Thinking of Calling Something a Transformation? Don't.

Imagine you see an old friend walking past you on the sidewalk, and you say “Hey! What are you up to?” And he responds, “I’m walking.” 

That's not a helpful response from your friend. Yet that’s the equivalent of calling any program a transformation program. Anytime someone says they are leading a transformation program (or transformation initiative or transformation [any noun]), it’s exactly the same as your friend saying “I’m walking.” But where is your friend going? And how exactly is your organization transforming?

Transformation means nothing. If you’re a business running a program to become more agile, it’s an agile program. If it’s becoming more customer-centered, it’s a customer-centered program.

Many companies label learning and development experiences as “transformations.” Or they say: “our goal is nothing less than the transformation of our company!” Transformation becomes the buzz word, divorced from the destination.

Why so much transformation talk lately? Three theories:

1. Avoiding specificity

First, calling something transformation generally is a great way to avoid specificity about the desired destination. If you shine a spotlight on “transformation,” you cast a shadow over the destination. You don’t have to worry about ending up in a different place than the one you intended. After your program, you’ll definitely be different in some way, as nothing remains completely constant. So you can just point out what you are after the initiative and say, “Success! We’ve transformed!”

2. Sidestepping accountability 

The second theory for transformation overload is that, while there is wide agreement about the fact that the world is changing rapidly, there is little agreement about what to do about it. If you label something transformation, you at least seem like you’re responsive to “our changing times.” Leaders inside companies celebrate learning, experimentation, emergence and agility in the face of a changing context. OK, wonderful. So transform your organization into a place with greater capabilities to be agile. Then you have an agility program, not a transformation program.

3. Disguising change

Third, transformation is just a fancier version of that oldie but goodie: change. Change management and change leadership are terms with a permanent layer of dust on them, overused as they’ve become. But transformation – that’s kind of new. So we slap that new coat of paint on an old change program.

Consultants would rather call something a transformation engagement than a change program because they can charge more. There are four times as many syllables in transformation as there are in change, so that’s roughly a 4X cost increase. (Add VUCA for a 50 percent bonus.)

The next time anyone anywhere mentions a transformation intervention, simply ask two questions:

  1. From what?
  2. To what?

Work especially hard to gain clear agreement on the answer to the second question. Then boil the answer to that question down to a pithy word or two, and rename your program that pithy answer. Then your name will reflect your destination, not your mode of transportation.

This article was first published as a blog on the ASTD Senior Leaders site.

Collaboratis: The Disease of Cowardly Collaboration

Sometimes collaboration hides a lack of accountability and balance masks an unwillingness to make a decision. Collaboration and balance are two virtues that can combine to cover up some nasty virtues. Leaders must take a hard look at the virtues they are proud of to make sure no vice lurks within.

Today, Blackberry's market share is less than 5 percent of global smartphones. That's a stunningly rapid decline for a company that Fortune once described as the "fastest growing company in the world."

Two men shared the CEO spot during RIM's dramatic tumble from greatness: Mike Lazardis and Jim Balsillie. "This co-CEO structure is almost a guaranteed model for failure," Dartmouth Business School Professor Sydney Finklestein told NPR's Morning Edition. "It hardly ever works. It makes it difficult to know who is in charge and I think that slowed down their ability to adapt to competitors."

Fish school together in a "bait ball" to avoid a predator because lonely fish are easier for sharks to snag. In the same way, workers cluster around an idea to avoid the risk of standing out. Task forces without a clear focus, teams without a clear mission, and meetings designed to ensure everyone feels included are much more common than the co-CEO structure at RIM. But they are each symptoms of the same disease: Collaboratis.

There may be safety in numbers, but too often there's a sickness as well.

Rote check-ins to make sure your team is on the same page sap energy and spread malaise. Too often these check-in meetings run the risk of slowing momentum. In the same way that a doctor's office provides germs that can get you sick, a check-in with the team is the most likely place for the team to become infected with indecision and confusion.

Being on the same page is overrated: to innovate and compete successfully, different people must make progress on different pages. As the rate of change goes up, the cost of making a mistake goes down. Make more mistakes quicker, and don't let the torpor of workplace meetings slow you down.

Make your collaboration healthier by making it more accountable and more selective. If you're a part of a team with a clear mission, you meet only to co-create (not to check in or checkup), and you embrace a plan to disband when the mission is achieved, then enjoy the productivity that comes with accountable collaboration

In addition to unaccountability cloaked by collaboration, RIM provides a second example of vice hiding inside virtue. The BlackBerry PlayBook was launched in 2010 with much fanfare from RIM but little interest from the market. While competing with the iPad would have been tough for anyone, Lazardis and Balsillie didn't make it easier for themselves.

Former employees of RIM say that Lazaridis ordered that the PlayBook be built for consumers. But Balsillie believed it should be sold to big businesses. "The marketing campaign positioned the tablet as 'professional grade,'" wrote Joe Castaldo in Canadian Business, "and yet the very name of the product suggests it's all about fun. It ultimately hit the market without meeting the needs of either consumers or business users." The PlayBook shows how an attempt to strike a balance between two goals is often just an excuse to avoid making a decision. Either decision would have been better than neither decision.

If you strive for balance at work, you may fall into the trap of blandness and mediocrity, working to find compromises that please everyone. As a result, others at work won't view you as a strong leader who stands with courage and speaks with candor. Instead, eliminate needless compromises. Have the courage to take a stand for something, and have the candor to quickly admit when it turns out you took a stand for the wrong thing.

The dark side of collaboration is a lack of accountability, and the dark side of balance is a lack of decisiveness. Look behind the curtain of collaboration and balance, and try to identify – and eliminate – the vices hiding in the darkness.

 This article first appeared on CNBC.

When Virtues Hide Vice

Over the past 10 years, I've interviewed thousands of leaders about the difference between being smart and being successful. Most cite two attributes: passion and preparation. There's no question that both are virtues. But aspiring leaders have to be careful because virtues, left unquestioned, can often hide vice.

Passion or obsession?

Professional dancers suffer a wide range of painful injuries, including stress fractures in the spine, arthritis in the hip, and a "trigger toe" condition that can cause their big toe to lock in place. But, according to a study conducted at the University of Quebec, it's the most passionate ones — those who feel compelled to dance to prove something to themselves or others — who suffer the most. It's the dancers who love to dance, but don't live to dance, who manage to stay healthier and have longer, more successful careers.

The lesson: obsessive passion at work may lead to high performance in the short term but it can also cause burnout and bad judgment. If you find yourself focusing so hard on your job that you forget about everything else, or constantly ruminating about it outside office hours, ask yourself what you're trying to prove and to whom. It can be tough to diagnose yourself, so get counsel from a trusted work friend or family member. Have them help you find the chips on your shoulder and work to discard them. Also embrace non-work passions. Just as Yo-Yo Ma expanded beyond classical music and Serena Williams found joy outside tennis, outside interests can sustain and enrich your core work.

Prepared or scared?

Preparation is another virtue that hides a vice: insecurity. Take, for example, a team of junior consultants I interviewed. Worried that they lacked the experience to meet their clients' needs, they worked extra hard to develop a book full of data before a meeting intended to sell a new project. But they ended up spending so much time presenting to the client that he didn't feel heard and rejected their proposal.

When you over-prepare as a way of reducing your anxiety, you risk becoming locked into a script instead of adapting to the situation as it unfolds. To avoid the trap of unwise preparation, make a point of sharing incomplete work in progress more often and using the constructive criticism you get to rapidly prototype, test and improve. Consider every workplace task or interaction as a chance to get better, rather than an opportunity to show how much you've prepared.

Passion and preparation aren't always masking unhealthy behavior. They're still traits to be encouraged. But when you say — or hear someone else say — that something is being done in the name of admirable aims, it's smart to check that no vice lurks inside the virtue.

This article first appeared on Harvard Business Review Online.

More Trust, More Guts, Fewer Buts

You want to be nice. You don't want to make anyone look or feel stupid. So you modify your position. You discount your own ideas. You are careful not to advocate too forcefully.

As a result, you succeed in finding a compromise. Yay. Hooray for compromise! And the person you are talking to still likes you.

But you miss out on leadership and the company misses out on a good idea. Even if you are wrong. Especially if you are wrong.

Here's how it happens. All you need to know for context is that Tom and Jamie work for a company that sells through four distributors, and Triangle is the biggest of the four. Jamie is Tom's boss.

Tom:   Triangle says if we don’t give them an additional six percent margin they’ll stop carrying our line.

Jamie: Triangle’s important to us. We’re on the razor’s edge of making our numbers as it is. But I hate to be blackmailed.

Tom:   I know, this is the third year they’ve made the same ask. But we can't lose them.

Jamie: I don’t want to encourage them. But we need to make those numbers. Maybe you should go back to Triangle and see if you can get them to accept a three percent increase.

Tom:   OK, best we can do.

Perfectly reasonable. They have a reasonable conversation that considers and conveys both sides. It's thoughtful and respectful. Conversations like this happen every day. Neither Tom nor Jamie says anything offensive or wrong, but they also don’t fully flesh out the issue. Let’s see what the conversation looks like with more guts and fewer buts.

Tom:   Triangle says if we don’t give them an additional six percent margin they’ll stop carrying our line.

Jamie: We can’t risk losing Triangle, so we need to give them the margin they ask for. It will cut into our profits, so we’ll have to make up the loss in additional volume from the other distributors.

Tom:   They’re blackmailing us. We can’t give them what they’re asking for. It’s the third year in a row. We have to stop it now or they’ll never stop asking for more.

Jamie: Let’s play this out—what happens if we walk away from Triangle?

Tom:   The three other smaller distributors have been bending over backwards to get more of our business, so I know I can get new volume from them.

Jamie: You can’t grow those accounts by enough to make up for Triangle in one year. They don’t have the coverage.

Tom:   There’s a couple of new distributors who want to work with us. We have a decent shot of making up the loss from Triangle this year. And we’ll definitely be in a stronger position next year, with wider distribution and a tougher reputation as a negotiation partner.

Jamie: After walking away from Triangle the other guys aren’t going to push us around on margin. Maybe we can even go up a point or two next year.

Tom:   Not to mention Triangle may relent once we give them our notice letter. But this can’t be a bluff.

Jamie: Go for it. No bluff. Let’s see what they do.

This time two contrasting positions smash up against each other right at the start. Jamie takes one side strongly, and by doing so, she encourages Tom to take the other side with strength.

Gutsy arguments are more likely to produce fully considered positions. Tom’s opinion remained steadfast while Jamie’s shifted. But note that Jamie started out the second scenario with a stronger position. The strength of Jamie’s position forced Tom to develop a tougher argument, sharing more of the data, and this helped Jamie develop a more informed point of view.

This only works if Jamie has the humility and brains to recognize a better way when it’s presented to her. And it only works if Jamie has done the hard work to create a trusting relationship with Tom, so he knows that it’s ok for him to truly speak his mind.

Create a trusting environment at work, and then have the gutsy conversations that environment affords. 

Get it. Get it done. Get it out there. Get over it.

Four steps to make meaningful progress on anything:

1. Get it.

Invest the time to understand the context for what you're working on. Where are you now? (That's point A.) Where would you like to be as a result of the thing you're working on? (That's point B.) Why is it important to move from point A to point B? What happens if you don't? How do you know?

Begin with humility. Acknowledge that it is statistically unlikely you are working on something new. Someone else, somewhere, has worked on something very similar. So why are you doing it? Who has tried to do this thing before? What did they do wrong? What did they do right?

2. Get it done.

First, do the worst possible version of your project. Second, make it a little better. Repeat that second step a few times. 

The idea: spend less time on each version. Do more versions. Call it lean or agile or rapid prototyping or little bets. These concepts rely on a central insight: Pardon yourself from the shame of imperfection, but don't pardon yourself from the shame of inaction.

3. Get it out there.

It's not good enough to share yet. I know. That means sharing adds value to you. You'll learn from the people you share with, which adds value to you. It's ok, you deserve it. 

Also, as a bonus: people generally love to be invited to co-create with you. Let them in.

It's an act of insecurity to perfect something before sharing it. 

That terrible thing that you believe will happen if you share something half-baked with your boss/client/other-important-person? Run an experiment. Test your hypothesis. See if the terrible thing happens. What if you're wrong? Think of all the wasted opportunities for insight.

4. Get over it.

Work on the next thing quickly, to avoid the temptation of looking back in regret or pride. Don't try to learn from your experience. You can't help it -- you will. The greater danger is learning too many of the wrong lessons.

Move on to that next thing, and learn from the rest of world, not from yourself. Keep a scientific outlook, letting feedback teach you. Current feedback on a current project is a better teacher than pride or regret about the past masquerading as a "lesson learned".


Charlie Green Tips the Sacred Cows of Trust

Charlie Green, trust guru, has been a mentor of mine for many years. His most recent book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, provides concrete tools and proven steps to build trust where and when you need it most.

I'm excited to share a conversation we had recently about the intersection of our two areas of research.

JB: Charlie, you help people build trust. I help people overcome wasteful, dangerous bits of conventional wisdom. I wonder if there's any overlap. Are there any sacred cows that need to be tipped when it comes to trust?

CG: Jake, I'll be interested to hear your sacred cows on trust too – my expertise is in subject matter, yours in species (bovine)!

There are at least three sacred cows.  The simple ones are "trust takes time," and "it takes only a moment to destroy trust."

As with most things trust-related, it depends on what aspect of trust you're talking about. For example, it does take a long time to build up a track record, which drives trust-as-reliability. But when it comes to trust-as-emotional-safety, or trust-as-he's-got-my-back, we make snap judgments all the time, and with generally pretty good results.

As to the speed of trust destruction, it's not really a question of speed, but of intensity. If my trust is very shallow, it won't take much to overturn it. I may trust Amazon to guess my book preferences, but if they try to recommend restaurants and fail, I'll lose what little trust I had. That's not about speed – that's about shallow trust to begin with. The clincher here is battered wife syndrome – if trust truly were destroyed in a moment, they'd all leave their husbands at the first blow. They don't, and that's because powerful trust takes a lot of anti-trust to tear it down. Notice how long it took for people to believe their eyes and ears about Bernie Madoff.

The third sacred cow is about trust and risk: people all the time quote Ronald Reagan's "trust but verify." The truth, which is obvious on reflection, is that if you verify, then it wasn't trust in the first place. If you trust someone, the whole point is you don't verify. This is important because you simply cannot have trust without risk. The essence of trusting someone is willfully putting yourself in harm's way, at the risk of being ill-treated by that person, yet doing it anyway.
That's an important point, because in all our efforts at risk-reduction in, say, posing detailed financial regulations, we think we're increasing trust. In a perverse way, we're actually hurting it, because we're substituting verifiable processes for that most human of all relationships, trust.
JB: I want to pick up on your third sacred cow: "trust but verify". I love your point. Saying "trust but verify" is exactly the same as saying "don't trust". "Trust but verify" is nothing more than a rhetorical phrase to rationalize paranoia. Trust, as you say, involves risk. 

In fact, can't we define trust as "the absence of verification"? Aren't trust and verification simply two sides of the same coin?

Which brings to mind a different sacred cow to consider: trust is good. Maybe it's not. In particular, is trust better than verification? Maybe it's not. Maybe it's just different. Maybe trust and verification are simply substitutes for each other. Sometimes trust is the right strategy, and sometimes verification is.

Verification increases cost and reduces risk. Trust increases risk and reduces cost. Trust and verification are two different strategies to trade off between risk and cost. Verifying something with a PIN code or a contract or a background check takes time and money, but it lowers risk. On the other hand, if you trust someone, you save on all the transaction costs associated with verifying. But you take on all the risks associated with the chance that person might be lying.

What do you think, Charlie? Is trust a virtue towards which we should all aspire? Or is it simply a value-neutral strategy that sometimes is a better approach than verification, and sometimes is worse?

CG: I think that's very right, Jake. The fog-sculpting happy-thinking trust fans out there are guilty of starry-eyed thinking about trust, but you're right, it's just another phenomenon of human relationships and psychology. If you trust everyone all the time, you're either a saint or a patsy, and there just aren't that many saints. And of course the reverse.

I think you're right about the tradeoff between verification and trust, but let me push it one step further. You're certainly right about PIN codes and the like. But when it comes to interpersonal trust, there's an interesting Heisenberg Principle-like effect. The act of trusting someone actually makes them more trustworthy. This is common wisdom, enshrined in quotations (e.g. Henry Stimson, "the best way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him."). But it's not fully appreciated.

What it means is that trust has a powerful risk-reducing component built into it. The reason is simple. Human beings profoundly work by reciprocity. Etiquette is nothing more than an elaborate set of rituals designed to show reciprocating respect. Trust fits perfectly into that model. If you trust me, I will reciprocate, first by living up to your expectation of me, and later by trusting you in turn. 

That's the great thing about trust – it contains within it not just the obvious one-vector value of more risk vs. less cost, but another, countervailing vector, that of small risk mitigating larger risk later. I should note this is true of trust between humans, not between humans and brands and corporations and agencies. But it's powerful in that arena.
JB: Got it. When you bestow trust on others, you increase the chance they will behave in a trustworthy way. So both cost and risk go down, which is a nice articulation of the business value of interpersonal trust. Is the corollary true? Can the act of verification reduce the chance that someone will behave in a trustworthy way?

CG: Actually, yes; the act of verification can have a negative effect on trust. I remember vividly the case of a convenience store chain that was suffering from 150% annual store manager turnover. They hired my firm to determine the profile of a store manager who would stay longer.

Turns out, the company had a practice of giving every store manager a lie detector test every month. So, after getting tested five or six times, a store manager would figure, "well somebody must be getting rich here, maybe I should try it?" And he would steal, and get caught, and the turnover went up a notch.

There's an old saying, "whether you think good or ill of a person, that's what you'll get." It rings true to me.

Consulting Magazine Spotlights Tipping Sacred Cows

The December, 2012 issue of Consulting Magazine featured a strong review of Tipping Sacred Cows. From the review:

Breeden's work identifies the seven most common sacred cows at work--including balance that turns bland and passion that becomes obsession--and how to overcome them. Whatever the profession or discipline, it's a pretty safe bet that your company, or your client's company, is making many of these mistakes right now. Correcting them can go a long way--even all the way to the bottom line.

I'm very happy that the editors at Consulting Magazine see the link between the concepts in the book and practical matters, like profit. I worked hard to add something new and novel to the leadership conversation, while addressing the real concerns of people in business.

It's also an honor to be reviewed on the same page as the latest book from Roger Martin, Playing to Win, which he wrote with A.G. Lafley, the retired CEO of P&G. Martin is one of my favorite thinkers and writers, and I highly recommend you follow his work if you haven't. I'll read Playing to Win on my next cross-country flight.

Is There Vice In Your Nice?

It's a good idea to do the right thing, right? But when is the "right thing" really an excuse for paralyzing perfectionism, learned helplessness and spite? 

When we subscribe to virtues so much that we don't question them, they become sacred cows. And sacred cows are wasteful and dangerous because they hide things. Virtue is especially good at hiding vice.

On Friday, January 18, join me at Duke University for a provocative look at the unintended consequences of fairness, excellence and collaboration. You'll discover the dark side of some of your best intentions. And you'll begin to spot and eliminate the wasteful, career-limiting behaviors that masquerade as virtues at work. 

Where: Geneen Auditorium, The Fuqua School of Business, Duke University 

When: 7:00 - 7:45 pm, Friday, January 18 

What: Fuqua's Career Management Center presents: The Unintended Consequences of Fairness, Excellence and Collaboration 

Who: Jake Breeden, author of Tipping Sacred Cows

Hope you can make it! 


One Weird Trick, Explained

I'm the author of Tipping Sacred Cows, a book that explains the dangerous pull of virtues like collaboration and fairness. The book launches on March 12, 2013, but you can order it today from Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

You've seen the ads. One weird trick from a mom on how to lose belly fat, or one weird trick on how to cut your electricity bill, or weird trick to stay asleep all night. It's an old idea, used by advertisers and journalists for 100 years or more. But why does it still work so well?

  • ONE: By promising a single solution, the advertiser makes their claim seem easy.
  • WEIRD: Just as the campaigns to "Keep Austin Weird" and "Keep Portland Weird" celebrate the counter-culture aspects of cities that want to stay special, a weird trick is a celebration of a special secret you're not going to get from your doctor. It's forbidden, and maybe dangerous. 
  • TRICK: Staying with the theme of subversion, a trick is something you do to gain an unearned advantage.

Match the words "weird" and "trick" together and you've got a secret subversion. Add in "one" and now you've got a simple, secret subversion. Subversion is attractive, especially for those who don't consider themselves to be the powerful elite. Which, by definition, is most of us. Make that subversion a simple secret, and it's hard to resist. Don't you want to find out?

Leaders can learn something from the magic of "one weird trick." I don't suggest you tell your teams that you've got one weird trick to help meet this year's numbers. But try to give the group a sense of purpose and meaning by letting them in on a simple secret to subvert something in the status quo, and they'll be with you.

For example, a sales leader at a tech company found someone on her team having unusual success with a new method of demonstrating the product. At a team meeting, the leader set things up with the drama and intrigue of an Agatha Christie novel. And so when the successful young sales person finally took the floor to explain the novel approach he'd been using, you could have heard a pin drop.

Tipping Sacred Cows explains the dangerous pull of virtues like collaboration and fairness. The book launches on March 12, 2013, but you can order it today from Barnes & Noble or Amazon.


The Harmonious Passion of Serena Williams

This week at the US Open, Andy Roddick and Serena Williams moved on. Roddick lost his match and moved on to the rest of his life, marking his retirement from the game with boisterous adulation from the adoring crowd. Williams won her match, in typically dominant fashion, and moved on to the semifinals.

Roddick turned thirty last month, and thirty is pretty old as tennis pros go. It’s been eight years since he won his last (and only) Grand Slam title. Serena, on the other hand, is at the peak of her prowess, winning Wimbledon just three months ago and snagging a gold medal at the Olympics in the meantime. Yet Serena turns 31 in a few weeks. Nearly a year older than Roddick, Serena shows no sign of letting up.

The press and the public loves many things about Roddick, especially his passion. reporter Ravi Ubha writes in Five Things We’ll Miss About Roddick about a match four years ago: “As Roddick was on the verge of ending an 11-match losing streak to Federer and trying to serve out the final game, he looked skyward asking for help to get the job done. He was desperate and not afraid to show it. When he did put Federer away, he was nearly in tears on the baseline.”

The Latin word pati, meaning “to suffer,” is the root of the English word passion. We like it when our athletes suffer for us, and Roddick has certainly suffered mightily against Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. But Serena doesn’t seem to suffer.

“No one likes getting their nails done more than I do,” Serena Williams posted on her GlobalGrind blog. “As a matter of fact I go every four days to get a manicure and every seven days for a pedicure. So, I had a brilliant idea to get certified to be a nail tech.” Serena has also released a line of designer clothes, handbags and jewelry.

Serena’s lack of suffering doesn’t please the press. As Peter Bodo, senior editor of Tennis Magazine, sees it: “Serena's problem appears to be that she likes the reward (celebrity and money) but not the process...she hates having to go through the motions -- you know, the long practice sessions, the diet, the gym workouts and even that messy business of playing matches.” Apparently winning more prize money than any other woman in the history of tennis, along with 14 Grand Slam titles, isn’t enough for Bodo.

Serena doesn’t lack passion. Instead, her passion is more harmonious than obsessive. Professor Robert Vallerand from the University of Quebec, the creator of the “dualistic model of passion,” describes in this video how obsessive passion comes from a “contingent sense of self-worth.” People with obsessive passion feel they have no choice but to engage in the object of their passion as a way to prove their worth, and they’re not likely to engage in distractions like spending 120 hours to get certified to give a manicure.

Harmonious passion comes from a more joyful place. If you do something because you love to do it, yet you don’t feel compelled to do it, your passion is harmonious. In a world filled with obsession, like professional tennis, harmony can look like slacking off. Actually, a series of experiments and studies done by Vallerand and his students show harmonious passion is healthier and correlates with higher long term results than obsessive passion.

Leaders frequently celebrate passion at the workplace as a virtue to be sought out and cultivated. I agree, so long as the leaders look for peaceful, long-lasting harmonious passion. That’s the kind of passion that keeps you at the very top of your game, driving forward, even as younger colleagues are celebrated for their past at retirement parties. 

They Wanted It To Be True So Badly That They Starved Monkeys for 23 Years

As the electric blanket of humidity that drapes the South in August begins to yield to autumn, I want to believe that the football team at the University of South Carolina, my alma mater, will win the national championship. I’ve worked really hard to build a story in my head that this will finally be the year for the Gamecocks, and I believe this story. Since I was eight years old I’ve been a fan, and fan is short for fanatic.

But scientists shouldn’t be fanatics -- they should care about truth. They shouldn’t root for anything. Unlike the rest of us who trick ourselves into believing things – crazy unprecedented things like South Carolina winning it all – scientists must take a cold, hard look at the facts.

 “Some scientists, anticipating such benefits, began severely restricting their own diets….but the bottom line was that the monkeys that ate less did not live any longer than those that ate normally…. Rafael de Cabo, lead author of the diet study, published online on Wednesday in the journal Nature, said he was surprised and disappointed that the underfed monkeys did not live longer.”

De Cabo is disappointed because what he was rooting for didn’t happen. Of course, scientists care about the outcome of their research. Sometimes they care because they’re competitive and want to prove something before a rival does, or they need an article published to get tenure or promoted – science is still done by humans, after all. But also, and more interestingly, sometimes they care because of good intentions, not bad. Obesity is a nasty, growing problem that shortens life spans. So scientists want to help the world by demonstrating the counter-positive: that calorie restriction extends life.

I believe that because of the rigor in the profession, scientists are less likely to work to prove the truth they want to prove than most of us. But when scientists go to monkey-starving lengths to make their case, it should be a warning sign for the rest of us. We need to stop ourselves from turning good intentions into self-deception.

Still, I really think this is the year for South Carolina Football.

Can You Be a Humble Contrarian?

In my last blog post, I celebrated Aaron Sorkin's willingness to flaunt convention. In particular, he ignores the advice to have realistic dialogue and instead uses his characters to speak the truth as he sees it. And based on the fact that most TV writers struggle to get one show while he continues to find success, bucking the status quo seems to work out well for Aaron Sorkin.

But is he nice? At least in this interaction, no. He was an arrogant, condescending sexist pig to a young woman interviewing him. "Listen here, Internet girl," he told the entertainment reporter for Canada's second largest newspaper. “It wouldn’t kill you to watch a film or pick up a newspaper once in a while.”

Arrogance is the biggest danger facing the contrarian. Because if you're going to stand up to sacred cows, question conventional wisdom, buck the status quo, resist dogma and challenge orthodoxy, you're setting yourself apart. And it can be easy for the world to think -- and for you to think -- that you're setting yourself above.

But you don't have to. There are examples of humble contrarians -- look back to the heros of civil disobediance, like Rosa Parks and Ghandi. For more run-of-the-mill examples, think of your coworker who politely opts out of the weekly meeting but doesn't need to broadcast her decision as couragously sticking it to the man. 

Maybe you don't want to resist the tug of the masses without calling attention to herself. Maybe you don't want to go your own way because you don't want to seem arrogant. You're too humble to be the grunting hero. I hope you do go your own way, because we need more examples of humble contrarians.

Let's make room in our workplaces for the quiet radical. 


Aaron Sorkin, Sacred Cow Tipper

Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s latest excuse to show off dialogue as speechwriting, debuted last night on HBO. Nobody could simply dash out the ornate dialogue that falls so effortlessly out of his characters' lips. It’s not realistic. But it’s entertaining as hell, and I loved it.

Sorkin is a world-class tipper of sacred cows – someone who runs headlong for his vision, without feeling the need to consult a rule book. For example, everybody knows that fiction needs sharply defined characters who speak their truth. If a character says something that’s “out of character” it feels manipulative and wrong. Writers can’t simply let their characters be mouthpieces for the writer’s every whim and wish. Everybody knows that.

Except Sorkin: “When you say ‘character development,’ I don’t know what you mean. I feel like you’re talking about, do I grow their hair longer? I don’t sit there and think, ‘Oh shit, C.J. wouldn’t do this.’ C.J. would do whatever I make C.J. do.” This quote is taken from a recent Slate article by David Haglund, who viewed everything Sorkin wrote and deemed him “America’s finest creator of middlebrow entertainment”.

In your line of work, there are probably a lot of things that everybody knows. Be the one who forgets those things, and march onward to progress. There’s a lot of highbrow stuff that tiptoes around every Sacred Cow in the world, but never sees the light of day. 

Sales Backfires

On a recent episode of the A&E Television program Hoarders, we meet Kevin, whose Manhattan apartment has become so over-crowded with junk and relics that he now sleeps on a bench in front of his building. Kevin needs to climb into a window from the fire escape to even enter his apartment.

Researchers have studied the psychology behind compulsive hoarding. Although no single motivation explains the behavior, one of the driving forces that I find most interesting -- and most relevant to the business world -- is the notion of the catastrophic fantasy. Some paranoid part of our brain pictures an apocalypse. And so to prepare for the coming disaster, we hoard. It’s a just-in-case rationale our brain invents to protect us from the abstract unknown. The hoarded things become a kind of security blanket.  

Fear drives hoarding. And the same fear that underlies the hoarder’s urge to keep old magazines or feral cats also drives sales people to hoard poor prospects.

Do you have a closet full of garbage leads? A CRM database full of prospects that are the equivalent of nine-day old Chinese food in the back of your refrigerator?

Throw them out. Clean your pipeline of the low-quality leads and you might realize you have no good prospects. Or only a few. If you have none, work to get your first one. If you have a few, start serving those prospects now, for free. If you have something of value to offer, then your best marketing ROI will come from giving it away to your few highest value prospects.

And if you have nothing of value to offer your best prospects, then sales isn’t your problem. Focus on finding or creating something of truly distinctive value.

Take a hard look at your pipeline of sales leads and ask yourself: Am I a hoarder?