Archive for October, 2007

GeekNotes: Remote Collaboration from a Home Office

TinCanMenToday, a colleague in private practice asked a very timely question about collaborating from a home office:

My partner and I are looking at expanding our telephone coaching practice and would like to find some screen sharing and collaboration tools…. What are you using these days to coach / consult at a distance?

More and more, our globe-spanning customers need to collaborate from a residence or on the road. They do so to be more productive, to support balance between life and work, to access new markets, and to reduce the number of climate-heating airline flights they are responsible for. While collaboration tools have advanced and become more reliable, some of the basic services – voice, cellphone and Internet connections – are not. Further, today’s executives face many of these IT challenges on their own.

This summer we have conducted remote meetings with clients and colleagues who were participating from their offices and homes in Brazil, France, Switzerland, Canada and the US. We have hosted meetings from our own home office, in hotels, airport lounges and coffee shops, and on occasion, stuck in a rental car. In almost all cases, at least one attendee was relying on residential-grade broadband, Voice over IP (VoIP) or “found” WIFI access, and a few key tools.

If you plan to RELY on remote collaboration, it will take a bit more than the typical home network, but it can be done. Here are some observations about what works for us, in our home office or on the road, when conducting remote business meetings:

Make sure your voice connection is bombproof (or have a plan B)

VoIP. Cellular Phones. Skype. Compared to the Plain Old Telephone System (POTS lines), the new tools of voice communication can be, well, moody. Yes, you can save a bundle. Yes, you have many more features. Yes, you can make phone calls from far-off places. No, you cannot count on them. So what do you do?

  • Use a high-quality telephone conference bridge. If all your other technology fails, as long as the voice bridge is up, and you circulated documents ahead of time, the meeting will continue.
  • Look for an unlimited monthly plan, with optional per-minute fees for toll-free callers. Don’t over- or under-pay, and see if you can find one that complements your screen-sharing meeting application. Dedicated conference bridges, with live operators and per-minute, per-caller charges for access are very reliable, but in my opinion, overpriced – especially for their toll-free options. Now that almost all business users have mobile phones and near-unlimited long distance calling plans in their region, toll-free numbers are of most use to the traveler dialing from a hotel phone.
  • Free bridges make you pay. On the other end of the spectrum, there are now many free conference bridges that are simply awful, in my experience. Skype, Gatherplace and GoToMeeting all bundle a version of freeconferencecall.com as bridges in with their entry-level offering. Meaning no disrespect, I have never had an incident-free meeting with them.
  • When we are providing the bridge, we use either RingCentral Digital Office for three-way meetings, or for larger ones, WebEx Meeting Center or GatherPlace Premium. All offer either 10,000 minutes or unlimited calling as part of their package for about $40 / month / concurrent meeting.

Consider TWO broadband connections at home – NOT overkill

Our home town, Columbus, Ohio, was an early market for Time Warner’s broadband over Cable. As a result, we saw how a cable system ages in a neighborhood, and it isn’t pretty. In fact, over the past 10 years, we’ve seen both Cable and DSL broadband suffer significant disruptions. In 2007, for instance, our business-class cable service was unreliable for 6 months. It was JUST fixed, when our DSL line quit for a week. So there are two reasons to have BOTH a Cable and an alternate connection in your house:

  1. When (not if) one service goes down, you can switch to the other.
  2. Video, screen-sharing and file downloads can interfere with Voice over IP (VoIP) – and remember, we need a bombproof voice connection.

Your alternatives are increasing, and in the U.S. include DSL, Fiber-Optic and Cellular Router. Satellite connections are not a good option for voice connections because of the lag.

  • Isolate VoIP from other services. We have chosen RingCentral Digital Office VoIP service because it sounds good, and has great long distance plans. Still, we put the adapter on its own broadband connection. We put all other computers, video and screen-sharing on our other cablemodem connection.
  • Competing for bandwidth. If you have teens or power users, you have yet another reason: iTunes video downloads and bit torrents. Download a whole season of a show at once – a 2 to 5 Gigabyte package – and you trash your remote meeting in the process. (Remember when kids just wanted a car? Now they need their own cable modem! Sigh.)
  • Tip: Let the VoIP adapter control your bandwidth. If you use a VoIP adapter, look for instructions to hook the VoIP adapter up  BEFORE your home router, like this:
    [Cable or DSL Modem] <–> [VoIP Adapter] <– >[Router] <–> [Computers]

If you are the outsider, use the tools the client uses

Since we are the “outsiders” in our clients’ worlds, we must use what they do. That means I can be contacted through (big breath):  AOL, MSN, Yahoo, Google, Skype, SMS, ICQ, Jabber, E-Mail, Facebook, Linked-In, Myspace, Cellular Phone, Telephone and Fax, and work with you using PPTP, IPSEC and Cisco VPN, Polycom, WebEx, GoToMeeting, Acrobat Connect, GatherPlace, Xerox Docushare, eRooms, Basecamp, several flavors of Microsoft’s collaboration tools (they really should stop re-branding the stuff!)  and some more I can’t recall just at the moment.

This is a drag. Someone, hurry up and unify this stuff so we all can use whatever client we wish and not have to know (or pay for!) all these nearly-almost-but-not-quite-the-same services designed to lock us in.

The reality is that established corporations have policies about what they will and will not allow on their networks. They also choose by the reliability of the products, and these days, that means the service provider has invested intensively in a global network of servers in the hope that all participants get uninterrupted connection.

  • My top enterprise-grade screen-sharing and presentation choices: WebEx (now owned by Cisco Systems) or GoToMeeting (from Citrix.com – a really smart company).
  • Some of my colleagues speak highly of Microsoft LiveMeeting, but I don’t see a way for small businesses and workgroups to affordably adopt it, in comparison to the competition.
  • I can’t recommend Adobe Acrobat Connect. Some may love it, but for me, it has frustrated and disappointed too often.

If you are the host, use what is compatible with your client’s platform – and screen size!

Being a good host means making your participants change as little about their computing environment as possible. Macs are now experiencing double-digit market growth, and are making ground in corporations. Linux is much more uncommon as a desktop, but it is out there. I don’t know anyone currently screen-sharing on their phone’s browser, but the technology exists, and I BET it might be possible on Apple’s iPhone. Bottom line: If any of your customers use another platform, then choose a solution that works for them, too.

  • Know your roles. Each application may have a slightly different label, but the roles are:
    • Host – you set up the meeting;
    • Presenter – you display your screen;
    • Participant – you view a Presenter’s screen.
  • Not everyone needs to host or present. Many tools allow you to pass the role of presenter around, but NOT for all platforms. If your customers will ONLY watch YOUR screen, it is enough that the solution offer them a “Participant” – often a simple Java client in a web browser.That said, when Ann and I collaborate with clients, we often reverse roles and have them work on their own files while we observe their screen. For our practice, we insist the solutions we use include cross-platform Presenter as an option. Webex and GatherPlace work well, offering Mac and Linux Host, Presenter and Participant. GoToMeeting works with Windows, and mostly with the Mac. Here’s a great comparison chart at GatherPlace.net. (Disclosure: We are in the referral program for GatherPlace.)
  • CinemaDisplay3sizesTip: Be aware of your screen size when presenting. That new 2560 x x1600 monitor looks drop-dead gorgeous on your desk, but when you go to present that report with WebEx, you run into a problem: Your participants (those with smaller monitors) might only see the top-left corner of the document, or get seasick scrolling around to see the whole of the presentation. And remember that guy on the iPhone? 480×320? Fahgeddaboutit!!! Screen-sharing software has a ‘fit-to-window’ function, but it might be better for you to reduce your monitor’s resolution for a more consistent experience. (Photo Credit – Apple, Inc.)
  • Tip: Watch your own presentation. At times, Ann and I will connect to our own meeting with a second computer or via our iPhone / iPad just so we can have immediate feedback about our participant’s experience, and catch a stalled session before the participants even have a chance to notice.

Mix and Match for your needs and your budget

  • Don’t buy more seats than you need. You can often add additional seats online, instantly, on the rare occasion you need them. For instance, we rarely have more than 5 computers in a meeting, even when we have 15 or 20 attendees – most people share a single connection in a board room.
  • If you will need to conduct more than one meeting at the same time, buy concurrent meeting rooms. Ann and I cover this by having one meeting room with WebEx, and one with GatherPlace, but we could easily and affordably add a room to either service.
  • In order of affordability (one year of operation):
    • Gatherplace.net (Choose Premium for Screen Sharing and decent Telephone Bridge)
    • GoToMeeting.com (Great screen sharing; weaker cross-platform support.)
    • WebEx. Screen-sharing is great. Get their Bundled Teleconferencing or you will end up with a surprisingly large bill.

Audio: How you sound is even MORE important in a remote meeting

Radio personalities and podcasters count upon the right microphone and studio environment to create a more intimate, right-there experience for the listener. Indie film producers also know that great audio can make weak video ‘look’ better. With a little care, you can increase both clarity and impact of what you say in remote meetings.

  • Record yourself. Few go to the trouble of recording how they sound on their cellphone, bluetooth headset or computer microphone. At the very least, call and leave a voicemail on your own office system (not a cellphone).
  • Get a decent phone. Some 2.4 GHz cordless phones interfere with your WIFI connection (try 5.8 GHz or DECT 6.0 models). Some phones interact poorly with VoIP and cheap conference bridges and trash your voice. Some phones just sound bad. We use Uniden cordless phones at present, and like them.
  • Get a headset with a noise-canceling microphone. Plantronics, HelloDirect, Sennheiser and Logitech all make decent noise-canceling headsets for any common device or phone. I frequently get positive comments about voice quality when I’m using my Andrea headset, which was designed for voice recognition software.
  • Bluetooth headsets and speakerphones usually suck. If you are NOT in the main conference room, avoid speakerphones if at all possible. If you must, ClearOne makes decent portable speakerphones for your computer. Likewise, Bluetooth headsets are a work in progress. Ann has gone through many supposedly top-of-the-line Bluetooth devices. I own one of the best noise canceling headsets currently on the market – the Aliph Jawbone. I can talk in normal tones 6 feet from a running lawnmower, yet Ann can’t stand the tinny, digitized sound when I’m in a quiet room. There you go.
  • Just say no to background noise. Background noise is a double-whammy – you sound bad in the meeting, and you end up SHOUTING WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE TO. Stuck in a noisy location? Use the MUTE button on your phone to give relief to the other participants until you need to speak (from the background noise, that is!). If it is comfortable enough, consider sitting in your parked car – a virtual sound booth on wheels!
  • Get your nose out of the mic! Okay, everyone knows what I’m talking about – the rumbling downdraft we hear when you exhale through your nose or mouth onto your microphone. Position your mic at the corner of your mouth, out of the ‘wind’!

Video: I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille…

I like video in my remote meetings. I think it adds an important element of presence, and a dimension of communication that minimizes misunderstanding. However, it can make things MUCH more complex.

  • Start small. If you plan to experiment with video, Skype video is very good, easy, and free. Apple has built FaceTime into every iPhone 4 for video chat over WiFi. Logitech provides decent external webcams. Pay a little more for their high-end models to get better optics. All recent Apple computers have excellent little webcams built in. WebEx offers good presenter video, and now offers a panel of up to 6 locations at the same time in even their basic product. Most of the instant messaging services offer video, but they can be a pain to configure. Polycom provides GREAT multipoint videoconferencing, but suffers from even more demanding network and firewall setup requirements.
  • Set the stage. Most workspaces are designed to light your work, and not you, so out of the box, most people look ghastly, if the face can be seen at all. (Think: videos of informants on a current events expose…) A professional who chooses to use video often should really re-think their office, furniture, lighting, wardrobe and background so they can send a presentable image. A doorway or a window in the camera’s line of sight can alternatively distract and blow out the image. New video software offers the option to put in virtual backdrops, but again, this requires even more control of lighting and camera vibration. Or, you can get a pop-up backdrop, as seen here. For an EXCELLENT, accessible introduction to making your cheapo-webcam look great, visit this article at Strobist. (Photo Credit: David – strobist.blogspot.com)
  • Stay tuned for TelePresence. You like Skype Video? Have between US $50,000 and $500,000 to invest per location? (I wish I were kidding…) Check out the latest telepresence suites from Cisco, HP and Polycom. For somewhat less ($5,000), the Polycom CX5000 works with Microsoft Live Meeting or Office Communications Server for a panoramic 360° view of the room and its participants, with auto-switching close-ups to the current speaker.

Bringing it all home

So yes, it is possible to achieve great remote collaboration on a budget, but it requires a whole new suite of products, services, choices, skills and sensitivities. Start with the premise of a bombproof voice connection and reliable telephone bridge. Add redundant Internet service, then select a remote collaboration tool compatible with your colleague’s environment, and with a reputation for reliability. Tune up your audio quality, and add properly-lit video when all else is solid.

Hard work? Sure it is. But when it all comes together, we’ll be more productive, form better remote relationships, and hopefully do it with fewer carbon-spewing airline flights! See you online…

Updated extensively 2010-10-19 – GKR

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A 60 mpg Hummer with double the horsepower and very low emissions??? What about a 'green' Boeing 747 Jet?

FC120Cover100mpg“Johnathan Goodwin can get 100 mpg out of a Lincoln Continental, cut emissions by 80%, and double the horsepower. Does the car business have the guts to follow him?”

So starts Motorhead Messiah, this month’s cover story at FastCompany.com.

Goodwin is getting incredible, real-world improvements in fuel economy, horsepower and reduced emissions by combining diesel, electric and flexible fuel technology, mostly with stock components already in production. What’s more, his company, SAE Energy, is working to deploy this technology for vehicle fleets.

What really caught my attention was a discussion of  infusing hydrogen or natural gas into biodiesel for some radical improvements in fuel economy and emissions:

While researching alternative fuels, [Goodwin] learned about the work of Uli Kruger, a German who has spent decades in Australia exploring techniques for blending fuels that normally don’t mix. One of Kruger’s systems induces hydrogen into the air intake of a diesel engine, producing a cascade of emissions-reducing and mileage-boosting effects. The hydrogen, ignited by the diesel combustion, burns extremely clean, producing only water as a by-product. It also displaces up to 50% of the diesel needed to fuel the car, effectively doubling the diesel’s mileage and cutting emissions by at least half. Better yet, the water produced from the hydrogen combustion cools down the engine, so the diesel combustion generates fewer particulates–and thus fewer nitrogen-oxide emissions.

“It’s really a fantastic chain reaction, all these good things happening at once,” Kruger tells me. He has also successfully introduced natural gas–a ubiquitous and generally cheap fuel–into a diesel-burning engine, which likewise doubles the mileage while slashing emissions. In another system, he uses heat from the diesel engine to vaporize ethanol to the point where it can be injected into the diesel combustion chambers as a booster, with similar emissions-cutting effects.

Goodwin began building on Kruger’s model. In 2005, he set to work adapting his own H1 Hummer to burn a combination of hydrogen and biodiesel. He installed a Duramax [GM's stock large truck diesel engine] in the Hummer and plopped a carbon-fiber tank of supercompressed hydrogen into the bed. The results were impressive: A single tank of hydrogen lasted for 700 miles and cut the diesel consumption in half. It also doubled the horsepower. “It reduces your carbon footprint by a huge, huge amount, but you still get all the power of the Duramax,” he says, slapping the H1 on the quarter panel. “And you can feed it hydrogen, diesel, biodiesel, corn oil–pretty much anything but water.”

The implications are huge. I sure hope the major auto manufacturers push this technology to the mainstream, pronto. Until then, if you own a large vehicle fleet, think about converting it, yourself and financing the project with fuel savings and carbon offset credits (the good kind, where you actually reduce emissions!). As you’ll read, DHL is considering just that.

In related news, researchers at Princeton University (partnered with other institutions),  aim to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of jet engines used in aviation.  This avenue of research is critical, as aviation is responsible for roughly 2.7 percent of the US’s total greenhouse gas emissions (source: U.S. DOT) Whereas many airlines are making excellent procedural changes (i.e. the EU’s EasyJet.com), these research projects actually seek to a) model the reaction within the jet engine, and b) reformulate jet fuel, itself.

Kudos to the US Air Force and NetJets for funding this vital research.

What is your organization’s climate change strategy?

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Taking Strategic Daily Action

BinocularSaltFlatsJoe, the executive, (not his real name) confided in me: “A year since I started, and I’ve been assimilated. I’m now part of the problem I was hired to solve.”

His plight – dealing with an almost overwhelming amount of operational detail, while trying at the same time to effect strategic change – is not unique. Even when executives know they need to keep their eye on the business goals one to three years out, they struggle to connect their priorities this quarter, this month, this week, and today, to the long-term goal.

Once we have helped the organization develop a sound business strategy and goal, our role changes to one of implementation coach. Now, Joe, an experienced executive, really does know what to do. Our role as a a thought partner is to help interrupt the immediate demands on him. We instituted a brief  Shape of the Week meeting every Friday.  Conducted using Skype video and screen-sharing, the goal of the meeting is to help Joe review and sequence the key priorities to act upon in the upcoming week to best build momentum toward the three-year business goal.

Example topics of discussion:

  • Capacity for Accelerated Growth – of the people you need to bring on board in order to fuel growth, in what sequence should you hire to both produce cashflow, this quarter, and momentum, long-term? Are you hiring builders and not maintainers where your strategy calls for new growth or significant change? (see our post Oct 29, 2004 for more…)
  • Management Capacity – What changes in your managers will increase their capacity to manage, and thus, give you more capacity? How effectively do they mentor to grow productivity in their own people?
  • Critical Decisions – What decisions about the next quarter and the next year need to be made, now, so that they do not become crises when the moment of action arrives? (With Digital Decision-Making, effective decisions can be made well in advance of the point of action.)
  • Emerging Market Trends and Discontinuities – What is your future scan turning up? What is your Plan ‘B’ for trends and potential disrupts to either your industry or your business model?
  • Culling for Growth – If your strategy calls for a change in the future, what should you stop doing? Why? When? How?

My broad recommendation for leaders and executives is to create your own planning discipline – a breathing space, a thought partner, a walk in the park – for getting above the daily demands and making the upcoming week count in the journey to your strategic goal.

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Harvard Business Review: Climate Business | Business Climate

HBRcoverOct07This article, at HBR’s website, is an excellent starting point for re-thinking the impact of climate change and carbon legislation on your business. From the editors:

In this month’s Forethought, we’ve invited leading thinkers from business and academia to help our readers address climate issues by framing strategy, strengthening security, shaping policy, protecting reputation, and engaging customers, employees, and markets. This special section provides a hard-nosed look at a tough new environment. There will be winners and losers. Companies that get their strategy right will find vast opportunities to both profit and create social good on a global scale.

- Reprint: F0710A

How will you change your strategy in light of both changes in climate across your supply chain, and changes in regulation and reporting of the carbon footprint of your products and services?

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Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?

While Sir Ken’s talk is fun, clever and thought-provoking (view it, here), it is the tip of the iceberg. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. Launched in 1984, this annual conference now brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).

If your business counts on predicting the future, hunt around TED.com whenever you want an invigorating jolt of future shock!

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Our next Managerial Moment of Truth workshop is November 8, 2007

Tower-VerticalIn a nutshell, The Managerial Moment of Truth (MMOT) is a book and workshop for managers and leaders who face tough, candid conversations with colleagues, suppliers and employees, but don’t have the tools to increase the odds of productive, win-win outcomes.

“Bold, important, groundbreaking. This is the most important book you’ll read as a business manager and coach. You’ll learn a powerful and simple four-step method to shift your organizational culture to one of truth telling and empowerment. Your employees will thank you and your customers will thank them.”

– Patricia Seybold, author of Customers.com and The Customer Revolution

We were delighted to hear that IBM China trained their HR professionals in the MMOT for application in their executive fast-track program. This truly is an essential tool for effective management.

New in this class: We have included an hour of personal coaching post-course. You can plan for upcoming “moments of truth” in the class, prebrief with one of us, conduct a Managerial Moment of Truth, then debrief the session for even deeper learning.

Ann and I will be offering the workshop at the Dublin Chamber of Commerce here in Columbus, OH. Chamber of Commerce members (any chamber) are elegible for a $40 discount. Graduates are welcome to audit the program at a reduced rate. Space is limited to 20 seats.

To find out more, check out the MMOT blog post, below, and visit our MMOT page on our website, here.

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The Art of the Start

ArtOfTheStartCoverThe Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything

Sure, that’s a bold tag line, but Guy Kawasaki is the one to pull it off. A brilliant thinker and communicator, old dogs (mice?) in the Apple Computer community know Guy as one of the catalysts behind the success of the Apple Macintosh.

There is SO much good stuff in this book that it is hard to know where to start telling you about it. Starting, Positioning, Pitching, Writing a Business Plan, Boostrapping, Recruiting, Raising Capital, Partnering, Branding, Rainmaking… and being a Mensch! (Yiddish for “ethical, decent and honorable person”.)

Did I also mention that it is short, sweet, funny to read, extremely well presented and memorable?

An example: One of the many valuable distinctions Guy makes is between Mission Statements, Tag Lines and what he calls an “Organizational Mantra“.

Nike has many Tag Lines. Perhaps the most famous is: Just Do It. That’s fine for marketing, but it doesn’t help focus internal business decisions.

Nike has a Mission Statement: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. The statement actually includes the asterisk: “*If you have a body, you’re an athlete”. (from the 2007 Annual Report). This is a high-concept and inclusive statement, and is better, but still awkward for decision-making.

Now according to Guy, Nike’s Mantra is “Authentic Athletic Performance“. In Nike, with it’s culture of innovation, I think this is a phenomenally useful tool. Anyone, from the designer to the marketer to the supply chain manager can ask the question: “Will what I’m doing, right now, deliver increased ‘Authentic Athletic Performance’ for our customers when they use our products?” if the answer is ‘No’, they can immediately ask if they should be doing it. That’s the basis of focus.

My question for you: What’s your mantra? (Write or call, and let’s see if we can help you come up with it!)

If you are in charge of starting and growing something significant, in a business startup, a large corporation, or a Rotary Club, you should be reading this gem, and taking heed of far more of its advice than  is normally wise in a business book. This one’s a keeper.

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Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed

GettingToMaybeCover200w260h“WARNING: This book is not for heroes or saints or perfectionists.

This book is for flawed people (and we are all flawed in one way or another) who are not happy with the way things are and would like to make a difference.

This book is for ordinary people who want to make connections that create extraordinary outcomes.”

So reads the first inside page of this refreshing, accessible and thought-provoking guide for those involved in social change, from social innovators and philanthropists to policy-makers and leaders of socially-conscious corporations. Written by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman & Michael Quinn Patton and published by Random House Canada, Getting to Maybe: how the world is changed is out to do just that, one reader at a time.

What it’s all about

The burning issue that Getting to Maybe addresses is that too many attempts to improve our society, lead by social innovators, usually working in not-for-profit structures and funded by philanthropy, business and government, fail because well-meaning people set out to address symptoms without understanding the behaviour of the larger system. This book introduces a “systems approach” for making change. It does this by focusing on the work of social innovators and the stages they characteristically go through in trying to right a social wrong. Other key players, such as philanthropists, politicians and business leaders, are invited into the narrative to re-think their approaches to social innovation, where appropriate.

Simple and complicated vs. complex

The authors make the point early on that not all problems are the same, and that different classes of problems require different approaches if the social innovator is to have a hope of effecting lasting change.

The three classes of problems are:

  • simple (baking a cake – quite easily replicable);

  • complicated (putting a man on the moon – very tricky, but the more you do it, the better you get);

  • complex (raising a child – just because you successfully raised the first does not mean the same approach will work with the next. It is interactive and ever-changing.)

“Successful social innovation combines all three problems – simple, complicated and complex – but the least understood is the complex. And yet complexity is the most fundamental level when we try to understand how social innovations occur.

Single individuals, single actions and single organizations all play a part, but it is the subtle rules of engagement, between and among the elements, that is the force that seems to give initiatives a life of their own. In other words, complex systems comprise relationships.” – p. 10

They go on to point out the disasters that can occur when complex issues are managed as if merely complicated or even simple, such as with a pharmaceutical approach to mental illness, which ignores the fact that many of the patients are too ill to follow the drug regimens designed to cure them.

Successful social innovators, then, are the ones who can widen their view and study patterns of behaviour in a system, looking for relationship between the elements. They must be prepared for the fact that, as they attempt changes to a system, unpredictable new behaviours and insights will probably emerge that will require them – the innovators themselves - to learn and change as well, in order to advance.

Many case studies are woven throughout the book. Included are new perspectives on widely recognized stories such as Band Aid and Live Aid, celebrity-filled fundraising rock concerts which raised over 60 million pounds in the aftermaths of famine in Ethiopia, and genocide in Rwanda. Less well-known are stories about Brazil’s successful fight against AIDS/HIV, Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy program to eliminate bullying in schools, and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, which provides microloans to groups of impoverished people so they can become self-sufficient. (The Grameen’s founder, Mohamed Yunus, won the 2005 Nobel Prize for his micro-credit approach to alleviating poverty.)

This book traces its roots to 1999, when Dupont Canada was developing its corporate citizenship strategy. Accustomed in their business to taking large innovative leaps, they took up a bold suggestion from consultant, Eric Young to make social innovation itself their cause of choice – to develop tools and perspectives for radical innovation linked to an approach that studies the whole system that gives rise to the problem. Called the Social Innovation Enterprise, the venture spawned Opportunities 2000 (one of the book’s case studies), and in 2002, the McGill-Dupont Social Innovation Think Tank. Getting to Maybe is an outgrowth of the Think Tank’s discussions.

A beautifully-crafted structure

This book does a far better job than most books of its kind in delivering the content because of its structure. From the words and images on the cover, through the design and content of the foreword and body, to the useful notes and index inside the back cover, nothing appears to be without purpose.

Each chapter begins with a quote, poem or passage that beautifully teases out the chapter’s theme. Researching and finding these beautiful and fitting passages is impressive in itself. A few authors, such as Yeats, I recognized, but most were delightfully new to me, and all of the passages caused me to reflect for a moment. Then, the chapter took me quickly to clear, well-told stories that illustrate the key points, ending with tactful but clear how-to principles, in narrative and bullet form, for its various audiences.

Exploring the thinking behind the book.

There are other books on systems thinking, such as Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, which are more sophisticated than this one. Getting to Maybe is pitched at practitioners rather than academics, concentrating on the various stages that social innovators commonly go through in their work.

The chapter on relating to those who hold the money or power in the system to be changed – “Powerful Strangers” – is a very important one. Too often, social innovators do not take the time to understand the powerful person’s motivations (and perhaps, their humanity), the motivations of their funders, whether in government, corporations or private foundations, and what they must do to be credible in the eyes of those funders. They often fail to frame their cause in language that is relevant to the funder’s concerns and goals.

I would also underscore the importance the book places on more effective ways for those who fund social innovation to evaluate success and failure of initiatives to penetrate truly complex issues, especially in the early stages.

“Evaluation, almost always scary, has become a major barrier to social innovation. Premature and sceptical demands for accountability can shut down social innovations just as they’re starting to take off.” – p. 51

So the social innovator, resources already stretched, finds ways to comply with reporting requirements, rather than transparently revealing early failures, even if the lessons learned might lead to future success. The book suggests that developmental evaluation – an approach involving more collaboration and co-exploration – is far more effective, supportive and informative for both the innovator and the funding party.

While the case studies in the book were all apt examples of systems (many elements and forces in play), some did not appear complex, in the ways predicting weather or parenting children are complex. This book is intended as an introduction to systems thinking, and so this is appropriate. Disciplines such as systems thinking and structural dynamics work well in domains where the patterns are knowable, even though cause and effect are separated in space and time. They are not, however, the best tools in the face of true complexity.

The good news is that truly complex issues are not quite as prevalent as the popular business books (Getting to Maybe included) would have us believe. Just as there is a danger in mis-classifying a complex problem as simple, so too, is there a risk of calling something complex that is not – one ends up using the wrong tools for the job. For a more detailed (but still very readable) article on these important distinctions, I would suggest The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world, by C. F. Kurtz and D. J. Snowden. It is free, online from the IBM Systems Journal. (http://www.research.ibm.com/journal/sj/423/kurtz.html)

Living a paradox?

I think the authors unnecessarily mystified and muddied up how the creative process works to orchestrate sustained change, and how structural conflict keeps things as they are. The authors open on the right track when, on page 24, they explain their choice and use of the word, ‘maybe’:

“MAY – possibility, what might be, the essence of intentionality as a vision of what could happen, if only…

BE – state of being, the way things are, presence, reality…”

‘MAY’ is the intended vision, in the future. ‘BE’ is current reality, now. The tension they describe between the two elements is the same dynamic described as creative tension in The Fifth Discipline.

They then describe leaders who focus both on the vision and current reality as “living a paradox”. In delving into the endnotes, it becomes clear that many innovators interviewed might have described it as such, although I contend it is simply a conflict between seeing reality for what it is so one can learn from it, vs. hiding reality to minimize the risk of losing funding over a perceived failure of a program.

It is very important to help the social innovator reframe this concept. At any point in time, a social innovator can become more effective by simultaneously picturing their future vision, comparing it to the relevant current reality, and studying the discrepancy. There is no paradox here – simply a basic, critical skill in the creative process, and in learning.

To augment the valuable approach presented in Getting to Maybe, I would recommend that readers refer to the work of Robert Fritz to learn more about structural dynamics and the creative process. Fritz’s concept of creative tension is introduced in The Fifth Discipline, but I would direct those interested in organizational and systemic change to his book, The Path of Least Resistance for Managers (1999 Berrett-Koehler Publications, ISBN: 1576750655).

Get it. Read it. Change the world.

This book will undoubtedly help social innovators, socially-conscious corporations and philanthropists in their missions. The authors are to be commended for investing in our collective future in this way.

© 2007 Gary Ralston

About the author

Gary Ralston is a partner and business consultant at Ralston Consulting Inc., with corporate and non-profit clients across North America. Originally from Vancouver, BC, he now lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and business partner, Ann. Gary would like to thank Bronwyn Drainie, Troy Angrignon and Charles Holmes for their contributions to this review.

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