Book Reviews

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 – and 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!

“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 – and 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—and 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—particularly 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—with perceptions, behaviors, and motivations that were almost always sliding down one end of the human bell curve.

In the end they titled their paper “The Weirdest People in the World” (pdf) By “weird” 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—and even the way we perceive reality—makes 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 “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”

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—with 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’s 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—the sub‐discipline of psychology that should (arguably) be the most attentive to questions about the subjects’ backgrounds—67% 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 – and 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

Book Review: To Sell is Human, by Daniel Pink

Once upon a time, there was a consultant who wanted their business to be successful far and wide, because she cared about people, the earth and longed deeply to make a difference.

Everyday, she would beat herself up for not being able to sell her wares or write pithy articles that were relevant to their clients.

One day, she read a book – To Sell is Human

Because of that she developed greater skill (and confidence) and credibility with her clients, and more courage to find a financial win-win while helping the people and organizations she cared about.

Because of that, she saw their sales increase.

Until finally, she saw their business grow far and wide, making a difference to more people than ever, (and even wrote a relevant, pithy and timely book review).

(Example of a “Pixar pitch”, one of six successors to the elevator pitch)

“I’m not a salesman. That’s just not who I am

A client echoed my own thoughts last evening. Inwardly, I smiled. No, I may not be a sales person, but I am really good at helping people succeed, at holding their vision, at connecting others, and at marshaling knowledge and resources in their service. That, according to author, Daniel Pink, is the new world order of sales – a world where, like it or not, every one of us is in sales.

Information changes everything:

To Sell is Human Kindle Edition

Of course, for many of us, the old world of selling conjures images of real estate agents and car salesmen wielding secret books of data, and the cry of ‘caveat emptor’ – buyer beware! Pink observes that information is now equally available to both sides of the sale. Buyers come to a transaction knowing as much or more than the salesperson, so the value of the sales person as holder of knowledge has greatly diminished.

When we make a major purchase, Gary does his homework. When we got our last car, Gary knew more about price, availability and fit to my preferences than either the sales person or me, steering me to a car I never would have considered. Prescient? No. The information is readily available for consumers, along with the tools to make sense of and personalize it.

This information parity is perhaps most apparent in the real estate industry, where the old guard competes with agents more attuned and more wired to the new reality of how buyers approach their research and purchase. The typical home buyer today, smartphone in-hand, has walked through the house, scanned satellite images and toured the neighborhood, all virtually, before ever asking to step into a home. They have at their fingertips market pricing, school district grades, crime statistics, “Walkability” scores and the impressions and opinions of their social network living in the neighborhood. ‘Caveat venditor’ – seller, beware. (Agent, plug-in!)

If not “gatekeeper to information” what is the value and role of the salesperson in the new order?

The new ABC’s of selling:

In researching the book, Pink has delved into many diverse fields, weaving them into surprising and sometimes counterintuitive insights. He follows with practical resources and useful thought experiments at the end of each section. These little ‘sample cases’ are grist for the reader’s personal reflection, insight and skill development (and yes, make us squirm just a bit).

In the old world of selling, ABC stood for Always Be Closing. Ugh. Thankfully, Pink has come up with new ABC’s:

Attunement – being aware of yourself, your actions and attitudes in the current context,

Buoyancy – mental resilience before and after a sales opportunity, and

Clarity – finding the right questions to ask to help the client gain clarity.

As Gary and I reflect on the evolution of our approach to sales, these principles ring true.

The final section of the book focuses on what to do in the ‘new’ sales process. He draws from Pixar and others as he walks through six ways to ‘pitch’, and reaches into improvisational theatre to help the reader move from a world of scripted sales to deeper listening and awareness in working with customers and peers.

Servant Selling:

In closing, Pink talks about a fundamental shift in values underlying selling. Taking a page from Robert Greenleaf’s “Servant Leadership” philosophy, he creates a version for the new world of sales
 He calls it “Servant Selling”:

“ It begins with the idea that those move others aren’t manipulators but servants. They serve first and sell later. And the test – which, like Greanleaf’s, is the best and most difficult to administer is this: If the person you’re selling to agrees to buy, will his or her life improve? When your interaction is over will the world be a better place than when you began?”

The book, like Pink’s previous work, is a fast read, a bit cheeky, and packed with useful tidbits. Most important, for the many of us who protest “I am not a salesman!”, it touches our core of doubts, fears and biases. It offers the opportunity and a pathway to change our frame from sales as something to be avoided to sales as a caring service aimed at helping both parties succeed.

This is certainly true for me. I’m far better off for having read this book.

– Ann Ralston

© 2013 Ralston Consulting Inc.

Link to Kindle e-book at To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013 Article Archive, Book Reviews, Leadership, Main Page, Sales, Values Comments Off on Book Review: To Sell is Human, by Daniel Pink

Innovative Video of DRIVE, by Dan Pink

DRIVEbyDanPinkWe had drafted our pithy review of the book: DRIVE: The surprising truth about what motivates us, when Ann discovered this very effective animation based on Dan Pink’s talk at the 250-year-old (but surprisingly hip!) Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

This 11-minute video is highly-watchable for both content that challenges conventional wisdom about motivating knowledge workers, and an innovative combination of a graphic artist and time-lapse filming. Enjoy!

YouTube Preview Image

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010 Article Archive, Book Reviews, Business Insights, Main Page Comments Off on Innovative Video of DRIVE, by Dan Pink

Review – The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t

Our apologies to any readers out there with tender ears, but we’ll let the author speak for himself in this excerpt from his article in the Harvard Business Review:

There’s a simple practice that can make an organization better, but while many managers talk about it, few write it down. They enforce “no asshole” rules. I apologize for the crudeness of the term – you might prefer to call them tyrants, bullies, boors, cruel bastards, or destructive narcissists, and so do I, at times. Some behavioral scientists refer to them in terms of psychological abuse, which they define as “the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors, excluding physical contact.” But all that cold precision masks the fear and loathing these jerks leave in their wake. Somehow, when I see a mean-spirited person damaging others, no other term seems quite right.

– Robert I. Sutton
More Trouble Than They’re Worth
Breakthrough Articles for 2004 – HBR reprint R0402A

At some point in time, we all have worked with a person who is a mean-spirited jerk – who throws their weight or position around, and who uses fear to motivate, to manipulate, or to get his or her way. In short, we’ve all had the displeasure of working with an ‘asshole’.

noassholecoveramazonThe No Asshole Rule, Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving in One That Isn’t, by Robert Sutton, is a fast and fun read (or listen) about keeping assholes out of your workplace, recognizing our own individual tendencies toward asshole-ism and about how some people leverage their assholed-ness for power and results (yes, some people actually do get what they want by being real jerks).

Sutton has two simple criteria for determining if someone is an asshole. First, if the person on the receiving end “feels depressed, humiliated or de-energized or belittled” and secondly if the “alleged asshole aims the venom at people who are less powerful rather than people who are more powerful.”

In Sutton’s language there are also temporary assholes. These are people who are simply having a bed day, in contrast to certified assholes – people who are persistently nasty and destructive jerks. Sutton also has the obligatory asshole self-test in his book so that you can understand if you, yourself, are of the certified or temporary variety.

The book is sprinkled with examples of how awful people can be, and “revenge” stories that show the lengths ‘victims’ will go to in response. It also highlights success stories, such as Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, and successful counter-examples, such as Steve Jobs of Apple, Inc. (See “Evil Genius” in Wired magazine for more…)

I think the most important question to discuss, particularly if you are and executive or business owner, is to what degree you are actually willing to condone assholes in your work place.

Sutton refers to a number of studies that describe the damage done to organizations by jerks. They undermine the productivity of a team or organization, cause good people to leave the workplace and in some instances, can put others at physical risk when allowed to continue.

Gary and I are frequently called in to help deal with employees who hold their organizations hostage through their nasty attitude and behavior. At times, these people are in what they perceive to be ‘key’ positions, by their productivity or specialized knowledge. These people are expert at pushing to the very limit of tolerance, using anything up to and including temper tantrums to get their way. What’s an organization to do??

Especially in this climate of reduced resources and economic challenges, business leaders must make the most of every employee to leverage the organization toward success. If you, like Sutton or Kelly, are interested in creating a great place to work where good talent is hired, invested in and grown for its incredible competitive advantage, then the ‘no asshole’ rule is a good one to adopt and keep at zero-tolerance.

© 2008 Ann Ralston and the respective copyright holders.

Monday, May 19th, 2008 Article Archive, Book Reviews, Business Insights, Main Page Comments Off on Review – The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t

WSJ bestseller – The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich

4hourworkweekcover2Love it or hate it, this book is bound to offer new views on cherished assumptions.

And boy, does author, Tim Ferriss have the power to polarize opinion. This controversial Princeton University guest lecturer has written what I consider to be an innovative antidote to a problem for our clients and their colleagues – trapping themselves into working for the sake of work. Right from the start, I would recommend you separate your opinion about Tim and his choices, style and values from the ideas and tools presented.

But read it you should. There is a good chance that your top performers, road warriors, independent thinkers and millennials (those born roughly from 1981-2000) have at least heard of Lifestyle Design. His premise is simple: working long hours for many years, deferring the activities of retirement until we are too old to participate in them (and possibly, can’t even afford them) is a broken model. As an alternative, he presents the concept and practice of Lifestyle Design – separating earning power from activities, incorporating mini-retirements throughout life, and re-focusing new-found free time on learning and service as a worthy pursuit.

I think this last point is important to highlight. Were I Tim, trying to reach the likes of Ann and me, I would have mentioned sooner that it’s not all about globe-trotting sybaritic pleasures. Many, if not most of the experienced Lifestyle Designers interviewed in the research discovered that they faced the challenge previously connected to retirees: When your income is no longer dependent upon your activity, you’ve given yourself a long holiday (or three) and you don’t care if you ever photograph another wild gazelle, then what do you do? Fortunately, there is a chapter on filling the void and inventing your next purpose.

For some entrepreneurs, especially, this book will shine a light on the common pattern of leaders who weave themselves indispensably into their business model – becoming a growth bottleneck, a key-person risk and a prisoner all at once. Similar to Gerber’s “The e-Myth, Revisited“, Ferriss offers leaders ways to disentangle from their processes – to move from self-employment to owning a business system.

Available in book and other formats, I recommend The 4-hour Workweek to anyone who must manage or collaborate with Lifestyle Designers, or aspires to become one. See you at the beach!

©2008 Gary Ralston all rights reserved.

Download a brief audio presentation by Tim Ferriss here.

Monday, May 19th, 2008 Article Archive, Book Reviews, Business Insights, Executive Productivity, Main Page Comments Off on WSJ bestseller – The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich

Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas

SixDegreesCover150wAs a global community, we have until 2015 to cap carbon dioxide emissions at 400 ppm, and 2 degrees Celsius average warming, or reach a tipping point leading to an unstoppable, runaway overheating of the planet.

That’s pretty much the bottom line from this extremely well-researched and well-written book by journalist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Mark Lynas. In Six Degrees, Lynas paints six scenarios of how the planet will be different – one for each degree Celsius of average global temperature increase. I’ve read the summaries for policymakers published by the Nobel Award-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and as clear as they are, they simply don’t give you the same gut-level grasp for just how much our current way of business – and of life – will be overturned.

National Geographic thought so, too, and used Mark’s work as the basis for their television special: Six Degrees Could Change the World. I suggest that you click on the Video tab, and work all the way through the various video clips. Consider, for instance, this chilling SFX shot of a New York subway car abandoned in a tunnel flooded by rising sea levels. Many of us reading this blog will easily live long enough to experience this possible future. And many of us will not want to look. Heck, I had trouble completing my research for this article because I felt overwhelmed by the scale and immediacy of the problem. But look, we must.

SubwayFlood250wThe situation is on top of us, and not nearly enough people appear to be paying attention.

In strategy, structure and systems, we are always on the lookout for feedback loops. Well, our planet has some enormous temperature-triggered positive feedback loops – tipping points or points of no return – just waiting for some species to trip them.

The first threshold, for carbon-cycle feedback, is around 3 degree Celsius of warming – 450 ppm of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Large amounts of Carbon Dioxide are predicted to be released from “reservoirs”, among them the burning forests of the Amazon and Malaysia, and the thawing Arctic icecaps and tundra.

The second threshold, for Siberian methane feedback, is around 4 degrees Celsius of warming – 550 ppm of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Large amounts of methane (23 times as potent as the same amount of Carbon Dioxide) are predicted to be released from “reservoirs”, such as those in Siberia, and methane hydrate in deep sea deposits.

So where are we now? In 2007, Carbon Dioxide (CO2) was at 382 ppm (parts per million), and we currently increase about 2 ppm per year.

Lynas concludes, based upon his review of the available research, that in order to have even a 75 percent certainty of keeping temperatures below the magic 2-degree threshold, we have seven years to reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases globally and hit a safety target of around 400 ppm of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions must peak by or before 2015, and decline by 85 percent by 2050. If we let it get to 3 degrees (as early as 2050), feedback cycles kick in, and we risk a one-way ticket to 6 degrees of global warming and mass extinction on a scale not seen since the End-Permian age.

The numbers ought to chill us all to the bone, and then fire us into immediate re-thinking of all parts of our business and lifestyle, and the prospects for our descendants.

As Lynas put it:

“We humans, one species of animal among millions, have now become de facto guardians of the planet’s climate stability – a service that used to be provided free (given a few ups and downs) by nature. Without realizing it, we have appointed ourselves janitors, our sweaty ape hands resting heavily on the climatic thermostat. A more awesome responsibility can scarcely be imagined.”

Immediate Business Implications:

Business Carbon Emissions WILL be regulated: We all know that business has had a free ride, not having to account for the global cost of releasing Greenhouse Gases. In the following decades, financial statements and regulatory reports will also account for credits and debits of these gases. If your supply chain is carbon intensive, your costs will climb.

TCClogo_smallConsumers and regulators are demanding that business be accountable for the Total Lifecycle of products and services: Large business is already having to do this. Smaller businesses should be scrambling to figure out how to manage the cost of policing their entire supply chains, and extend their financial models to include liability for disposal. Learn more at sites such as The Climate Conservancy, a non-profit created by scientists from Stanford University.

There will be a social backlash against conspicuous consumption and the disposable economy, fueled by the climate crisis: As with so many of us, our parents grew up during the depression, when recycling went by another name – survival. In my case, our family began formally recycling about the time man first landed on the moon, and has never stopped. Fast forward 40 years. In my home town of Vancouver, BC, Canada, recycling is required, and garbage is spot-checked for infractions. Yet here in Central Ohio, Ann and I must pay for the privilege of recycling. Only two families do so on our street.

StoryOfStuffToday, US consumers have trashed ninety-nine percent of all goods they buy within six months of the date of purchase. Only one percent is still in use. The US – five percent of the world’s population – consumes 30 percent of the world’s resources and creates 30 percent of the world’s garbage. It is horrifying to think that much of the world’s population would be clamoring to emulate the US. Visit this website – – for a brilliant animated presentation sponsored by the Tides Foundation, and others.

Bottom line – if your business model depends on rampant consumerism, planned and perceived obsolescence and depends upon externalized costs, your free ride may run out, really soon. Which brings us to the next issue…

Public companies will be at even worse odds with the people leading them: As a system, the stock markets (i.e. Wall Street, stockholders, 24-year-old analysts in cubicles, news media, etc.) wants public corporations to focus short-term to produce unending growth of revenue and profit. As humans, the presidents and CEO’s go home to their families – children and grandchildren – whom they care about very much. It is natural that they would want to use all their supposed influence to give them a better future – say, reversing global warming. But to do so, they must go back to work and focus long-term – whereupon they are promptly fired for not keeping their eyes on quarterly profit performance.

In the end, we as a global community must institute a new definition of success for public companies. We must create markets that value planetary stewardship in addition to ROI in setting the share prices on the daily exchange.

There will be no silver bullet: There is no single thing that will reverse global warming, nor two, nor three. There will likely be seven to fifteen major initiatives, and thousands of minor ones. Of these options, conservation – using less in the first place – should be at the top of the list. This is great news for business, both large and small, because it means that no one will have a monopoly on the business opportunities presented by this crisis / opportunity. In the next decade, there will be a flow of funding and resources to this megaproject that will be measured in percentages of our planetary GDP.

A suggestion for how to build momentum to change:

Ann and I are acutely aware of our own immense discomfort in relating to this issue. Yet, we want to know reality even more, and that lets us take one more step. Here’s what you might consider:

  1. Go watch the video footage at National Geographic’s  Six Degrees Could Change the World site, then read the summary for policymakers at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change site.
  2. Watch The Story of Stuff.
  3. At the very least, read the last chapter – Choosing our Future – of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas.
  4. Browse The Climate Conservancy site.
  5. For your business, schedule reviews of business strategy and process. Research what your suppliers are doing. Evaluate your liability for disposal of your products. Re-think how you generate wealth, and realign your strategy to mitigate, and even profit from reversing global warming.
  6. WE_Logo_TM_RGB-1In your personal life, take inventory on your progress toward reducing your environmental footprint. There are thousands of sites to help. We Can Solve the Climate Crisis, a project of the Alliance for Climate Protection, founded by Nobel Laureate, Al Gore, is a great site recommended by our colleagues. National Geographic launched The Green Guide, where I found this excellent article on switching to green power through our existing public utility. Google “Carbon Footprint” for many more options.

The biggest change in the business and social climate in our time will be the change from a society of consumption and competition to a society of sustainability and cooperation. Plan to be part of leading this change. And if it wouldn’t be too much bother, please start today. Seven years will pass in a blink of an eye.

© 2008 Gary Ralston and the respective copyright holders – all rights reserved


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.

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007 Article Archive, Book Reviews, Business Insights, Main Page, Marketing, Sales Comments Off on The Art of the Start

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. (

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.


The Managerial Moment of Truth

New course in improving organizational performance is missing link for business leaders and managers

Our capacity to have truthful, effective discussions at all levels defines our organization to our employees, suppliers and customers. The capacity for honest, direct conversation fuels our success, and when it is in short supply, can lead to erroneous decisions, diminished performance, strained relations and missed objectives.

Every day in our practice, we see business leaders and their managers tested with opportunities, large and small, for direct conversations to improve performance. Too often, they falter – it is just too difficult, and too risky, to say what they need to. From departments of huge multinational firms, to partners of the smallest startups, managers are (and need to be) asking: Is there an easier, better way to talk candidly about the stuff that is critical to our success?

MMOTCover150x219This crucial question is at the heart of a course developed first for Blue Shield of California, called: The Managerial Moment of Truth (MMOT). Created by organizational consultant and bestselling author, Robert Fritz, and proven in practice by Bruce Bodaken, CEO at Blue Shield, the course is now available to the public. Ann and I have been very fortunate – we were introduced, during program development, almost a year ago, to the principles found in the course and were the first to present the new training. Here’s an inside look at what we are finding.

For the manager, A Managerial Moment of Truth (MMOT for short) begins with two parts: Recognition and Decision.

  1. It starts the moment we realize that the result is not what we expected. The outcome can be worse than expected, or much better than expected, but there is clearly a difference that matters.
  2. It continues with the very next decision we make: Do we, as manager or leader, decide to open up a discussion to address the discrepancy, or do we turn away from a priceless opportunity to strengthen our organization?

About that “priceless” opportunity – if we can address the difference, change behaviors and learn from the situation, we increase productivity and move closer to the results we, and the organization, want. But since managers often turn away from these opportunities at step 2, we must ask the next question: Why?

Frequently, as managers we don’t bring up the issue when it first arises because we don’t want to stir up emotional conflict – will giving accurate feedback regarding performance hurt the employee’s feelings? Will it (further) demotivate the employee? Will they react badly, leading to increased conflict or retaliation? Few managers seek out conflict, so the path of least resistance is to put the discussion off.

Another common reason we don’t promptly move to discuss such situations is that we speculate. In the training, Fritz brings up an excellent point to consider:

“When you think you know the answer to something, do you ask a question?

As human beings we create theories to explain the unknown. A better approach is to really ask questions about what we don’t know. When we speculate, we think we know what we actually don’t know.”

Whatever the exact reasons, the outcome is the same: a person or group misses the information and feedback they need to improve performance – they can’t change what they don’t know about.

The Managerial Moment of Truth course presents a real alternative for leaders and managers. Helena Hörnebrant, an organizational consultant at Sigma Exallon Sweden, reported the following results from her course participants:

“Two of the top managers said ‘Finally I’ve got tools for my everyday situations. All other management methods just tell you to deal with issues immediately but not how – but the MMOT method really gives me tools to act and help in situations which I normally don’t know how to handle’.”

Our own clients really like the MMOT. As Ann observed:

“It gives them a way to think about and structure a successful conversation about difficult stuff – invaluable for successful implementation. We have seen people starting to use the MMOT very quickly and in crisis situations, picking it up, working with it. We conducted the first Managerial Moment of Truth 6-hour course over two days. Two of our participants, after the first day, leapt in and actually handled a tough MMOT with a problem employee.”

Another client took the opportunity the day after the course to dig into why their management meetings were so very unproductive. They used the techniques from the course, including analysis of design and execution issues. The three managers sent each other e-mails documenting their learning and action plans. The following meeting was significantly better. All participants were well prepared. The team stayed away from off-topic discussion and unnecessary detail. Instead of blaming, individuals took accountability for their results – both good and bad.

There is a real complement between doing a business strategy and participating in the Managerial Moment of Truth training. After an MMOT program, our managers and leaders are more likely to succeed in implementing the changes required by the business strategy. They have the tools with which to study reality, to diagnose problems, and to frame, discuss and implement lasting solutions. The MMOT course helps the business strategies succeed as never before.

Fritz and Bodaken’s excellent book, The Managerial Moment of Truth (Free Press), comes with the training materials. The book, itself, was rated by BusinessWeek as among the “Best Business Books of 2006”. It is available in hardcover and Kindle editions from and all major booksellers, as well as in eBook (pdf) at

Please contact Ann or Gary Ralston to learn more about the course, and to see if it is right for your management team.

About the Authors: Ann and Gary Ralston founded Ralston Consulting Inc. in 1997 to help business owners and leaders accelerate profitable growth in their organizations. They serve emerging and middle market companies across North America, from divisions of Fortune 500 firms to start-ups and family-owned businesses. They can be reached at, 614-761-1841, or

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007 Article Archive, Book Reviews, Business Insights, Executive Productivity, Main Page, Process Improvement Comments Off on The Managerial Moment of Truth

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