Because I Said I Would…

While on my way to North Carolina this past week, I discovered a fascinating article in Southwest Airlines’ Spirit Magazine, entitled “The Everyday Action Hero”.  It tells the story of 28-year-old Alex Sheen, founder of Because I Said it Would, a nonprofit dedicated to “bettering humanity through the power of a promise.”   Inspired by his recently passed father, a habitual promise keeper, Sheen came up with a brilliant idea; during his dad’s funeral, Alex distributed a set of black-and-white business cards to all attendees, printed with the words “Because I said I would” in the lower, right-hand corner.  For those who chose to play, the task was simple:  write a promise on a card,Examples of promises people have written give it to another person, then get the card back after the promise is fulfilled.   These promises could be anything, from “I will clean the garage” to “I will donate blood” to “I will not hit the snooze button this week.”   To his surprise, Sheen’s idea has really taken off.  He has now sent promise cards to 82 different countries and to all 50 states in the U.S.     Users on their Facebook Page have vowed to mail a long overdue letter, stand by a relative in a time of crisis, and even to stop cutting themselves.  

What a brilliant idea, on so many levels!    In essence, Sheen’s promise cards are built-in accountability and anti-procrastination devices.  When you fill out a card, you’re basically saying, “I will no longer put off this nefarious task.   And to boot, I’m going to empower someone else to be my ally in making sure I do what I say I’m going to do.  Tangentially, the promise cards accomplish one more important thing; they build trust.   Think about it.   When you give one of these cards to someone in your social circle, you’re asking them to help you step into your best, most energetic, most uncluttered, socially responsible life.  You’re trusting them to hold this space for you.   And the trust works both ways.  When you at last finish your task and get yet your card back, you’ve sent a message to your ally that you’re a promise keeper.  You’re trustworthy.   You do what you say you’re going to do. 

Trust is such a slippery entity; it’s so hard to build and so easy to lose.    When it comes to teams, leaders must absolutely demonstrate trustworthiness – as often as possible.  They must walk the talk.   Some other trust qualities of great team leaders include being:    great listeners, self-aware, transparent with their feelings, confident and humble, empathetic, and true to who they are.  

What promises can you make to yourself this week and then share with your team?   Each promise, made and kept, is like a deposit into the Bank of Goodwill.     As time goes by, the account grows and grows, so that when, at last, you need your teammates  to mobilize and serve, they’re ready and willing to join in.  You don’t even need a “Because I said I would” card.   Just start making some promises to your team – and dedicate yourself to keeping them.   It’s that simple, and that powerful.

Choosing Clients the Old-Fashioned Way: Interview Them!

Scan the Web and you’ll find countless articles providing tips for fool-proof employee interviews, guaranteed to separate the wheat from the chaff, the gold nuggets from the pail of sand.   Although fine for companies and organizations looking to bring on new staff (or new vendors), these articles fail to serve trainers and training companies, struggling (like employers) to decide with whom we want to work.   That’s right; vendors have some say in the matter!   Yes, the “customer is king” – but not every client who knocks on a trainer’s door should get a free pass to the throne room.  The key is interviewing our potential clients before we sign that contract and lock in our services.

But what is the purpose of an interview, really?   If we’re talking about hiring officials, the logical answer would be “To fill a position” — a conclusion that over-simplifies things quite a bit.  The hidden reason employers interview people is that they’re searching for clues about what kind of behavior that person will exhibit, day in and day out, once they walk through the front doors of their organization.   In other words, through the interview, hiring officials are seeking to predict what kind of employee you’ll be.  We trainers need to do the exactly same thing, interviewing our prospects and clarifying for ourselves “What kind of clients do I want to work for, and which ones should I most certainly avoid?”

Speaking for myself, I’ve certainly enjoyed working with my teambuilding clients over the years.  By and large they’ve been enthusiastic, straightforward and pleasant; and best of all, they’ve tended to pay me on time.  But oh yes, there have been those occasions when I’ve wondered why I ever took this client job on.  Was it really worth the hassle?  To save you some of the frustrations I’ve experienced during my 18 years in the industry, please find below my list of difficult clients to be on the look out for:

1) The Unreachable Client
You know the type.   You call, you email, nada.  No response.  With the date of the client’s event racing towards you at light speed, you just can’t seem to get your contact person on the phone to finalize logistics – putting you in a real bind regarding travel, workshop materials and overall preparation.

2) The Overly-Demanding Client
Clients in this category fall into four sub-classes, namely:

  • Mr. Ambiguous:   After submitting the agenda for your seminar, the client rejects your plan without expressing sufficient criticism or suggestions, leaving you to guess what they dislike.   (“I don’t know what’s wrong. I just don’t like it.”)
  • Ms. “I Want More But Won’t Pay More”:   Upon delivering your agenda, the client asks for a variety of extra features (ie. T-shirts, refreshments, a videographer) that were not in the original agreement, refusing to pay for the additional services rendered.  (“You’re already making plenty on our program…it’s the least you can do.”)
  • Mr. Unreasonable:   After finalizing your workshop plan, the client makes a series of last-second requests — usually with an impossibly-narrow delivery time.   (“Please submit three other versions of this agenda.  Oh, and can you customize the materials to our group?  We’d like to see a draft for our 9am meeting tomorrow morning, thank you!”)
  • Ms. Waffler:  With only days (or hours) remaining before your training, the client is still going back and force on the details, forcing you to make repeated, last-second changes. (“We still haven’t decided if we want to do the indoor or outdoor program.  Perhaps you could prepare both versions in case we change our minds that morning.”)

3) The Disrespectful Client
“It’s not like what you do is rocket science!”

You’ve all probably heard something like this before. Even though they’ve hired (and paid) you to do something they are unable to do by themselves, there are still clients who feel they know better than us, or who don’t take our job seriously.  A disrespectful client is bossy to the extreme, insisting they know what’s best for their group while neglecting to ask your opinion on key matters.   Even worse, they might communicate with you disrespectfully, treating you as a servant or second-class-citizen, rather than as the professional coach and trainer that you are.

4) The Disappearing Client
This one is plain and simple: the client refuses to pay you, whether for the deposit, an extra feature, the remaining balance or the whole thing. Even worse, they give no explanation for this delay or refusal. It’s one thing if the client explains that they can’t pay you yet because of some unfortunate turn of events and reassures you that you will get your money in a set period of time. It’s quite another if you deliver the training successfully and the client disappears from the face of the earth.   The Disappearing Client strings you along, postponing payment, using insufficient excuses, and generally avoiding communication — hoping that you’ll get tired of waiting and just give up.

So, how do you avoid these problem clients?   By interviewing them beforehand!

Here are 10 of the most common, employer-to-employee interview questions, revised to suit the trainer’s purpose:

  1. What is your team’s greatest strength?   What is your own greatest strength?
  2. What is your team’s greatest weakness?  What is your own greatest weakness?
  3. How do your staff members handle stress and pressure?   How do you, personally, handle stress and pressure?
  4. How will you evaluate the success of this training?
  5. Why do you want to work with us?
  6. Why should we take you on?
  7. What are your goals for this training?     What would you like your team to be able to do once the training is over?
  8. What’s the biggest misperception people have of you and your team?
  9. How do you and your group unplug?
  10. Have you done this kind of training before? If so, why are you switching to us?

And, if you’re really brave, you might also ask:

“Why wouldn’t I take you on as a client?”      You’ll get the most honest answers from this one—because it’s not a question people anticipate being asked.

As you conduct your client interview, make sure you pay attention to both form and content.    Does the client answer your questions directly or hesitantly?   Do they seem to enjoy the process or do they get defensive?   Are they evasive?   Negative?   Do they throw their employees (or bosses!) under the bus?  Very often, the way people respond can be a big clue to the type of behaviors they’ll exhibit during the course of the project.

Finally, remember that you DO have the choice regarding with whom you work.   If your client isn’t going to work out, give them the pink slip and show them the door.   It’s just smart business.

With thanks to Maria Malidaki)

The Power of Choice

There once was a knight of the Round Table who met a beautiful woman — fair of skin with long, raven hair — and took her to court to marry her.   Little did the knight know that his bride-to-be was bewitched by a terrible spell, cast upon her by an evil sorcerer.   According to the spell, the woman could only remain beautiful for 12 hours a day.   For the other half of the day, she transformed into an ugly crone, with greenish skin, yellow boils and hooked claws for fingernails.   Interestingly, the spell had some significant flexibility.   The woman could stay beautiful by day and turn ugly by night — or she could do the opposite: be fair under the sun and homely under the moon. As one might imagine, this presented the knight with quite a dilemma.   Would he prefer to escort his lovely wife around court during the day, enjoying the social scene with a fair damsel on his arm?  If so, he would most certainly be bedding the ugliest witch in the realm when night fell.   Or instead, would he prefer to enjoy the pleasures of the boudoir with a gorgeous woman at his side, in return suffering the loss of status he’d undoubtedly experience upon escorting a hag in high society?  

After much thought, the knight approached his bride and declared, “There is only one solution.  I give YOU the choice.”   Suddenly, with a crack of lightning and roll of thunder, a blue light descended upon the woman.  As golden sparks bounced and shimmered across her skin, the woman exclaimed, “You’ve done it! The spell is broken!  By giving me the choice, I am now free to be beautiful both day and night.”   And, as the saying go, they lived happily ever after.

Perhaps nothing in the world is as potent as the power of choice.   It can topple governments, transform relationships, and occasionally, turn a witch into a princess.   In the story above, the woman gains her freedom from enchantment when the knight offers her the ability to choose her own fate.   That’s what choice does for people; it liberates them from wherever they are currently stuck.   Sadly, choice isn’t always given to us, like magic, at the hand of knights and sorcerers. Nine times out of ten, we have to earn our choices.  And inevitably, it starts with increasing our awareness. 

Who, for example, hasn’t come across a person in their career who seems to be stuck in a pattern of lethargy, powerlessness and apathy.   For folks locked in this mode, the world is a scary, overwhelming place, where the only choice is to survive and to endure.  More often than not, “victims” like this are not even aware that they’re victims.  They just don’t realize that they have the power to change their lot in life.    

Conversely, we all know people who are mired in an equally negative pattern characterized by conflict, anger and apathy.  For them, the world is a place of eternal competition, a black and white universe of opponents and adversaries, where everyone is “out to get you”, so you better strike first.  Fighters like this are also unaware of the energy state at which they’re stuck.   They, too, cannot imagine a different attitude or approach to life.  And they, too, have a choice, if only they can somehow see it, somehow get un-stuck.

It seems to me that our job  — as trainers and facilitators, as supervisors and managers — is not about “teaching” or “instructing” people, but rather, to remind them, again and again, about their power of choice. Whether encountering a victim or a fighter, we need to guide folks towards an awareness of where they are now, and what they might be doing differently in order to get what they really want.   Because we all want the same things at work, really: sufficient training, intriguing work, positive interpersonal relationships, feedback, connectivity, and communication. 

So how do we do this?  How do we make people aware of their power, their agency in the world?   We start by reminding them, again and again, that attitude starts with thoughts, which give rise to feelings, which engender actions.   We hold up a mirror to people, suggesting that In order to move from a lower energy state to higher one, they need to begin observing their thoughts and feelings as something apart from themselves, something to study and to learn from.   They have to get conscious!   And, as our trainees and colleagues become aware of their thoughts and feelings, they can come to realize that it’s possible to replace old thoughts with new ones.  People can choose a new way of looking at things. They can choose their actions.  

To get started on this path, I offer you this simple script.  The next time you’re in front of a group of trainees, ask them:

“Why are you here today?  
You could easily have found a way to get out of today’s training, but you didn’t.  
You CHOSE to come today. 
So, what do you CHOOSE to get out of this?”

Try it!

As always, thank you for being a part of the Dr. Clue Community!

Dave Blum, Editor, The Dr. Clue Friday Icebreaker newsletter

A Face in the Crowd

The other day while looking up something on Wikipedia, I was greeted by a prominent note at the top of the page asking me for a mere $3.00 donation to fund the website’s ongoing efforts.    Wikipedia is an amazing, volunteer service, right  – the modern equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary?  What’s $3.00 to me, really?   Without more thought, I clicked on the PayPal button and made my donation.  

Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about crowd sourcing and its relationship to teambuilding. 

The above-mentioned Wikipedia describes “Crowdsourcing” as follows:

“Crowdsourcing is the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers…  It combines the efforts of numerous self-identified volunteers or part-time workers, where each contributor of their own initiative adds a small portion to the greater result. Crowdsourcing is distinguished from outsourcing in that the work comes from an undefined public rather than being commissioned from a specific, named group.”
By clicking on Wikipedia’s donation link, I essentially join the “undefined public” as a “self-identified contributor”, adding a small piece to a much larger puzzle.  As an individual, my piece ($3.00) is rather modest.  But when joined with others, that $3.00 soon becomes $300, then $3000, then $3 million.  Pretty cool, huh?  And crowdsourcing is not just about fundraising.  For instance, I once read about a scientific campaign that asked mass groups of video gamers to help figure out ways to fold proteins using an online modeling software.  The gamers jumped into the challenge with relish, applying their unique visual sense and manual dexterity to assist in a larger, more epic, philanthropic campaign.  Even Wikipedia, itself, is an example of crowdsourcing at work:  thousands of people providing small bits of content to a greater, collaborative body of work.

But is crowdsourcing the same as “teamwork”?  In a way yes, in a way no. 

Teams, by general definition, are small groups of people, working together with mutual agreements and procedures, for a common goal.   Apart from the “small group” part, this is all sounds quite similar to crowdsourcing.   In both constructs, people must blend their special skills, knowledge and abilities (and even financial resources) to make the collective unit stronger and more varied.    Nevertheless, I see three significant differences between teams- at-work vs. crowds online.

1)      Accountability:  In crowdsourcing, the individual is relatively unimportant.   If you add a single tile to the collective mosaic, great.  But if you don’t, no one is going to get on your case.    There are just so many others out there to pick up the slack and move the freight train of progress forward.   Contrast this to a 5-person work team, where your individual contribution is vital to the team’s success.  Quite simply, you need to do what you say you’re going to do, or the whole group falls down.  There’s no hiding in numbers.
2)      Communication:  In crowd-sourced projects, people often send in their offerings anonymously via the internet, where a coordinator then assembles and sorts the disparate pieces into a final product.   Very little give and take is required between the various contributors.   Now consider a small team at work:  talking, negotiating, planning, strategizing, and resolving conflicts.  Language skills and communication are vital to the team’s success and ultimate profitability.   Once again, there’s nowhere to hide.
3)      Covering for each other’s weaknesses :   In crowd sourcing, you’re often being asked to donate whatever you do best, without much awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of others. You’re all anonymous.   Teams, on the other hand, function as more than just a compilation of individual strengths.   Frequently, your task, as a teammate, is both to add your specific subject-matter expertise AND to cover for other people’s weaknesses.   Everything is enmeshed  entwined and intermingled.  Perhaps, for example, your teammates are all introverts with subdued public speaking skills.   Then you had better be the one to pick up the slack when it comes to making your presentation to management.   You need to be strong where they are weak, and vice versa.

Looking back, I’m glad I was able to be a small cog in such a worthy organization as Wikipedia.    Point-click-done…donation made.   Crowdsourcing can be amazing, valuable and, in this case, dead easy — floating along, faceless, in the internet ether, acting locally but making an impact globally.    But thank goodness for small work “teams” as well, operating down there in the trenches, doing important work in close confines.   Four is company, five’s a team.

Going, Going… Lagaan

When thinking about fun ways to spend an evening, I’m guessing very few people say to themselves, “You know, tonight I’d sure like to watch a 4-hour historical epic about cricket—with lots of Bollywood dancing.”   And yet, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting, especially if we’re talking about Aamir Khan’s lavish 2001 spectacle, Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India.   Never heard of it before?    That’s not surprising.  Outside of the Indian community, Bollywood films rarely receive the respect they deserve – particularly when a movie aspires to be more than a gushy, song-and-dance entertainment.    Lagaan is much, much more than that:  a big, open-hearted, adventure tale that is one of the best teambuilding stories you’re ever going to encounter.
As it turns out, I first heard about Lagaan in 2002, soon after it came out.  Out of curiosity, my friend Chip and I rented it from the video store and decided we’d give it an hour.  If the film seemed interesting, great—we’d watch up to the half-way point and then finish it the following day.    After all, four hours is a long time to sit in front of a TV screen.   Well, after the first hour, we were intrigued; after the second we were hooked.  By the third, there was no way we weren’t going to finish the movie THAT NIGHT, which of course we did, at approximately 1 in the morning.  Who would’ve imagined a historical cricket match could be that riveting!
The story takes place in the fictional town of Champaneer during the British Raj.  The villagers, poor to the bone, are faced with an impossible predicament – in the midst of a terrible drought, their British overlords  — led by the smug officer Russell (Paul Blackthorne) — are now requiring the Indians pay a double Lagaan (tax).    Our hero, the handsome villager Bhuvan (Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan), will have none of it.  The town issues a challenge:   they will play a game of cricket against the Brits’ veteran team.   If Bhuvan’s squad wins, they will be spared 3 years of tax; if they lose, both the town and the entire district will pay the double tax, and most likely starve.   
And so ensues what can only be described as “The Bad News Bears Go To India”.   As the instigator of the challenge, Bhuvan’s task is daunting; not only must he learn how to play cricket – which is completely new to him – but he must also pull together a team from his fellow villagers, many of whom resent Bhuvan’s staking their lives on a single game.  If anyone can do it, though, it’s Bhuvan:  muscled, charismatic, clear skinned – sort of a Spartacus for the subcontinent.  
Like most great teambuilding stories, the story then proceeds in four stages:   Forming-Storming-Norming and Performing.  In the first stage, Bhuvan – via much convincing and cajoling — gathers together his team, a motley crew that includes a mute drummer boy (with great strength), a middle-aged doctor, a chicken keeper (with quick hands), a farmer (adept with a sling) a devout Muslim, and Guran – the town’s spiritually-charged, long-haired holyman/mystic.  Along the way, our hero also picks up Lakha, a gifted athlete who may also be a spy for the British, and Kachra, a crippled Untouchable (India’s much-condemned, lowest caste) with the dazzling ability to spin the ball as he’s hurling it.   Not surprisingly, in the second stage, the team storms away uncontrollably.   The chicken keeper and the farmer, traditional enemies, nearly come to blows.  The drummer can’t catch a ball to save his life.  And no one wants to go near the Untouchable.   Eventually Bhuvan sorts out all these issues with his usual bravado and nudges the group towards the norming stage, where they’re actually playing cricket and doing it at a medium level.  But will it be enough to beat the Brit’s veteran team?    Can they reach the performing stage, where everyone is accountable for their actions and working together? Ah, for the answer to that, you’ll have to sit down and enjoy four, glorious hours of giddy, Bollywood entertainment.   Suffice it say that the final cricket match is enthralling – even for people, like me, who have no idea how the game is played.   I guarantee that after watching Lagaan, you’ll at least think you understand cricket, which is saying something.
For a Western audience of trainers and business people, Lagaan has deep relevance to our own, work-a-day, team challenges.     Like the villagers of Champaneer, you need to start with a charismatic leader, someone who holds up a worthy, daring goal to strive for.   You then put together a diverse team, with each member possessing a different skill and talent.   Problems inevitably arise but you stick with it, sorting out conflicts and reminding your teammates that the bigger picture is more important than individual conflicts.  And eventually, you step up and perform in the big game, leaning on each other’s talents, covering for each other’s flaws, and achieving more than any individual could ever do alone. 
And at the end, succeed or fail, you celebrate.  Preferably with a big, splashy, Bollywood dance number!

What is Success?


If you’ve ever watched “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (and who hasn’t?), you know that Indiana Jones doesn’t really have a choice; he must find the Ark of the Covenant (with all its mysterious power) before the bad guys or leave the entire world at dire risk.  For Indy, it’s all or nothing, a one-way trip  — save the world or bust.  There can be no partial success.  

In a similar vein, Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, famously stated: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”  He also noted, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”    For Coach Lombardi, winning was all that mattered, and that meant coming in not third and not second, but first, always first. 

But is that the only way of looking at things?   Okay sure, if you’re a iconic hero/adventurer like Indiana Jones (or Lara Croft from “Tomb Raider”, or Ben Gates from “National Treasure”), you simply can’t fail; the fate of the world is probably at stake.  And if you play professional sports for a living, you’re most certainly paid by the number of your wins, not by your valiant efforts in a losing cause.  

In the business world, by contrast, the situation isn’t always so black and white.   Let’s say you’re an upstart company in the soft drink industry, looking up (way up) at the mighty Pepsi and Coke.   Would it be nice to be #1 in the industry, to topple the two behemoths?   Absolutely!   But is that an appropriate goal?   What if you make it to #3?   Chances are, as the world’s third-leading soft drink producer, you are making money hand over fist — a billion dollar organization.   Fast cars.   Early retirement.  Rides on the space shuttle.  You get the idea.

Without a doubt, our culture lionizes its winners and disparages its losers.  The only problem is that not everyone can win every time.   Consider the fate of the Buffalo Bills.   From 1990 to 1993, they were one of the two best teams in American football.  Their quarterback, Jim Kelly, became a hall of famer.   They boasted a top-ranked defense and a running back, Thurman Thomas, who was a human tank.  The Bills went to four straight Super Bowls — something that has never been repeated.  And, unfortunately, they failed to win any of those games, leading most of the sporting world to assume that the Bills were a failure.  But were they, really?    Game after game, year after year, Buffalo sold out their stadium. T-shirts with the numbers of Kelly and Thomas were consistent top sellers.   During those years, you can bet that the players received huge salaries, and the ownership happily padded their coffers.  From an emotional standpoint, although they didn’t “win”, the players at least gained the experience of playing in “the Big Game” — not once, mind you, but four times!  Although they didn’t receive the rush of victory, at least the Bills players were there — living a dream that most American children, growing up, can only imagine.    Does this sound like losing to you?

Our task, then, is to consider what would be most appropriate goal setting for us — a very tricky proposition, indeed. After all, how can we give full effort without the motivation of “becoming the best”?    Once our ego gets involved, it’s so difficult to consider a ranking of #2 as a worthy aspiration.  .And yet, that’s exactly what we need to do: give it our all, shoot for the top, attain the top ranking if we can, but take delight with whatever we do achieve — enjoying the journey along the way, regardless of the outcome.   As business people, the chances are that #2 or #3 or even #10 in our industry will also translate into significant profits.  Winning isn’t everything…it’s just one thing.   Success is always how you define it, and how it synchronizes with your quality of life.

The Way” to Build Team Trust

A few days back I watched a fascinating movie on dvd, called The Way.  Have you seen it?   One of my go-to online resources, the Internet Movie Database (, describes the film’s plot as follows:

     “A father heads overseas to recover the body of his estranged son who died while traveling the “El Camino de Santiago,” and    
     decides to take the pilgrimage himself.”

Although the description makes the the story sound dry and depressing, the movie is anything but.  Taken as a travel log alone, The Way is a wonderfully entertaining story.  While walking the 400-mile path to Spain’s famous pilgrimage center, Santiago de Compostela, the grieving father, Tom (Martin Sheen) encounters all manner of lovely scenery and awe-inspiring, historical, Iberian locales.  What interested me most about the movie, however, is not the just the father’s physical odyssey but his emotional journey as well.   At the beginning of his trek, Tom is self-contained in his bereavement, determined to scatter his son’s ashes along the trail while shunning as much contact with his fellow pilgrims as possible.  Nevertheless, as all travelers know, it’s mightily difficult to avoid all human contact when on the road.   By hook or by crook, Tom picks up a coterie of colorful companions along the way, including:

·         Yoost:  A Dutchman with hopes of losing weight before an upcoming wedding
·         Jack:  An Irish journalist endeavoring to overcome writer’s block
·         Sarah:  A Canadian woman trying to quit smoking

Like Tom, each traveler possesses a “professed” goal and a deeper, inner hurt motivating his/her actions.  Yoost, for example, binges on food and drugs as a way of forgetting that his wife has left him over his burgeoning size.   Similarly, Jack drinks to excess to push away thoughts of his stubborn writer’s block and floundering career.  Sarah the smoker walks more to forget a failed marriage and a terminated pregnancy than to give up cigarettes.  And of course there’s Tom, following the Camino both to honor his son as well as to overcome the suspicion that his coldness may have pushed his son away (and led to his death).  The beauty of The Way is the manner in which the four characters’ pilgrimage allows each one to work out their emotional issues within the unexpected embrace of an unlikely family of fellow travelers.

So, too, in business do unexpected families arise, in the most unlikely of situations.  By “going into the trenches” together, working as a team against difficult odds and the roughest deadlines, we often bond with other people in the most remarkable ways.  The key is always about developing trust.   Are you willing to open up to your teammates and let them in on your struggles under the surface?   Can you be there for your family – physically and emotionally — when they need you the most?    In The Way, for example, Tom finally lets down his guard when his companions — in spite of Tom’s coldness – bail him out of jail.   As a general rule, trust arises in direct proportion to the amount of vulnerability you’re willing to show with your teammates. 

If you haven’t seen The Way, I recommend you give it a shot. It’s a good one!  Rest assured that  I’m not going to tell you if Tom and caravan reach the end of their pilgrimage.  You’ll have to find that out for yourself.  In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter:  destinations are rarely as interesting as the journey getting there.

Does Motivation Through Penalty Really Work?

As you think over your life, which has motivated you the most:  the promise of a reward or the threat of a penalty?    This is a question I’ve been pondering a lot of late.  Let’s say, for example, I set a goal for myself of exercising at least five times a week.   I have two choices for motivating myself:  I can 1) “incentivize” the process by giving myself a nice treat (let’s say a chocolate bar–yum!) upon each successful work out or 2) administer a stern, self-imposed penalty (perhaps liver and brussel sprouts for dinner–yuck!) for each failed exercise session.

Which do you think is the least and the most effective?

According to a recent article in Inc. Magazine (April 2013) titled “Don’t Reward Failure”, the answer is #2.  Writes the author, “Penalties are far more motivating than rewards”.   The article goes on to discuss a study of 150 public-school teachers in Chicago Heights, Illinois.   The researchers split the educators into two groups and informed them that their bonuses would be tied to their students’ test scores.  Teachers in the first group learned that they’d get a year-end bonus if the test scores improved.  Members of the second group were told that they would receive a check for $4,000 in September and would have to return the money if the test scores didn’t rise by June.

Can you guess the results of the study?

Writes the author:  “The teachers who faced the threat of having to refund their bonuses produced student test scores that were about 7 percentage points higher on average than the scores of students with teachers in the conventional bonus plan.”

Clearly “Loss Aversion” works; it’s worse to get nothing rather than have something desirable, in-hand, be taken away from you.

So what, then, should we do with our employees– give out money and then take it away?    Not so fast. Based on the study above, the researchers in Chicago recommend telling employees up front that they will receive a bonus if they meet their goals, but also that it will be reduced or retracted completely if they don’t make their numbers.  In a sense they saying, “Here’s the carrot.  It’s yours for the taking.  But if you don’t achieve results, you’ll only get half the carrot, or 3/4, or none at all.

An important warning:  Studies show that it can be counter-productive for employers to set the stakes too high. The last thing you want is for people to “choke” because there’s too much pressure.

The article concludes that we can all boost our productivity by setting consequences.  Check out, for example, a web service like    Here you can set a goal, track your progress, and pledge money if you fail to reach your goal.  That money can go to charity — or worse — it can be pledged to an “anti-charity”.   Let’s say you hate guns.  StickK will gladly donate your cash to the National Rifle Association!

And here it is, the end of my work day, and I’m thinking about heading to the gym for my work out.  I would dearly love to blow off today’s routine, plop myself on the couch and crawl into a good book.  But not so fast.  I’ve pledged $100 for each missed work out to the Philip Morris Tobacco Company.   I better put on my sweats and t-shirt.  Talk about motivation!

Boardgames for Business

Long before Facebook, Instagram and Angry Birds, in an age long past (or so it seems), families spent hours together huddled around the kitchen table, enjoying spirited games of Monopoly, Sorry, the Game of Life, and Risk.    A welcome break from television — the chief electronic entertainment of the era — board games provided adults and kids alike a chance to interact with each other in real time: laughing, communicating, and strategizing together, across generations.

In this digital age, have board games become mere relics of a bygone age?  And if not, what practical applications might they have today, not only for families but also for trainers, entrepreneurs, and business innovators?

These are some of the fascinating questions posed by Leigh Buchanan in a recent Inc. Magazine article (June 2013, p. 60) titled Chairman of the Board.    In his story, the author introduces us to entrepreneur Matthew Calkins, co-founder of Appian (a process-management software company).  A veteran gamer since age 3, Calkins engages in a most unusual business practice; every month he holds a night of board games for business.   During the course of the evening, he and his friends roll out as many as three new games, all of which the group is coming to fresh.  Says Calkin: “Since we’ve never encountered an experience exactly like this one, we have to adapt to what’s new with it.”
Beyond mere recreation and camaraderie, Calkins’ emphasis for these sessions is the lessons gaming can teach business leaders.  His discoveries include insights into the following areas:

Focus:  Notes Calkins:  “Typically leaders focus on outputs.  You know you’ve lost a sale but not that you are in the process of losing it.  Games give players a feel for the quality of their inputs, allowing them to quickly change tactics.”
Feedback:  “With games, you get feedback on whether what you just did was effective or ineffective…[as a result], I have developed very good early-warning detection.” 
Sharpening Strategy:  “When I sit down at a game, I think, In this situation, victory will be derived from what intermediary state?   Then I direct my strategy to accomplish that intermediary state.”

Some of Calkins’ favorite board games include “Amun Re” (land acquisition in Ancient Egypt), “Acquire” (hotel investment) and “Tin Goose” (aviation entrepreneurship).  To this list, I would like to add my own favorite strategy board game:  “Agricola” (from Z-Man Games).     As struggling medieval farmers, your chief goal in Agricola is to build up your property with pastures and fields.   A successful outcome might be the planting of one field sown with vegetables and two fields sown with grain, the erection of three animal pastures housing cows, pigs and cattle, and the renovating of your home from wood to clay to stone.   But here’s the rub: in order to get anything done in Agricola, you need to grow your family.  You see, each family member represents one “turn” or action.   As important as family growth is in the game, feeding your people at the recurring harvests (six in all) is even more vital.  Failure to feed your family come harvest time results in *major* deductions:  three points per missing food!      
For entrepreneurs in particular, Agricola teaches important lessons about how to manage your business expansion.    Yes, you most certainly want to ramp up your business “family” as quickly as possible; the more employees (family members) you have, the more work you can accomplish.   But balanced with expansion must be capacity.   Can you afford to pay/feed your people?    Are you ready for prosperity and all it entails?  

Like Calkins, I’ve been a dedicated game player for quite some time now, hosting a bi-weekly Agricola meet-up in Berkeley, CA.  What else has the game taught me about business?   These three important lessons:

1)      Think ahead. Actions you initiate early can reap long-term benefits towards the end of the game.   The sheep you breed in stage one may turn into a whole flock by stage six.
2)      Timing is everything. There’s a right time for each action.  Yes, you want to renovate your home from wood to stone for extra points, but that’s usually a stage-four, not a stage-one, kind of move.
3)      Respond to the changing situation.  Keep track of what other players are doing. Although you may have started out with a field strategy, if everyone else is buying ovens to bake bread into food, perhaps you should shift your strategy and pick up a fireplace (for cooking animals) instead.

In an age that is growing more solitary, with people sitting alone in their rooms playing virtual games like Facebook Scrabble and World of Warcraft, or texting people who are sitting right there across the dining room table from them, board games offer a somewhat retro opportunity to unplug, together, with your friends, family and colleagues.    When you toss in the myriad business lessons to be gathered, the message is clear:   it’s time to start playing more board games    Or as we might say during our Agricola sessions, you’re bound to reap the benefits!

Change: It’s Such A Pain!

Why do people change?  It’s a simple question, with a plethora of possible answers, such as:

People change because it’s good for them… They change because they’re forced to… They change because it’s just time…  They change for the sake of variety…

Change is a part of life, right?  It’s inevitable.  We change when we need to change, because change is variety and variety is fun.

But is change really inevitable?   How is it that we trainers put together these fantastic sessions, with ample, juicy opportunities for insight and behavioral change, and our participants just don’t get with the program!

Clearly it has something to do with habit.  My dad, Walter, for example, was the ultimate creature of habit, about as resistant to change as they come.  For as long as I can remember, he wore the same shirts (striped, short-sleeved, baggy) and the same non-descript, blue pants.   A typical day for Dad would inevitably include a cup of instant coffee (Folgers) every morning with his eggs, another cup at lunch with his bagel (Noah’s) and cream cheese, and a glass of red wine (Gallo) every evening with his dinner – concluding with a scoop of ice cream (most likely vanilla) just before bed.   And this pattern continued until late into his life when he was diagnosed with diabetes and had to make some changes.

I propose that change — true change, that is, not mere cosmetic, style decisions — arises primarily from the dual partners of fear and pain. Whatever our situation, something is NOT working for us and it’s terrifying to imagine that this sorry state of affairs might continue –forever!

So why do people change jobs?  For exactly the same reason: because something about their work situation is painful or scary.   Perhaps it’s your boss, who is verbally abusive.   Or your duties, which are a huge mismatch with your skills/personality.  Or your pay, which will never let you realize the story you’ve laid out for your life (home, family, cushy retirement, etc.).  Whatever the explanation, you swap jobs because work is causing you pain and you’ve had it up to here.

And yet, even ongoing, low-level pain and fear may not be enough to inspire a change.  We human beings have this amazing capacity to put up with things, far beyond their expiration date.  Call it inertia, toleration, turning the other cheek…   “Okay sure, my job may stink, but trying something new is even scarier.  What if I make the jump and I fail?  That’s even more frightening!  I’ll just stay here for awhile and ponder my options”

Lasting change, it seems,requires post pain/fear AND a catalyzing event, something (or someone) that shocks you out of your rut and prompts you to new action.  In my dad’s case, it was a doctor telling him that he had to modify his eating habits if he wanted to keep on living. In my own case, it was a friend’s stern words.  You see, back in 1995, I was feeling pretty sick and tired of my going-nowhere job at a non-profit job agency in downtown San Francisco. It wasn’t just the pay, which at $11.75 an hour was barely paying the bills.   Rather, it was the monotony of my work: the same boring duties every day, without variation.  No writing, no speaking, no creativity…   Was this to be my lot in life, to the end of my days, never expressing my skills, my interests, my abilities?  How depressing!    But even then, did I do anything about it? Not for a really long time!   After all, my job was easy.  It was stable.  And best of all, I didn’t have to take it home with me.  What changed everything, however, was a catalytic conversation I had with an entrepreneur buddy of mine, Scott, who stated strongly that I was trapped in a holding pattern.   Looking at Scott’s life as a sole proprietor (environmental architect) — so full of energy, innovation and optimism – I couldn’t help but thinking, “Here I am, fed up with my life, dreading the future and hating myself.   I want what Scott has!”  And so I changed my lifestyle, and Dr. Clue was born.

Last month, I experienced a similar catalyzing event coming on the heels of an ongoing pain.  It was the day after my 50th birthday, and there I was, with my girlfriend, watching this great documentary called “Forks Over Knives”, a powerful exploration of the health benefits of a plant-strong, whole-foods, vegan lifestyle.    Now, I should explain that I’d been moving more towards vegetarianism for quite a while at this point, but not particularly for my health.  Rather, I was disgruntled with a larger, personal struggle – my own persistent battle of the bulge.   No matter what animal-based diet I tried, I just couldn’t shed the extra pounds I was carrying without practicing the dreaded “portion control” and starving myself, or so it seemed.    And then I watched “Forks Over Knives” which, to my surprise, suggested that I could pig out on “the right food” and the pounds would roll off of me.  To be sure, my ongoing situation (tight clothes) was causing me distress, but I needed the catalyst of the movie to spur me into action.   (Personal Note: I’ve been vegan for a month and a half now, have lost 10 pounds and feel fantastic).

So what does this all mean for us trainers and change-agents in the workplace?   Clearly we need to cue into the pain and fear of the people we serve.  But here’s the rub:  more often than not, the call for change in our organizations comes from on-high, far removed from our training participants.   Does this sound familiar?:

CEO:  “We need to do something about the lack of productivity in our office.  I’m getting grief from our stakeholders about our low
numbers.   What kind of training can we throw at the problem that will remedy this situation and get everyone off my back?” 

The problem with change initiatives that come plummeting down from the boardroom is that it’s often the initiators who are feeling the pain and fear and not, necessarily, the participants themselves.  Let’s say you’ve received a memo from your supervisor that you need to attend a department-wide course in conflict resolution.    Clearly, the mandate for this has come down from the suits upstairs, or your boss, or your boss’ boss.  But what’s in it for you?   What pain are you feeling?

This, I believe, is our biggest challenge as trainers:  getting buy in from participants who aren’t yet experiencing the aggravation and the terror for themselves.

Can we be the catalysts?   Perhaps. Much depends on our ability to help our trainees get in touch with their own feelings, their own disatisfactions, their own fear and pain.  What is THEIR story, and how does this training jive with what’s going on in THEIR lives.    There can be no second-hand change.   It has to visceral.  It has to be personal.  And it has to be right on time.