Reflections on the Coach K Leadership Conference

dukefuqua This week I had the pleasure of attending the Coach K Leadership Conference at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

The theme of the conference was leading in times of uncertainty. I won’t try to summarize points from all of the presenters–mostly because that’s already been done, and done well: Just go to the Twitter stream to follow the discussion as it happened.

Instead I’ll share what I took away from the experience. Speaker James McCaffrey, EVP and Chief Strategy Officer of Turner Broadcasting, said leaders need to take the time to reflect–on the changes happening in the world and what it means to your business, and on your own experiences so you can learn from them. I agree.
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Where design thinking and open source community collaboration meet

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I’m currently reading the new book on design thinking from IDEO’s Tim Brown called Change By Design. (Full review coming soon.) The design thinking philosophy was first introduced to me, and to Red Hat throughout the company, by David Burney.

In comparing traits associated with design thinking collaboration and collaboration in the open source community, there are many parallels: open exchange, broad participation, rapid prototyping.

There’s also one really interesting contrast: The mindset you tend to see when generating and choosing ideas. But what I’ll suggest here is that when you apply the best elements of these two mindsets at just the right time in their respective processes, the results can be pretty amazing.
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Building brand through storytelling: Seven elements great stories have in common

Here’s a quick story:
A friend of mine and I had stopped at a gas station for a soda on a summer afternoon. I was probably about 10 years old. As we were drinking, I was mindlessly tearing the plastic label off my bottle and shredding it into pieces. He watched me do this for a few minutes, then said, “I hate tearing off the labels because it makes the soda taste bad.”

This was my first lesson in branding.

Few ways of communication are more universally human than storytelling. Stories give full-color context to black-and-white facts. They’re designed for sharing: Easy to tell, easy to remember. Simply start at the beginning and let the story unfold.

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Looking both ways

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I took this photo on a late afternoon in London a day before New Year’s Eve 2003. It had just stopped raining, and I’d rushed out with my camera to take as many photos as I could in the last few minutes of light. I was probably doing a lot more shooting than looking. I guess this sign found me.

The sign reminds pedestrians that traffic is coming from both directions rather than just one. And if you’re from the US or other parts of the world where we don’t drive on the left, that direction might not be the one you expect. You learn quickly.

But since then this photo has reminded me that there is always more than one way to look at a problem. Our environments change. Our tools change. Our attitudes change. If we insist on looking at an issue in only one way, we will never see the unexpected connections and associations that make real breakthroughs possible.

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My rule of thumb for delivering a message? Less prose, more poetry

We all know how fast the world is moving. Attention spans are short. Our mission is to get our ideas read, remembered, and retold. It doesn’t matter whether you’re crafting company strategy or writing marketing copy. When you need to inspire change, you need to make your message stick.

Which means the communicator has to do the hard work of organizing, curating, and designing the message–so the reader doesn’t have to.

In other words: less prose, more poetry.

Case in point: Last weekend I picked up the book 52 Rules of Thumb a smart, well-written book that compiles and curates some of the best business advice the author, Alan M. Webber, has collected in his career.

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How to sell an idea: Seek informed simplicity

“We must strive to reach that simplicity that lies beyond sophistication.” -John Gardner

Too often we think simplicity means simplistic. Lacking in intelligence. Stupid. And when we’re trying to convince people of our way of thinking, the best way to do this is to prove what we know by showing complexity in agonizing detail and then beating you over the head with it until you’re convinced. I’ve found spreadsheets and slide decks work well for this purpose.

We complicate. We use big words when small ones would do. And along the way we forget why we’re here: To communicate to an audience and compel them to act.

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Mixtape as metaphor for creativity

Mixtape is the traditional term. Today we call them playlists because there’s no more tape. Mix CD just never felt right.

But whether mixtape or playlist, the idea is the same. You’re choosing songs from one context, placing them in another, and arranging them carefully to create an intended effect.

If you do your job right, not only will individual songs speak to the listener, but the entire playlist as a whole. It will create a single cohesive idea, a story that begins in one place then takes you to another–each song creating a bridge to the next.

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