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Alicia Blain

Archive for September, 2010

What better place to read about failure than Success Magazine.  Those that have become successful in life know very well that it took many failures and overcoming the fear of failure before  they succeeded.  In the October edition of Success Magazine, reporter Pauline Estrem challenges us to embrace the prospect of failure in her article titled “Why Failure is Good for Success“.  It’s a great article and I highly recommend it because we need to be reminded often that it’s okay to take risks, that it’s okay to be afraid and it’s okay to fail.  That’s especially true in corporate America.

People are scared to rock the boat at work.  Consumers are not spending because of fear their companies will lay them off. Corporations are fearful to invest a dime on anything that doesn’t keep the lights on.  It’s a vicious circle.  Last week  we were told that the recession was over but from where I sit, that’s far from true.  It may be over on paper, but the feelings and actions of people and corporations say otherwise. 

When we turn on the financial news these days we hear a lot of talk about how investors are exhibiting a “flight to safety” attitude in their investment decisions.  This means they are bypassing risk and higher returns for stability and safety.  The same thing is happening in many organizations not only in the US but globally.  There is a flight to safety where the main focus for everyone - from the leadership to the staff levels –  is the tried and true. Not much focus on risking failure by trying something new.

But I would argue that this is exactly the time for leaders to be daring and adopt a go-for-failure mindset.  Empower your team to try new things, to work on a risky project.  Not only will that boost the deflated morale that is prevalent among workers today but it will get people thinking creatively.  It doesn’t have to be a monumental or expensive endeavor.  Many experiments that lead to great ideas start small and get tested along the way to see if they will pass muster.

The next time a staff member says “Hey, I had an idea about…” or “Do you think it’s possible for us to …”  rein in your instinct to fly to safety and instead say “Tell me more” or “Sounds interesting and worth looking into”.  Better yet, in case your staff is afraid to bring up a new idea or suggest something why don’t you do it?  Start a conversation with them.  Bring it up in your team blog or next meeting?  But start.

Now is not the time to be complacent.  Those that don’t take risks fall behind.  If you fail, what was the lesson you learned?  Celebrate the lesson and apply it to the next idea.  

In the Success Magazine article, there is a great quote from Ralph Heath, author of  “Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big“.   He says “Failure & defeat are life’s greatest teachers [but] sadly, most people, and particularly conservative corporate cultures, don’t want to go there”. 

In today’s flight to safety mindset, it’s not just the conservative corporate cultures that are shying away from taking chances.  It’s the prevailing pattern.  Break the pattern.  Be the leader that breaks through fear and “safety” and reap the benefits of a Go-for-Failure mindset.  You might just start something really cool in your team and in your organization.

I had to share this with all my IT compadres.  It’s another comic strip  or “IToon” created by Dave Blazek that I found while reading a Unisys blog.  Here’s the link.  As the cartoon says, it’s another installment of “consumerization humorization” and it’s hysterical.

As we enter another week and head towards the end of another month, here’s something to make you chuckle.

Happy Monday!

I happen to be traveling quite a bit this month.  As someone who loves to observe, airports provide a wonderful venue to sit back and watch how the generations interact and amuse themselves.

On my flight yesterday, I was sitting in the aisle seat and next to me was a Millennial (around 18) and her Baby Boomer mother.  The Millennial was carrying a backpack and was texting as she proceeded to get into her seat.  Never missed a beat.  She sat down, threw her backpack under the seat in front of her, took out her IPAD and continued to text on her  IPhone.  Her mom on the other hand, proceeded to take out one of the thickest hard cover books I have ever seen, plus 3 newspapers and 2 magazines.  

Her bag was overflowing with “stuff” to the point that the newspapers fell out of the bag as she was getting into her seat.  I quickly checked my boarding pass to make sure I hadn’t mistakenly booked a long overseas trip. As all this was going on she received an incoming call and proceeded to carry on a rather loud conversation with what I can only guess was her husband. As she was talking and trying to stuff ALL her materials into the seat pocket in front of her,  her daughter quietly texted and continued to listen to music on her IPhone.

As the plane took off and everyone finally relaxed, you could plainly see that the woman was looking forward to reading the materials she brought onboard.  She first took out the thick book and almost gingerly stroked it as if she was anticipating a date with a friend.  She must have had  a change of heart because she put the book back in the seat pocket and removed the 3 newspapers.  I could clearly hear her sigh of relief as she sat back,opened her copy of the New York Times and voraciously read the paper.  By this time, her daughter had turned off her IPhone and was busy reading something in her IPad.  Later on, I saw her playing a couple of games and sorting through what must have been an extensive photo library.

Observing my Baby Boomer neighbor immediately took me back in time.  I remembered the days before technology had changed our lives forever and how much I enjoyed the simple pleasure of picking up a book or newspaper and spending the day, well, just reading.  I know that newspapers are slowly dying but I can still remember how much I looked forward to receiving my copy of the Sunday New York Times delivered to my door.  The delivery of the paper set in motion a series of relaxing activities that changed depending on the season.  In the summer, I would get up early, take the hefty Sunday Times, go to my local coffee shop (before Starbucks),  order a large coffee and muffin and head to the park.  There, I would meet my friends and we would sprawl out on a large blanket and spend the rest of the day reading the paper.  Yes, it actually took all day to read the paper.  We would clip out our favorite articles and share it with each other.  Depending on the topic we would either discuss it or argue over it but regardless, we were sharing the experience and enjoying a relaxing day in the park.  In the winter when it was too cold to go to the park, we’d either go to a local coffeeshop and take over a booth for hours (we gave good tips) or meet at one our apartments.

Now, the large hard bound books you saved for the beach.  You would lug those heavy things in your beach bag and after putting on sunscreen and settling into a chair under an umbrella in the scorching heat, you couldn’t wait to dig into the book.

I instantly related to that sigh of relief.  When the Baby Boomer sitting next to me on the plane sighed, I knew that her heavy book and newspapers and magazines were transporting her back in time.  She opted to carry the heavy materials not because she liked the extra weight but because it made her feel good.  It made her remember the wonderful past experiences those materials represented. It reminded her that years ago, she never felt guilty about taking a whole day to read the Sunday paper or spending hours at the beach reading a thick book.  Today, things are different and we , as Boomers, don’t give ourselves the luxury of time to immerse ourselves in those simple pleasures.

For some of us, the few hours spent on an airplane these days are the closest thing we have to reliving that simpler past.  Even if it means carrying a lot of “stuff”.  At the end of the flight, you could tell that my neighbor was rejuvenated and reenergized. She put away the book, threw out the newpapers and left the magazines in the seat pocket for someone else to enjoy. She turned on her cell phone and was ready to tackle the world again.  For a few hours, she experienced what it was like to live back in the day. As much as I love my Kindle, I realized that as a Baby Boomer, it will never replace the feeling and memories that a good “physical”  book or newspaper can evoke.  

What about you? Do newspapers and books bring back fond memories of simpler days?

When I run across an article that actually celebrates rather than criticizes Millennials, I get excited and I have to share it with everyone.  In October’s Fast Company edition, Nancy Lublin wrote a great article titled “Why Bashing Millennials is Wrong“.  She touches on a lot of the points that I have blogged about over the last few months.  Like me, Nancy works directly with many Millennials and has been able to see firsthand the great qualities they bring to the workplace.  She gives some great examples of  her Millennial staff members and the creativity they bring to the workplace. 

They are optimistic and  have bold dreams. Like Nancy says ,every company should want to hire employees that are hungry to make a difference.  There are 2 things I liked best about the article.  Nancy reminds us that providing feedback to our employees has always been important but  more so now than ever before.  I think leaders miss out on great opportunities to leverage praise as a wonderful management tool to inspire and uplift their staff.  

As a corporate observer, I find that for the most part, leaders can be cheap with praise and generous with criticism. Because we are so busy putting out fires and dealing with our daily challenges, we often forget to showcase a job well done by a team member.  But think about what a morale booster that would be if we went out of our way everyday to compliment someone for the good work they did.  It doesn’t have to be a big win.  Celebrating small victories are often more effective and are remembered more than the big ones.  It’s such a simple, easy thing to do but we let other things get in the way of our ability to praise.  When was the last time you praised an employee for something they did well? 

The second thing I liked best about Nancy’s article is that she ends it by reminding us that the clash of the generations is timeless. We just forget because as time passes we are on the other side of the clash.  As Baby Boomers and Xers,  we often forget that we felt the same frustration when we started our corporate careers as the Millennials do now.  But being on the other side and remembering what it was like when we started our careers gives us a huge advantage.  It allows us the opportunity to not make the same mistakes as leaders in the past.  Instead of criticizing the “new” generation and trying to make them conform to the traditional corporate structures and principles, why not as Nancy says “manage them for greatness, for maximum effect”? 

This article reminds us that we are not as different as we think we are; we APPLY things in ways that seem unfamiliar.  Our role as leaders is to build that bridge to the unfamiliar.  The first step is to see the possibilities in our staff instead of the deficiencies and to celebrate them.

What about you?  Do you celebrate the small vicitories of your team?

In our current school systems it does but according to James Paul McGee, an expert in games and education, it doesn’t need to be.  There was a great article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine written by reporter Sara Corbett titled “Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom”. It showcased a school in NYC called Quest to Learn where digital games are front and center in educating sixth and seventh graders.  The school is the brainchild of a Generation Xer called Katie Salen and a group of game and curriculum designers that are looking at innovative ways to teach children.  According to the article, the school is ” one of a handful of  ’demonstration sites’  for innovative technology-based instructional methods and is part of a larger effort on the city’s part to create and experiment with new models for schools”.

Wow!  Can you believe they used innovation and experimentation in the same sentence as education?  Crazy, huh?  But very encouraging.  For years as I’ve spoken in front of teachers and educators, I have talked about digital games and how educational they can be for children.  Everyone has this incorrect notion that video games are all bad and violent.  Yes, there are some games that are like that but many others that are very educational.   I’ve actually read a lot of  James Paul McGee’s book on the topic but more importantly, I’ve seen it myself.

Although I think that the younger Millennials have taken more to digital games than their older counterparts who are already working,  video games are part of the  Millennial experience.  I’ve said many times that Millennials don’t see failure as a bad thing.  This comes directly from playing video games.  Failure in a video game just means you have to work harder to get to the next level and learn from your mistakes.  Isn’t that a much healthier way of looking at failure than seeing it as a disaster?  As anyone who has become successful at something will tell you, they learned most when they failed at something than when they excelled in it.  How can you innovate if you are afraid to fail?

Yet, most of our educational system is based on the fact that failing is not good.  Then people wonder why kids drop out of school. It’s rewarding to see that a school and it’s teachers are embracing experimentation as a way to break away from 20th Century methods that are frayed at the seams and in direct conflict with living in the 21st Century.   Although it’s too soon to tell what the results of their innovative approach is,  in my book, they’ve already won because they saw a problem and took action.  These teachers were frustrated with what they saw in the educational system today and took a chance to change it.   Experimenting with new concepts and techniques is the only way that educators will forge ahead and bring much needed change to education.

The Millennials in my team showed me that failure was not a disaster.  I had forgotten that. Because in a corporate setting, very much like an educational one, failure is often not an option.  It is not seen as a chance to get better at something or to innovate but rather as something to avoid.  You don’t get a merit increase or yearly bonus if you fail, do you?

But sometimes you need to fail to find innovative solutions to things.  If leaders don’t create an environment where it’s okay to fail, their teams will shy away from trying new things.  Failure is at the very heart of experimentation and we need to find ways to get comfortable with it.  One way to do that is to create an Idea Incubator in your team.  The concept is simple:  give people time to hash out an idea and see what happens.  There aren’t many rules associated with the incubator – the more free flowing and unencumbered, the better. 

What we found when we allowed the Idea Incubator to flourish is that when people are allowed to come up with an idea or a concept and can experiment with it, a lot of good comes out of it.  The idea itself may not lead to anything concrete such as a new product or service but most times, it will lead to a better way of doing something or another idea that does have potential.  The key is to see the process as a way of getting better at something not as failing at something when it doesn’t pan out.   That is a critical component for innovation to thrive in a team.  It’s also critical for success in the 21st Century.

So what about you?  Is failure a disaster or just a way to get better at something?

I was reading Anya Kamenetz’ article in Fast Company Magazine titled “How TED Became the New Harvard“.  The title caught my attention and I realized how true that statement was.  For the very few that may not know, TED stands forthe  ” Technology, Entertainment Design” Conference.  It was started back in the 80′s by a man called Richard Saul Wurman who just “wanted to throw the world’s best dinner party”.  He breathed life into the conference and came up with the whole structure behind the event, the talks and the topics.  Anya says it best when she says that Wurman “turned TED into a 3-ring circus of ideas”. 

An entrepreneur by the name of Chris Anderson bought TED in 2001.  He took TED from being an exclusive, sort of  elite type of conference and invited the world to see it and attend. All of the TED videos I have seen which are many at this point have provided great content and ideas and it has been done in a manageable time frame – 18 minutes and in a video format.  It’s almost like you are there listening to the speakers but without paying the whopping $6,000 conference fee.  Nice deal, huh? Oh and by the way, none of the speakers charge a fee for speaking at TED.  That is an amazing feat on its own but think of the publicity they get and the possibility that their talk would go viral.  I would speak there for free, too.

The article goes on to talk about why TED has become such a phenomenon and how it has gone a long way to “creating a 21st Century education model that’s open yet high in prestige”.  Again, here’s an example of someone that has challenged the traditional models of teaching and come up with something that appeals to the masses and it is online for FREE.  It has spawned TEDx events in cities all across the world.  In fact, I blogged about one held in San Diego earlier this year where Martin Cooper, the inventor of the cell phone , was in attendance.

But for me the article resounded for another reason. The TED talks provide a fertile ground for leaders to connect with their teams and instill a spirit of innovation and creativity to their day to day work environment.  Since all the TED talks are short, are available online and are free to watch, it provides leaders with a perfect opportunity to pick a handful of topics that are interesting and thought provoking.  Actually, the article has a Greatest Hits list that can help you get started. Next, have a TEDLunch.  If your team is too big, then have a series of TEDLunches.  Everyone can bring their lunch and they can watch the video.  Maybe you can even ask your team members to give suggestions on what videos they’d like to see. 

The purpose of the TEDLunch would be to start people thinking and talking about a particular topic.  TED has many videos on innovation and creativity.  That can be the springboard to start addressing issues or problems in your team or company and having people voice and discuss ideas to solve them. It doesn’t all have to happen in that one lunch hour.  You can actually schedule followup lunches where you continue to flesh out ideas or suggestions.  This would be a wonderful opportunity for all members of your team in every generation to come together and share ideas.   Who knows what it can lead to?  Even if it doesn’t inspire new ideas to flourish, it will certainly give everyone in your team to spend time with you and each other in a less formal setting and make a connection.

So are you part of the TED Club?  Why don’t you join and start your own TEDLunch series at work.  It’s another way to challenge the old way of doing things and possibly find a great 21st Century leadership technique that works.  Try it.  What can you lose? But imagine all you can gain with just this little experiment.

I ran across this blog today by Carmen Dukes in the Project Interaction Website called ” Developing 21st Century Skills Through Gaming“ . It highlights the fact that the University of Florida (UF) is introducing a course this fall called “21st Century Skills in Starcraft“.  Apparently, the University of Florida is getting a lot of national attention for offering the course.  See this UF Blog written by Peter Zimmerman that talks about the course and why the College of Education decided to offer it. For those of you who may not know, Starcraft is a video game.  Technically, according to Peter Zimmerman, Starcraft is a  “real-time strategy” video game. 

I think it’s awesome that UF is being innovative and strategic in how it teaches 21st Century students.  In all of the speeches I give throughout the country, I always refer to the 5 ingredients that make Millennials unfamiliar to the rest of us, especially, the Baby Boomers.  The 5 ingredients are:

  1. How they see & view technology.  It’s not technology to them but a way of life. They have never known life without it.
  2. They seek diversity.  This is the group that will be the most ethnically and racially diverse. They will be the key contributors in making the US become a minority-majority by 2050.
  3. They are natural collaborators or team players. 
  4. They are empowered.  Their Baby Boomer parents focused a lot of time and attention on them thus making them feel empowered throughout their young lives.
  5. They are experiential.  This is where their fascination with video games comes in.

In my speeches I try to educate the attendees about video games.  Everyone has such a bad impression of them and think they are all violent.  Although there are violent video games, there are many others like Starcraft and Sim City and Revolution and Civilization that are wonderful vehicles to teach such important skills as critical thinking and problem solving in a 21st Century format. I think that teachers, like corporate leaders today, are in a renaissance period when it comes to education.  The techniques and ways schools and universities have taught in the past are not effective and have not kept up with the pace of change and rapid integration of technology.  Teachers today must learn to experiment with different techniques to teach these critical and necessary skills in a way that prepares the students  to live and work in the 21st Century and NOT the 20th or even the 19th Century.

Schools like UF are taking the lead in experimenting with different teaching techniques.  They are modifying their old approach to teaching recognizing that students today will need to work in a very dynamic, global and ever changing world.  Video games, like Starcraft, expose them to that. According to Peter Zimmerman, the students using Starcraft are  ”constantly forced to gather, analyze, and synthesize information from a wide variety of sources and act in a high-pressured fast-paced environment”.  Doesn’t that sound like the corporate environment these future leaders will be leading in?  Isn’t it better to teach critical thinking skills in that environment rather than the more structured one from the past?

I’m sure other progressive and innovative universities are adopting the same practices as UF and we’ll see more experiential type learning in the years to come.  So for those high school teachers preparing students for university courses, this is a sign of what is to come.  It might be a good idea to start experimenting with video games in the high school classrooms to get the students ready for college.

I applaud UF for it’s courage to let go of the status quo and try something new.  They are a good example for all of us, both teachers and leaders, to challenge our existing way of doing things and take a baby step into the unknown.  More than any generation before them, Millennials will be faced with navigating uncharted waters.  It is up to us to furnish them with a roadmap that will help them chart a course into this fast paced, ever changing  future. 

So what about you?  Have you tried your hand at a video game and no, I don’t mean PacMan?  Get your son or daughter to teach you and see a whole new world appear before your eyes.  Who knows?  It might give you some good ideas that you can apply at work.

Do you ever get the urge to go back to the good ‘ole days and live a simpler life?  The life we had before so many techno gadgets robbed us of focus and time?  Here’s a quick video that I found at the AARP site that talks about that.  Can you recognize yourself in the video.  I can.  According to Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist, specializing in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD),  it is almost impossible for us to go back to the good ‘ole days.  According to him, our brain “squirts” a dab of dopamine everytime we hear an email or voice message alert.  We can’t help ourselves from stopping what we’re doing and opening the email or listening to the voicemail or reading the text.  According to the video, we spend 20 minutes out of everyday dealing with interruptions and taking time away from “think time”.    That’s a third of our day lost to interruptions.

I’ve talked about the need to really carve out think time for leaders & their teams.  Whether it’s an innovation day or an idea day or just a couple of hours in our day, we need time away from these interruptions to sort out problems and think of new ways to deal with existing issues.  Without that time, as Dr. Hallowell talks about in his book “Crazy Busy“, we succumb to “office ADD” and nothing is accomplished.  Innovation and creativity get stifled by “office ADD”.  

Back in the day, before the interruptions created by all the technology devices that are designed to help us work better, we actually had time in our day to sit and think problems through.  Today, we have to make time to do that if we want our organizations to stay competitive in a increasingly global marketplace.

So what about you?  Do you wish for the good ‘ole days?  What can you do today to fight back  your “office ADD”  tendencies?

I came across an interesting article in the September edition of AARP Bulletin. The article was written by Cynthia Ramnarace and it was called “Smartphone NationIt had some great statistics on smartphone usage that surprised me.  The biggest surprise was that 50% of all Baby Boomers sleep with their cellphones within arm’s reach.  I wouldn’t have guessed it was that high.  I would have thought that we were so attached to it during the day that the last thing we want is to put it next to our nightstands at night.  I guess only half of us agree with me. 

Another interesting statistic from the Pew Research Center is how the IPhone has increased usage by turning the cellphones into what the reporter calls  “entertainment centers”.  I had never thought of cell phones or really smartphones in that light but I think it’s so true.  According to Pew in 2007, the year the IPhone made its debut, only 11% of people used a phone to access the Internet. By May of this year, that percentage  has gone up to 38%.  What percentage do you think it will be next May?

But the article really warns about our addiction to smartphones.  Ramnarace quotes Patricia Wallace, author of The Pychology of the Internet” who describes smartphones as a “pocket-size game of chance”.  The author compares it to a slot machine where you never know whether you will be rewarded or not when you pull the lever.  What a great description.  Everytime I hear my IPhone alert me of a call, a text, a voicemail or email, I have to fight the urge to pick up the phone and look at the message.  Most of the time, I’m disappointed because it wasn’t anything urgent and it made me get distracted from what I was doing.

I often hear many Baby Boomers criticize Millennials for their need to be constantly connected but truthfully, what about us?  Aren’t we doing the same thing with our smartphones?   Recently, I’ve forced myself to observe fellow Baby Boomers in  networking  events to see if they were overindulging their smartphones.  Over 70% of them took out their smartphones either while listening to a speaker, while engaging in conversation with a group of people or while standing off on their own.  That’s a lot of indulgence.  We talk about technology getting in the way of the Millennials’ ability to be in the moment but frankly, what about us?  We can apologize all we want for having to “take” this call, or respond ”quickly” to this email, or “answer” this text but we are engaging in the same multi-tasking activities that drive us crazy when we see it in the Millennials.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to criticize Millennials?  Maybe the quick pace of today’s workplace affects all of us but we just don’t see it as well in ourselves as we do in others? Maybe we should try to stop overindulging the smartphone and overindulge in connecting and interacting with others.  That’s always more rewarding.

The article has a quick quiz at the end to spot if you are hooked on your smartphone.  Take it and see if you need an intervention.  Chances are you will…

Another great article that appeared in the September issue of Success Magazine was one written by Sandra Bienkowski called “Giving Back:How Giving to Others Enriches You in Return“.  In the article, Sandra interviews Harvey McKinnon who is recognized as North America’s leading fundraising expert.  Harvey talks about some scientific studies that show that when people give to others it makes them feel better.  The article is a wonderful reminder of how giving to others benefits the giver more than it does the receiver.

Although the article focuses on giving from a fundraising and volunteering perspective, I thought of how it also applies to our role as leaders in our organizations.  Giving our time, our support and our wisdom to members of our team is a wonderful way to helping them grow and reach their potential.  Too often we hide behind our spreadsheets, powerpoint slides and financial reports and don’t interact with our teams in an authentic way.   But as Harvey McKinnon says  “Giving back enables us to reach our potential”.  By taking time out of our busy work schedules to connect with others in our team we can not only see their potential but we push ourselves to reach our own.

I have had many great accomplishments and have been proud of many of the things I have done in my long corporate career.  But none of them come close to the pride and sense of achievement I have felt when I have connected with my team members, seen their potential and assisted them in reaching that potential.  Seeing them reach a milestone they thought they could not reach was better than any raise I could have gotten.  It’s a wonderful feeling and makes you feel energized and alive.   I could never have felt that way by staying removed, in my office, behind my laptop and stack of reports.  The connection you make with your team, the giving of your time and energy to help them grow are what leadership is all about.  Unfortunately, we don’t always make the connection, take the extra time, compliment them on a job well done.  These are all lost opportunities to help make a difference in someone else’s career and life and possibly to learn something new about yourself in the process.

Today, Labor Day, as we celebrate the worker, let’s take time out to appreciate our staff, to thank them for all the hard work they do for us and to make a commitment to give them more of us so they can become more tomorrow than they are today. When you get back to work tomorrow, thank your team and embrace a more giving mentality in your leadership style.

So what about you? Are you enriching your life by giving of yourself to your team members?