is to health, the economy of the area, and the environment.

But what about the dynamic new businesses that must pivot their game plan every few months in order to remain relevant and ahead of the curve? I think the answer still lies in the concept of foundation.  If every decision is considered in terms of enhancing a foundation that is robust, extensible, and flexible then an enterprise should be able to remain nimble and vibrant.  As in all things, though, it is no guarantee.  From a technology standpoint, we have no idea what the look of computing, data, and analytics will be in five years let alone two hundred.  As my shuttle driver Pete said on a recent trip, “Life is messy.”

So what value is there in adopting a seven-generation viewpoint?  What is the practical application?

  • Foundation:  Foundational thinking delivers solutions that are built to last.  Foundational thinking is interested in something that contributes to lasting value in some form or another.  Even if the enterprise should fail, if the effort contributed materially to an industry, community, or body of knowledge then something foundational has been delivered.
  • Integrity:  The questions raised by a seven-generation perspective enforce integrity in our thinking and actions.  They force us to examine material and human consequences outside our immediate sphere of interest, and to take responsibility for decisions and actions.
  • Value:  The seven-generation perspective asks us to examine our notions of value and values.  What is the nature of value itself, and how do our values affect the value we deliver to our customers, our colleagues, our families, and our communities?  This perspective exhorts us to view value as a continuum that we each have the power to increase or decrease.
  • Legacy:  Why ever should I care about what the seventh generation might think of me two hundred years from now?  As a genealogist my perspective is naturally biased, because I care deeply how my ancestors paved the way for me and I see an obligation to continue their effort.  As a citizen of the United States, I am grateful for many of the decisions and actions of countless fellow citizens who came before me.  The seven-generation perspective only serves to prove this viewpoint.

I took a pretty broad swipe at companies and profit earlier in this article. I recognize that there are companies that do put their employees, their customers, and their communities high on the agenda. Many companies today are expanding the range of benefits and services available to employees and their families.  This is an enlightened viewpoint and while it is tied directly to the retention of top flight, experienced, and well-trained employees, it demonstrates a longer-term perspective. Many other companies contribute generously and materially to their communities and the world. But imagine the value that could be accumulated if these actions could be adjusted to a seven-generation perspective?

For me, the concept of the seven-generation perspective has coalesced several key personal threads or themes that have been a part of me most of my life.  It connects with my innate antipathy – bordering on disgust – for leaving a mess behind for someone else to clean up be it at home, in a hotel room, or a public landfill. As mentioned, the genealogist in me bonds as much to my unknown descendants as it does to my great great grandfather Samuel Ayers Annin (to name but one) who serves as a role model not unlike the Jamestown S’Klallam Chairman.  Perhaps this perspective explains why I eschew consumerism and prefer to buy (or make) things that endure.  The perspective ties to the values that I hope I have given my children.  Lastly, it aligns with a seminal piece of wisdom, and one of the better ones actually, that I took away with me from my years in Scouting.  “Leave the campground better than you found it.”  That’s foundational.

Do you think the seven-generation perspective can transform business?  How do you see the past and its effect on us today?