in Management

The island of good ideas

Photo credit: Don Bayley, Getty Images

Have you ever been in this situation at work? It occurs when a problem exists that many people, including management, can recognize, but it’s not any one person’s job to fix it. For example, it could be a process that spans a few departments, like on-boarding new employees or customers.

How would your firm generate ideas and organize themselves to make things better?

Here are two approaches I see that are notable for both how common and how ineffective they are. There is hope, though, that a new approach is becoming more popular.

The captain of the suggestion box

Perhaps the most common method is that a manager with some authority calls for a meeting about the problem. The boss asks for ideas, and people take turns offering suggestions.

Like the suggestion box, the ideas tend to be individual contributions as people try to demonstrate their own value and intellect. Also, it’s clear that the only person in the room who has the power to do anything with the suggestions is the manager who called the meeting.

Even worse than suggestions in a box, the meeting takes up much more time and very little is written down. After the meeting, there’s no way to build on or connect the ideas, and nothing changes other than attendees growing a bit more cynical.

The stranded crew

A better way, you might think, is that people are empowered to offer suggestions and connect with each other without the need for a boss or a meeting. And in my experience with enterprise social networks, that is both possible and often better.

Leveraging a social network at work makes it easy to surface a broader range of ideas from a much wider audience than any meeting. Since the work is online, it’s also easy to connect people and ideas and to refine proposals.

But, for most problems, the wisdom of crowds is still not enough. Crowds are good at certain tasks (like estimating the number of jelly beans in a jar), but they’re not good at making decisions, particularly when resources are still controlled by managers who aren’t part of the crowd.

Of course, open access to information is good. So is easily contributing and building on knowledge, and connecting people and ideas. They’re all necessary but often not sufficient to get new things done.

How good ideas get implemented

The nautical theme of this post was inspired by a line from Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From.

“New ideas do not thrive on archipelagos.”

What he meant was that new ideas, like those for solving a process problem at work, typically don’t come from people working in isolation. They come from bits and parts contributed by different people, recombined and reconfigured, till the result is an innovation of a kind.

What to do with these good ideas? In his excellent book, Reinventing Organizations. Frederic Laloux describes how evolved organizations increasingly combine the best elements of crowd-based ideation and collaboration (almost all of his examples cite “active internal social networks”) with a new set of communications and decision-making processes.

Laloux describes companies where employees are trained in conflict resolution and nonviolent communication, important skills if the crowd is to avoid becoming a mob. The same companies also implement methods for distributed decision-making and resource allocation, so the crowd is genuinely empowered to act and doesn’t have to wait for a captain to decide.

The next time you see a problem at your firm, think about which approach you use to make work better. How’s it working? What happens to your good ideas?

Photo credit: Don Bayley, Getty Images

Photo credit: Don Bayley, Getty Images

The man singing falsetto in the ladies’ room

The Ladies' Room

Most of what you see and think is a lie.

I started thinking about this when a friend told me, in no uncertain terms, that someone I regarded highly was “a real jerk.”

“How do you know?” I asked. She explained that she was at an event and overheard him say something that seemed, well, jerky. There was a pause as I sat there, waiting for more evidence, but that was the only encounter she ever had with him. She hurriedly mentioned that a friend of hers’ had also heard he was a jerk. Noticing the incredulous expression on my face, she said:

“Well, I just know.

Connecting the dots

What my friend was doing was connecting the dots (albeit only two of them in her case). It’s something we all do to make sense of our world. Here are a few famous examples.


From the countless dots in the sky, we select a few, connect them, and almost magically flesh out Orion the Hunter or Pegasus the Flying Horse.

“Do we see reality as it is?”

We’re all wired to connect the dots, but sometimes that wiring can lead to mistakes. There are some wonderful TED talks that describe how we perceive things and show how easily we’re fooled.

In a magician’s talk, he noted how “we are always solving. We are always trying to decode our world.” And he used that impulse to trick his audiences.

In a talk on optical illusions, the founder of an art and science lab showed how we could think of the same information very differently under different conditions.

“The light that falls onto your eye, sensory information, is meaningless, because it could mean literally anything. And what’s true for sensory information is true for information generally. There’s no inherent meaning in information. It’s what we do with that information that matters.

So, how do we see? Well, we see by learning to see. The brain evolved the mechanisms for finding patterns, finding relationships in information, and associating those relationships with a behavioral meaning, a significance, by interacting with the world.”

A cognitive scientist explained our (mis)perceptions in slightly more technical terms in his talk “Do we see reality as it is?”

“When you simply open your eyes and look about this room, billions of neurons and trillions of synapses are engaged. Now, this is a bit surprising, because…the eye has a lens that focuses an image on the back of the eye where there are 130 million photoreceptors, so the eye is like a 130-megapixel camera. But that doesn’t explain the billions of neurons and trillions of synapses that are engaged in vision. What are these neurons up to?

Well, neuroscientists tell us that they are creating, in real time, all the shapes, objects, colors, and motions that we see. It feels like we’re just taking a snapshot of this room the way it is, but in fact, we’re constructing everything that we see. We don’t construct the whole world at once. We construct what we need in the moment.”

The man singing falsetto in the ladies room

In short, we take in some bits of information and make up the rest, filling in all the missing pieces.

A story from Loving What Is made me laugh, as it highlighted how ridiculous and misleading our stories can be. It made me think of all the tragicomedies we each write every day, and how our need to make sense of the world can lead us wildly astray.

It also made me think of how simply being mindful of the stories we make up and asking ourselves Is that really true? can help us be happier and more open.

“Once, as I walked into the ladies’ room at a restaurant near my home, a woman came out of the single stall. We smiled at each other, and, as I closed the door, she began to sing and wash her hands. “What a lovely voice!” I thought. Then, as I heard her leave, I noticed that the toilet seat was dripping wet. “How could anyone be so rude?” I thought. “And how did she manage to pee all over the seat? Was she standing on it?”

Then it came to me that she was a man – a transvestite, singing falsetto in the women’s restroom. It crossed my mind to go after her (him) and let him know what a mess he’d made. As I cleaned the toilet seat, I thought about everything I’d say to him. Then I flushed the toilet. The water shot up out of the bowl and flooded the seat. And I just stood there laughing.”

The Ladies' Room


Note: This post was originally titled “The transvestite in the ladies’ room.” Shortly after I posted it, though, my son texted me asking if I knew that “transvestite” was an offensive term. Really? I thought, I’ve never heard that.

I admit my first reaction was to dismiss it, thinking that he was just being funny or provocative. Later, though, we talked about and he sent me a link to a discussion on Quora: Is the term “transvestite” offensive? After reading that, I changed the title – not to be politically correct, but to be respectful. I kept the word in the quoted story because it’s taken directly from another source and was also written several years ago.

HT to my son for looking out for me – and for educating me.

Lessons from self-publishing a book

John Stepper_Cover

There’s something special about holding a physical book in your hands. The feeling is even more special when it’s your book. It gives the ideas more weight somehow (no pun intended, honest). The contents weren’t just written, they were published.

Well, now it’s easier than ever for you to publish your own work, whether it’s the next great novel or just stories from your life for your kids to read.

Earlier this year, I self-published Working Out Loud. By sharing what I learned in the process, I hope to encourage you to publish too.

Working Out Loud on Amazon

The trade-offs

The benefits of using a traditional publisher are that you get more services: editing, design, marketing. But those things come with a cost. Because the publisher is providing those services, you tend to have little or no control over them. They’ll cost you in terms of reduced royalties too. (Though it’s the rare author who makes money from publishing a book no matter how they do it.)

Also, the value of their services, particularly marketing, has decreased over time. Because publishing margins have gone down, and because the expectations for most authors are low, a publisher won’t spend much on marketing your book beyond offering it in their catalog to wholesalers. As for the other services, it’s easier than ever to find good copyeditors and designers.

Perhaps the biggest cost is a mental one: you have to be picked. You’ll spend time and emotional energy searching for validation which will be hard to come by, and the vast majority of aspiring authors will never get past the gatekeepers.

Resources to help you self-publish

The best book I’ve found on self-publishing was self-published by a popular and acclaimed author, Guy Kawasaki. Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur is the single best reference guide on the process and the different options. Reading this book can save you a lot of time and help you avoid some grave mistakes.

Author Publisher Entrepreneur

Your First 1000 Copies will help you think about reaching an audience for your book. Without the traditional marketing and distribution channels of a publisher, you’ll need to do something yourself. This book helps you understand what that is and how to do it.

Your First 1000 Copies

Pleasant and unpleasant surprises

While self-publishing necessarily means you’ll be doing work that a publisher would have done otherwise, some context might be helpful. In terms of hours spent, my rough estimate is that 98% of publishing my book was writing and 2% was publishing. So while publishing is important, those percentages make it clear where you should focus most of your time and energy.

I chose Createspace because it’s owned by Amazon and provides a complete set of services. The editing service was excellent, and they easily customized the cover design I had done elsewhere. They created the Kindle version automatically without any work on my part.

My biggest mistake was related to the interior design of the book. I naively assumed I would just submit a Word document and they would “format it.” But the first proof copy came back with issues ranging from header sizing to spacing to capitalization mistakes. It took me three more months of scrupulously checking every line – and ordering more proof copies and paying more fees – till it looked the way I wanted. I could have avoided that by setting up headers more carefully in Word and providing more detailed instructions for formatting from the beginning.

Createspace has some limitations. They don’t print hardcovers, so if you want one you’ll have to use another service (and distribute it yourself). They also don’t offer the same discounts to bookstores as other publishers (20% instead of 40-50%). If you want a bookstore to carry your book, you’ll have to sell it to them yourself.

All things considered, I will use Createspace again for my next book. (Note the self-affirmation in that last sentence!) The Createspace staff was extremely friendly and helpful, and the entire process cost well under $2,500. On June 10th, after years of working on it, my book was available on Amazon sites around the world as a paperback and ebook.

I remember the thrill of opening up the Amazon app on my phone, searching for “working out loud,” and seeing my book there. Just like all the others.

Choose yourself

Each of us has our own story and our own ideas. Now, more than ever, it’s up to you to decide whether they are worth sharing, whether what you say might help or entertain or inspire someone else.

You don’t have to wait to be picked. You can choose yourself.

The world needs more good stories and good ideas. Why not yours?

“Beginner’s mind” in everyday life

I was at the top of our narrow sloping driveway, sitting on my bike, after my father had just removed my training wheels. I was five, and my older brother was there too.

“Ready?” my father said, and let go. Gravity took over, and I squeezed the handlebars as I went faster, quickly veering too far right until I crashed into the building next door. I lay there stunned, with my ego and my knee badly bruised.

“You didn’t hit the brake!” my brother scolded, and I felt stupid on top of everything else. I vowed not to try again any time soon.

That was one way to begin. Afraid and without proper preparation, I was focused solely on the outcome. I took the failure personally and gave up instead of persisting. It was a mistake I was to repeat.

There are, of course, better ways to approach something new.

Beginner’s mind

A phrase that captures the more positive aspects of a fresh perspective is “beginner’s mind” (or Shoshin 初心), a concept in Zen Buddhism.

“It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.”

I had seen the phrase before, but it was only as I began learning to play the piano recently that I could appreciate the meaning

Playing with two hands

I approached learning the piano differently from learning to ride a bike. I was without fear of judgment and without expectation. In my second lesson this past week, my teacher showed me a version of “Ode to Joy” that required playing with two hands.

“Are you crazy?” I joked. “This is only the second lesson!”

In my head, the coordination required for playing with two hands was beyond me. But despite my trepidation at taking the next step, my teacher guided me and I got it after a few attempts. My playing was lacking grace and tempo, and was filled with mistakes, but I knew that practice would be my ally. I smiled with the fulfillment that comes with getting better at something.

Biking to work

The next morning, I practiced playing with two hands before work and could see more improvement. Alone in the apartment, I even applauded myself after a minor breakthrough.

I was experiencing the “openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions” of beginner’s mind.

It was while I was biking to work shortly after practice that I remembered the story of my first attempt to ride on two wheels. I also remembered the freedom I felt when I eventually did learn to ride. The feel of independence, the feel of the wind.

I pedaled slowly along the Hudson River. I paid attention to the breeze and the smell of the water, and to the shapes of the clouds. To the tourists strolling and consulting maps in different languages. I nodded good morning to the Statue of Liberty.

Beginner’s mind, I thought, doesn’t just apply to “studying a subject.” It can apply to each and every day.

Beginner's mind on the way to work

Learning to play piano at 51 years old

Ode to Joy

After decades of wanting to learn to play the piano, I finally took a step this past Tuesday and had my first lesson.

I’m glad I waited.

My earlier attempts at learning

When it comes to learning new things, I’m eager to read books and do research. But other kinds of learning can bring out the worst in me.

More than 15 years ago, for example, I wanted to learn to play golf. I bought expensive clubs, went to the driving range to practice, played a lot, and even signed up for a few lessons.

I was terrible. For years.

The worst part, though, was that I couldn’t accept being terrible. I wanted to be good! Being terrible was humiliating and made me miserable. I reacted by trying harder, getting angry, breaking a few clubs, and making my embarrassment that much worse in the process.

With all the joy drained from the game, I lost interest, sold my equipment and decided I just wasn’t cut out for golf.

Older dog. New tricks.

In thinking about piano, I was conscious of the childish boy inside of me, the one so quick to be ashamed when he’s not good at something, ready to throw a tantrum and give up when he doesn’t make progress quickly enough.

But in the past few years, tired of routinely being frustrated and angry, I’ve tried a range of experiments in personal development, and some things have changed since my golfing days.

How to learn anything

Understanding what it takes to learn came from my research on changing habits at work and spreading the practice of working out loud. I saw that the most effective approach is taking small steps, practiced over time, with feedback and peer support. (“Guided mastery” is a good phrase.) And I saw how that approach can apply to anything.

So as a reward to myself for publishing the book, I decided to take a step. Instead of just reading about the piano and banging on the keys myself, I asked my daughter’s piano teacher if I could start lessons too. She’s a wonderful teacher, caring and positive and enthusiastic, as well as an incredibly talented pianist and composer. But she usually teaches children.

“Are you serious?” she asked. “I’m ready,” I said.

A miracle on the 23rd floor

And there I was, with mild trepidation, sitting down at the piano, with my daughter right there watching me. My teacher showed me where to place my fingers. “This is middle C.” We took small steps, and she provided encouragement along the way while  helping me make occasional adjustments.

By the end of the lesson, I was playing a simple version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” I couldn’t believe this was me. The music. The calm. The deep sense of fulfillment after wanting for so long and finally – finally! – taking that first step.

The next day, alone in a quiet apartment, I turned on the piano, sat down, and practiced. Even when I made mistakes, I smiled, and I thought, This is going to be fun.

Ode to Joy