2015 – Full of things…


Wind over fresh snowfall yields¬†a field full of ¬†‘snow logs’.

photo: Ann Ralston
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Thursday, January 1st, 2015 Article Archive, Main Page, Photos Comments Off on 2015 – Full of things…

Thawing to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Ann Ralston taking the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, 2014-08-20Until last night, I watched the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (#alsicebucketchallenge)¬†with mild¬†interest and curiosity. What would inspire people to dump a bucket of¬†ice water on themselves, or stand still while others dumped it on them? Wouldn’t the normal response to be to RUN AWAY?

I watched a few YouTube videos and Facebook postings of people dousing themselves with ice-water, and sat up a little more when top tennis players, including¬†Novak Djokovic¬†and Roger Federer, were challenged.¬†I thought it was great that athletes, business moguls and past presidents, and even my awesome nephew, Alex, were making a positive statement about ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

I was interested in the implications for the disease and research, given this massive infusion of funding, and how the organization could continue to be successful with this radical change. I wondered how we could create something so simple and so viral for causes and organizations that we support.  I was interested in all this in an intellectual kind of way.

Two things happened to changed my involvement.

It became emotional.

Then it became personal.

First, I heard an interview on NPR, which aired August 20, 2014. They of course mentioned the funds raised Р$31.5 million from July 29-August 20, 2014. They contrasted that with about $2 million raised during the same period in 2013, an impressive increase by any standard. 

Now¬†wrap your head around this – by the time I posted this entry,¬†one day later, donations had increased by $10.3 million to $41.8 million. That’s a 33% increase in 24 hours.¬†That’s¬†viral. [Update: $53.3 million as of 2014-08-22; $88.5 million as of 2014-08-26 ]

But what¬†really¬†struck me was the description of the illness that “essentially traps someone in a glass coffin. You can think, but you can’t move. You can’t speak. And that happens so rapidly, over the course of a couple of years.‚ÄĚ ¬†I reflected how much of¬†my¬†life is movement. From working on my computer, to my recent participation in a triathlon, I¬†move!

The second thing that happened was a challenge thrown down by MaryAnne, a longtime friend and former colleague from Riverside Methodist Hosptial.  Her challenge was in memory of a mutual friend and former Riverside colleague, Elliot, who died of ALS.

Elliot was a role model for me as I travelled through a divorce. He demonstrated the possibility of taking apart a relationship in a way that served the kids long-term, and preserved the dignity of the parents. He modeled that people could co-parent, stay civil, and in fact, be friends. That kind of post-divorce relationship, healthy and healing, was what I hoped for (and that we subsequently created!)

I was struck by the thought of Elliot, a bright, caring and vital person, in that glass coffin.

So I picked up a bucket of ice water…

YouTube Preview Image

My hope is that through my actions, and through this post, I’ve added my voice and contribution to increase awareness of and funding for research for ways to treat, and ultimately cure, ALS.

If you are inspired to donate, or want more information on ALS or the #IceBucketChallenge, go to www.alsa.org.

‚Äď Ann¬†Ralston
© 2014 Ralston Consulting Inc.

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Thursday, August 21st, 2014 Article Archive, Corporate Social Responsibility, Main Page, Marketing, Values Comments Off on Thawing to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Did Weird “Al” write YOUR Mission Statement?


FAST FACTS: biggest-selling comedy recording artist in history – over 12 million albums. Estimated net worth – $16 million

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Is this new music video a comedy¬†or a tragic cautionary tale to corporate leaders, strategists and consultants?

Music parody master, Weird “Al” Yankovic, has loosed¬†his incisive wit on¬†corporate-buzz-speak, in a video from his just-released¬†album, Mandatory Fun.

Mission Statement, is composed in the style of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, playing against an RSA-like whiteboard animation (which apparently took 10 months to produce!). The production quality is brilliant, and I found myself smiling and wincing in equal parts.

WARNING: This video is NOT recommended for anyone who has written a mission statement in the past decade. Showing this to your CEO or board chair may shorten your career.

But seriously, Ann and I¬†are not¬†fans of mission and purpose statements, even though we’ve had a hand in creating more than one in our day.

Our friend, colleague and mentor, Robert Fritz, writes:

“Which would we rather work for, a company that had a purpose statement but didn‚Äôt have a purpose, or a company that had a purpose but didn‚Äôt have a purpose statement?

Of course we would all choose the real thing over the propaganda. But even an organization that has a true purpose can rob that purpose of its power by reducing it to a slogan.” *

So please, enjoy the video, and then commit yourselves to eradicating corporate-buzz-speak wherever you can – we promise to do the same!

‚Äď Gary Ralston
© 2014 Ralston Consulting Inc.

 A special thanks to Jerry Marselle at our client, SMBH, for turning us on to this gem!

* Fritz, Robert (2011-01-04). The Path of Least Resistance for Managers. Newfane Press. Kindle Edition.

More Weird “Al”:

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Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 Article Archive, Business Advisors, Business Insights, Humor, Main Page Comments Off on Did Weird “Al” write YOUR Mission Statement?

Leadership Lessons from the Craft Beer World!

‘Brewing Up a Business‘ by Sam Calagione, the owner of DogFish Head Brewery, was recommended by one of my sons, so I downloaded the audiobook. He¬†brews his own¬†beer as a hobby, and I thought – at best – I was getting into a book about craft beer¬†counter-culture¬†and start ups.

Brewing up a BusinessWhat I found was a fun, fast listen chock-full of lessons on the leadership required to build and run a successful business:

  • about dedication and belief in what you are creating,
  • of commitment to your people,
  • of how the personality of an individual can shape a culture of¬†innovation.

The company was built on creating innovative (and sometimes bizarre) products – which with craft beer means a combination of distinctive taste and ingredients, an evocative name, and a great story. (Liquid Breadfruit Ale, anyone?).

They maintain a constant awareness (and openness to) ideas that may be the germ of a new offering Рand in some cases, rescue offerings in trouble.  Sales for the then-failing DFH Beer Shampoo Bar only turned around after they discovered that professional dog groomers loved it, and so repositioned it as a pet care product!

I think the thing that most struck me was their connection to and understanding of their customers. We all talk about knowing our customer, but how does that translate to action throughout a company? Calagione sets a great example, and I could see and feel his commitment to this principle, woven through every story he tells.

If you are looking for a down-to-earth¬†and delightfully “off-centered” point of view on leadership, you are in for a great¬†read (or listen!)!


– Ann Ralston

© 2014 Ralston Consulting Inc.

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Tuesday, April 29th, 2014 Article Archive, Book Reviews, Business Insights, Leadership, Main Page Comments Off on Leadership Lessons from the Craft Beer World!

TED Talks: Michael Porter – Why business can be good at solving social problems

Why do we turn to nonprofits, NGOs and governments to solve society’s biggest problems? Michael E. Porter¬†wrote the book on modern competitive strategy for business. Now he is thinking deeply about the intersection between society and corporate interests. While he admits he’s biased, as a business school professor, he has started four not-for-profits, himself. He¬†wants you to hear his case for letting business try to solve massive problems like climate change and access to water.

Why? Because when business solves a problem, it makes a profit — which lets that solution grow.

Can’t view the video? Want to access the interactive transcript? ¬†Click here.

Getting the discussion rolling…

There is much to like in this presentation, and it does a very good job of bridging the terrain that divides social and corporate ventures.

That said, as we reviewed this video, (and in the tradition of Muppet Show hecklers, Statler and Waldorf), Ann and I had a few thoughts:

Would business take on reform of global monetary and financial systems?

Does Porter’s premise that business will resource the solving of¬†society’s biggest problems, out of a profit motive / enlightened self-interest, ¬†scale to all of¬†society’s biggest problems? For instance, why and how would businesses around the world resource a fundamental restructuring of the current global monetary and investment systems?

Many think these systems are fundamentally broken, and at the very least, the systems are reinforcing the wealth divide. So how would that work? Business, by virtue of being able to generate wealth would voluntarily fund a global overhaul of the broken mechanisms of wealth creation and distribution, in cooperation with the worlds’ governments? The same mechanisms that capitalize business growth and fund governments, through taxation? The same governments who rarely agree about matters relating to the global commons – atmosphere, oceans, global warming, nuclear proliferation, etc.?

(I’m picturing the world described in Neal Stephenson’s intense and dark science fiction novel, Snow Crash, in which governments had¬†ceded most of their power to private corporations, organizations, and entrepreneurs operating as nation-states. brrr!)

Will public companies be allowed to move to a longer view of profitability?

On the bright side, Porter gives examples of businesses that are taking a longer view of profitability:

‚ÄúThe deeper work, the new work, the new thinking on the interface between business and social problems is actually showing that there’s a fundamental, deep synergy, particularly if you’re not thinking in the very short run. In the very short run, you can sometimes fool yourself into thinking that there’s fundamentally opposing goals, but in the long run, ultimately, we’re learning in field after field that this is simply not true.‚ÄĚ

Glad to hear it, because the last couple of public multinational corporations we worked with had a VERY difficult time making socially-conscious, longer-term investments. The pressure to meet quarterly projections coming from Wall Street, alone, was devastating, forcing them to give up their long-term aspirations or be punished in the short-term as their stock prices fell. It is ironic that the multinational companies that could do the most good may be least able within the existing system.

What do you think?

Ann and I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts on Porter’s video. If you feel moved to contribute to our community’s discussion, we welcome your input on the commentary thread, below.

Thanks for watching!


– Ann and Gary Ralston

© 2014 Ralston Consulting Inc.

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Thursday, January 2nd, 2014 Article Archive, Business Insights, Corporate Social Responsibility, Main Page, Social Enterprise, Sustainability, Values Comments Off on TED Talks: Michael Porter – Why business can be good at solving social problems

HBR: The Big Lie of Strategic Planning

‚ÄúAll executives know that strategy is important. But almost all also find it scary, because it forces them to confront a future they can only guess at. Worse, actually choosing a strategy entails making decisions that explicitly cut off possibilities and options.‚ÄĚ

‚Äď Roger L. Martin

For those of you in the business of shaping and steering your ventures, but haven’t come across Roger Martin and his work on strategy, you may be well-served to check it out.¬†Martin is the former dean of the prestigious University of Toronto‚Äôs Rotman School of Management and an adviser to CEOs on strategy, design, innovation, and integrative thinking. He is a coauthor (with A.G. Lafley, CEO of Procter and Gamble) of Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). We’ll have a post on the book, itself, coming up.

This month, Roger Martin’s article,¬†The Big Lie of Strategic Planning, is posted free on HBR’s blog. It touches on common traps leadership fall into as they attempt to develop effective strategy for their organizations, and what to do, instead.

One of the key distinctions Martin makes is that creating a strategy is different – messier, and far less reassuring – than detailed strategic¬†planning. The detailed plan provides the executive with the illusion of control over multiple unknown futures. The downside, as Martin sees it, is that¬†‚Äúplanning typically isn’t explicit about what the organization chooses not to do, and why. It does not question assumptions.‚ÄĚ He continues: ‚ÄúYou need to be uncomfortable and apprehensive: True strategy is about placing bets and making hard choices. The objective is not to eliminate risk but to increase the odds of success.‚ÄĚ

I would qualify that while some of the symptoms described are specific to middle-market and large organizations (smaller ventures rarely have the resources to over-plan to the degree described), the essence of his advice cuts across all sectors and scale of business.

Idea in Brief


HBR-Cover-Jan-Feb-2014-2In an effort to get a handle on strategy, managers spend thousands of hours drawing up detailed plans that project revenue far into the future. These plans may make managers feel good, but all too often they matter very little to performance.


Strategy making is uncomfortable; it’s about taking risks and facing the unknown. Unsurprisingly, managers try to turn it into a comfortable set of activities. But reassurance won’t deliver performance.


Reconcile yourself to feeling uncomfortable, and follow three rules:

Keep it simple. Capture your strategy in a one-pager that addresses where you will play and how you will win.

Don’t look for perfection. Strategy isn’t about finding answers. It’s about placing bets and shortening odds.

Make the logic explicit. Be clear about what must change for you to achieve your strategic goal.

Source: published both in the January-February 2014 edition of Harvard Business Review pp 78-84, and on the HBR blog, here.

– Gary Ralston

© 2014 Ralston Consulting Inc.

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Thursday, January 2nd, 2014 Main Page Comments Off on HBR: The Big Lie of Strategic Planning

to the new year…


photo: Ann Ralston.
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Tuesday, December 31st, 2013 Article Archive, Main Page, Personal Mastery, Photos Comments Off on to the new year…

’twas the Night before Christmas…


We believe this message is bigger than a single faith.

It speaks across cultures and creeds and diverse communities everywhere.

We are filled with gratitude for all of you in our circle – that you are in our lives.

May this fervent wish be realized for you, your family and your caring community.

In warmth and love and peace,

Ann and Gary
December 24, 2013

photo: Ann Ralston.

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Tuesday, December 24th, 2013 Article Archive, Main Page, Values Comments Off on ’twas the Night before Christmas…

Shake Up Your Biases and Preconceptions with a MOOC!

MOOCs are opening more than higher education to the world – they can open the world to you

This fall I participated in my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course – see sidebar). The course, Behavioural Economics in Action 101x, is offered by the prestigious Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, for free. I’m accessing this course through EdX, a¬†non-profit online initiative of 30 of the world’s top universities,¬†created by founding partners Harvard and MIT.¬†Their mission is expand access to the best of higher education for students around the world – and this in part means reducing or eliminating the barrier of cost.

If my class is any indication, EdX has proven its global reach. I was blown away – each pin on the world map below represents one of my over 2100 fellow learners!


Now it’s great that EdX is bringing this course to the world. Absolutely. But early into the course it dawned on me that through this MOOC, EdX had brought the world to me! While I found the course content interesting, I was much more intrigued by the varied points of view from different cultures.

A bit about the course content

What was your BIGGEST class at university?MOOCs are bigger…

A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course Рa relatively new development in the world of online learning that is generating significant buzz, and no small amount of angst about their possible impact on the business model for higher education.

Top universities are offering top-notch interactive courses to large numbers of students at once, taught by excellent faculty, many for free, and some for-credit, at a fraction of the cost of a conventional university course.

In case you are wondering how many students per class is¬†large…¬†according to Wikipedia,¬†‘Udacity’s CS101, with an enrollment of over¬†300,000 students, was¬†the largest MOOC to date.’

Behavioral economics explores, from a psychological point of view, why people sometimes make irrational decisions, and why and how their behavior does not follow the predictions of economic models. Further, these behavioral insights can be used to influence decisions in many ways, from the obvious – drive up consumer spending by offering “bargains” – to the more subtle – lose weight by doing nothing more than taking a picture of everything you consume. Such techniques or strategies, designed to subtly influence decisions toward a given outcome, are commonly referred to as¬†“Nudges”, and there has been much interest in applying such behavioral insights to larger policy and societal issues.

Many of our class discussions (held in web-based discussion forums) focused on social issues, with the intention to explore how to influence or “nudge” behaviors that increase health and overall well-being of people and societies.

Some of our early topics…

  • disrupting the transmission of AIDS in Uganda,
  • quelling noise pollution from overuse of car horns in large cities in India, and
  • shifting a nation’s personal debt and spending / saving patterns.

And the conversations were fascinating! The richness and diversity of views and the insights from different countries, socio-economic backgrounds and fields of study opened a much wider world to me, creating a deeper and more engaging learning experience. There is nothing like discussing a subject with someone from a foreign culture and way of thinking to show up your own assumptions and biases!

If you’ve been missing out on the amazing variety of free, quality education available through MOOCs, and a world of fellow learners, here are a few tips (okay, nudges!) to get you started:

See you in the MOOC-iverse!

– Ann Ralston

© 2013 Ralston Consulting Inc.

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Thursday, December 19th, 2013 Article Archive, Business Insights, Business Models, Corporate Social Responsibility, Main Page, Personal Mastery, Sustainability Comments Off on Shake Up Your Biases and Preconceptions with a MOOC!

“We Aren’t the World” – Required Reading Before Going Global

What do we really know about human behavior and motivation, worldwide?

Sustainable business models and social enterprise models count on our ability to understand why our customers buy and use our products and services. Our most successful clients have developed an uncanny sixth sense ability to know the customer’s motivations better than the customer.

On their home turf.

“Home turf”, for many of our clients, means¬†WEIRD countries. Now before anyone takes offense –¬†WEIRD stands for¬†Western,¬†Educated,¬†Industrialized,¬†Rich, and¬†Democratic. As long as they grow their ventures into other WEIRD markets, that sixth sense about customer motivation can serve them. But go beyond, and it’s a different story (to which our clients with global reach can attest).


Why is this so?  Why do some of our instincts about customer motives in foreign markets turn out to be wrong Рand sometimes waaay wrong??

“We Aren’t the World” is a brilliant article / interview about three researchers at University of British Columbia who, according to author, Ethan Watters, “are shaking the foundations of psychology and economics‚ÄĒand hoping to change the way social scientists think about human behavior and culture.”

Their work has taken them around the world, testing how¬†perceptions, behaviors, and motivations vary by culture. Along the way, they discovered significant biases in the research methods of “…a¬†vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences‚ÄĒparticularly in economics and psychology…”

“As the three continued their work, they noticed something else that was remarkable: again and again one group of people appeared to be particularly unusual when compared to other populations‚ÄĒwith perceptions, behaviors, and motivations that were almost always sliding down one end of the human bell curve.

In the end they titled their paper ‚ÄúThe Weirdest People in the World‚ÄĚ (pdf) By ‚Äúweird‚ÄĚ they meant both unusual and Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others‚ÄĒand even the way we perceive reality‚ÄĒmakes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that ‚ÄúAmerican participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners‚ÄĒoutliers among outliers.‚ÄĚ

Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.”

How could this happen?? (Did you guess: ‘European colonialism and political correctness’?)

“The last generation or two of undergraduates have largely been taught by a cohort of social scientists busily doing penance for the racism and Eurocentrism of their predecessors… “

Decolonizing_Methodologies__CoverI cannot overestimate the importance of developing acute cultural sensitivity when going into regions affected by European colonial expansion, which began in the 15th century and whose impact is felt to this day.

Also, don’t assume you have to cross oceans to find such cultures. I owe a debt of gratitude to my aboriginal clients and friends – members of Coastal First Nations in British Columbia. They helped me through one of the most powerful, disturbing experiences of my career as I learned about the terrible history of abuse of aboriginals in residential schools in Canada.¬†For more information, please visit¬†Canada’s¬†Truth and Reconciliation Commission¬†site.


For any colleagues heading into similar territory, the site above, as well as the book: Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples may help heighten your cultural sensitivity.

To avoid stereotyping, it is rarely stated bluntly just exactly what those culturally derived qualities might be…¬†Economists and psychologists, for their part, did an end run around the issue with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects. A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners‚ÄĒwith nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world‚Äôs population.”

But it gets worse. From the research paper:

“Even within the West, however, the typical sampling method for psychological studies is far from representative. In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the premier journal in social psychology‚ÄĒthe sub‚Äźdiscipline of psychology that should (arguably) be the most attentive to questions about the subjects‚Äô backgrounds‚ÄĒ67% of the American samples (and 80% of the samples from other countries) were composed solely of undergraduates in psychology courses (Arnett 2008). …”

No. Way. Epic experiment design assumption goes horribly wrong and throws a shadow over an entire field of study. Oh Рand anything else that is based on the field in question.

The magazine article concludes:

“And here is the rub: the culturally shaped analytic/individualistic mind-sets may partly explain why Western researchers have so dramatically failed to take into account the interplay between culture and cognition. In the end, the goal of boiling down human psychology to hardwiring is not surprising given the type of mind that has been designing the studies. Taking an object (in this case the human mind) out of its context is, after all, what distinguishes the analytic reasoning style prevalent in the West. Similarly, we may have underestimated the impact of culture because the very ideas of being subject to the will of larger historical currents and of unconsciously mimicking the cognition of those around us challenges our Western conception of the self as independent and self-determined. The historical missteps of Western researchers, in other words, have been the predictable consequences of the WEIRD mind doing the thinking.”

So take heed – if your organization has plans to operate in a foreign cultural context and marketplace:

  • Read the article, research paper, and anything credible you can find about the culture.
  • Find local cultural guides and take a learning journey, immersive¬†far beyond the ‘airport hotel and tour bus’ visit. The aim is to¬†experience firsthand¬†the nation, the people and their culture – down to the specifics of¬†where and how they will buy and use your offering. (Be prepared to put aside anything you’ve read in favor of direct experience.)
  • Given all you have learned, localize your business model, offering and approach.

Maybe then, the locals won’t dismiss you as too¬†WEIRD.

A shout out to Fleurette Sweeny at SelfDesign Learning Foundation for turning us on to this article!

– Gary Ralston

© 2013 Ralston Consulting Inc.

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Wednesday, September 25th, 2013 Article Archive, Book Reviews, Business Models, Corporate Social Responsibility, Main Page, Marketing, Social Enterprise, Values Comments Off on “We Aren’t the World” – Required Reading Before Going Global

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