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?



Fugue_HeaderNot too long ago, I was listening to an album of piano Preludes written by the late Nineteenth Century composer Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915). I adore his piano music – which is very idiomatic to the instrument – and I include several of the pieces in my own repertoire. I found myself marveling anew at his mastery of counterpoint, a skill shared with several of his compatriots among the Late Russian Romantic composers. As I floated in that musical Jacuzzi, I began to muse on not only the importance of core skills in one’s professional life but also upon the discipline of counterpoint as an analogy for multi-dimensional awareness.

Counterpoint is a core discipline in music, particularly in classical music. Counterpoint is the relationship between musical lines in a composition that are generally independent rhythmically and melodically, but interdependent harmonically. Counterpoint may have reached its height during the era of the high Baroque at the hands of such practitioners as Johann Sebastian Bach. There is a great deal of…well…math involved in counterpoint, especially in forms such as the fugue. Even today it is considered a fundamental skill for all classically trained musicians, not just composers. It is said that Beethoven could not write a fugue to save his life. “Nonsense,” say I. And the art of the fugue (and counterpoint) has persisted into the Twenty-first Century. So, why should we care in the Business Intelligence and decision support world?

I return to my original Jacuzzi-induced revelation; counterpoint is an analogy for multi-dimensional awareness. Imagine my delight when I first contemplated this connection and opened up my freshman counterpoint book (Counterpoint 2nd Edition, by Kent Wheeler Kennan, ©1972 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.). Turning to the author’s Preface, this is what I found: “The chief objective of counterpoint study…is to awaken or sharpen in the student a feeling for the contrapuntal element that is present to some degree in virtually all music; to make him sensitive to the forces of opposition and agreement, tension and relaxation, direction, climax, and the like, that operate whenever two or more voices are sounded simultaneously.”

“Holy epiphany, Batman!” In that first half paragraph of his book, Professor Kennan not only captured the essence of my point, but also managed to take it to the next level. He wrote those words in 1959 and certainly intended them only within the context of musical study. Nonetheless, I did not even have to squint to recognize just about every business meeting I have ever attended, or every project I have been engaged in during my career. The “forces of opposition and agreement, tension and relaxation, direction, and climax” describe perfectly the human interactions in these extra-musical situations. Further, we rarely act or make decisions alone (two or more voices sounded simultaneously). In fact, the situations in which we are but a single voice are scarce. Our lives are not monody. That would be…well, medieval.

Our musical analogy persists. As human beings, we are all the richer for the multiplicity of voices, the diversity of viewpoint. The inspiration for a new product (or poem) coming from a single individual mind is a beautiful thing, not unlike a single unaccompanied voice raised in song. But most often, new ideas, directions, or enterprises are incubated within groups of human beings with each individual contributing a unique set of beliefs, viewpoints, anxieties, and needs. The result can be a symphony or cacophony. This is where counterpoint comes into play. This is why the sensitivity to these forces of opposition and agreement and so forth become a core skill in working with groups of people.

Let us examine the most basic dynamics of a business meeting. This could be a regular staff meeting, a group visioning session, or a simple meeting between two business people. The one element essential to all of these meetings is an agenda. The agenda brings structure to the engagement, and sets expectations as to role and outcome. Musicians do the same thing. The classical musician may play from a score or at least have learned the music from a score. But even jazz or rock musicians jamming together have basic chord progressions to structure their collaboration. A meeting without an agenda is a prescription for noise.

While the agenda provides structure, this should not be mistaken for rigidity. It is there only as a guide. Just as one member of a jazz trio may depart from the progression to perform a spontaneous riff (knowing that he will return to the structure of the progression when he is finished), so the meeting may be allowed to digress for an appropriate reason, only to return to the agreed upon structure once the tangent resolves.

The agenda is indispensable, to be certain, but it is not enough to ensure success. Meetings work best when there is a leader who is sensitive to the dynamics in the room and can guide the voices appropriately. This means making certain that everyone gets heard, not just the louder voices. This means establishing rules for maintaining personal respect, which also means leading by example. This means being able to anticipate where a voice is headed and being prepared to manage the resulting dissonance. Over time, the participants in the meetings may also become sensitive to these forces.

Recently, I had the opportunity to lead a shared visioning project for a client. The CEO knew that dissonance existed between several of his departments, and he could not move forward effectively until this was changed. He also recognized that he did not understand the nature of the discord. The visioning process brought together representatives of all the stakeholder departments and culminated in a full day retreat. The CEO himself participated, along with a member of the Board.

We began with some trust and team building exercises in the morning, and then articulated a shared identity based on values and purpose. The bulk of the day centered on identifying and incubating opportunities for improvement. These were the big rocs with which the organization needed to wrestle. (It is essential, by the way, to interject a fair amount of whimsy into such proceedings.) As the afternoon wore on, I had everyone working in small, rapidly changing teams. This was forcing each participant to work outside of his or her comfort silo and to adjust on the fly to new interpersonal variables (forces of opposition and agreement, tension and relaxation, direction, climax). Barriers were coming down all over the place and the entire group had modulated to a new key in the manner of their interactions. Even so, something still was wrong.

The CEO broke away from his team and came over to me with his eyes wide open as if a light bulb had just come on. “Steve,” he said, “there is a lot bubbling under the surface here.” I nodded. I had been aware of it all along, having been working with his teams for months, but the boss needed to hear it for himself. In spite of the new key in which everyone in the room was working, the original drone remained – still in the old key – and the dissonance was palpable.

I do not have an end to that story yet. In fact, it has only just begun. The level of communication and collaboration has already improved and the initiatives that the participants forged during the retreat will bring greater value to come. The CEO now has the means to address the underlying discord although that process will require time as well. It all comes down to that awareness, that sensitivity to the interpersonal forces that exist between all human beings like so many voices in a symphony. Counterpoint.

We rarely listen to music as so many discrete musical lines. Rather, we listen to it as a whole, and so should it be in our interactions with our fellow human beings. We understand and recognize the forces underneath while reveling in the unified palate of sound. It is the unity of all the voices coming together that produces harmony be it music or ideas. It is the Jacuzzi out of which that one voice rises with a new theme that finds its way into these words.

Do you always prepare agendas for your meetings? How do you guide the voices of opposition and agreement on your teams?