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Ask A Comedian How To Spearhead Innovation

Robin Williams and Pam Dawber as Mork and MindyThere is something about Robin Williams that scares the hell out of me. It's that genius-cracked-up thing: The same genes that give him brilliance also make him willing to be just a little bit crazy.

Yet there are two kinds of crazy, the bad and the good. Bad crazy is when you're out of touch with reality and don't realize it. Good crazy is when you realize it and are willing to play.

When I was a kid it was with trepidation that I watched Mork & Mindy on TV. If you don't remember it, the show was a sitcom about an alien ("Mork"/Robin Williams) from another planet ("Ork") who comes to earth in a giant egg and lives with/falls in love with/eventually marries a very "normal" lady, "Mindy."

"Normal" meaning she thinks inside the box. She doesn't even know that there is one.

Like I say, Williams in character scared me. He was And yet I was compelled to watch. There was something about his character that felt real. The things he said were really a social critique.

A few comedians have shown us the shock of the foreigner really well:
The characters these comedians portray have three key things in common:
  • A personal experience of culture shock: Cohen, Pinchot and Allen are all Jewish, and Robin Williams describes himself as an "honorary Jew." Jewish culture, and religious culture in general, is decidedly different from mainstream secular culture and to join the larger group you have to learn new values that contradict what you were raised with. Thus the natural comedy about being a foreigner in a foreign land.
  • Love for the rejected past: Williams once described being an Episcopal just like many Jewish people describe their religious upbringing: "Catholic Lite - same rituals, half the guilt." When you are raised to believe that salvation depends on following the rules, but then you reject those rules in favor of another system that makes more sense to you, a part of you is constantly torn. Underlying the comedies about acculturation is a kind of familiar longing for the past, that you know doesn't work, but that you still remember with love anyway.
  • A pretended sense of innocence: There is a reason that Mork, Balki, Alvy and Borat are all characters situated in unfamiliar places where they cannot possibly know the rules. Obviously they are written by people who do know very well what what norms they are challenging. But the way they become palatable to the mainstream - the object of the critique - is for the comedian to feign ignorance. In the process of the "ordinary" person teaching the foreigner "right and wrong," which are really just social decisions, both the alien and the native question whether those rules make sense in the first place.
If you are really serious about promoting innovation where you work, think about these fictional characters as you develop your strategy. Here are three specific things that you can do as a result:
  1. Immerse yourself in another organization, culture, or experience for a period of time so that you get in touch with the "culture shock" that occurs when people are forced to embrace change.
  2. Find, preserve and celebrate aspects of tradition that people are attached to and don't threaten the way forward. Not everything has to change - only the things that get in the way of productivity.
  3. Get into the world you want to change and talk to the people there, rather than lecturing them from above (think like Undercover Boss on CBS). Observe and then ask employeesto explain their processes to you. As they talk, innovative ideas will come from them and they will be more receptive to your suggestions as well.
The bottom line is, try to distance yourself from the situation you see as the "problem" and remember that every organization is a loosely collected set of rules that can be adjusted for whatever purpose makes the most logical sense. Nothing is set in stone anymore, and today you can be sure that change is going to happen faster than ever - whether you want it to or not.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Image via Wikipedia

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Horrible Frustration + Instant Gratification: It Works Every Time (Marketing Technology)

A Kerr mason jarYou know how sometimes you can't get the lid off a jar?

It's stuck, so you run hot water over it, put rubber gloves on, hit it with a metal spoon, twist and yank it until finally the lid pops off. Sometimes the liquid in the jar explodes over its lip, and you jump back. You might even drop the jar because it's so exciting to see that it finally opened. And then it falls off the counter and shatters into a million pieces. Which is sort of sad, since not only can't you eat what's in the jar but it's a real pain to have to pick up all those glass pieces.

In any case, yesterday I finally popped the lid off a technology jar at work. Actually a few of them. Considering all the projects involved, the combined effort was more than five years of work. It was like boom - boom - boom, one problem solved; then another; then another; then another. By the end of the day three people had seen it and they were suitably shocked and awed.

I had an epiphany:

The magic formula for getting people to adopt a new technology is to show them how it resolves a real frustration in their lives, by providing an instant gratification.

The solution has to do both of those things. The frustration has to be real - it has to be their frustration, not one that you've invented or imposed on them. The gratification has to be truly instant - if they have to fiddle with it for more than five seconds, they're gone.

Some other associated realizations, that can help you be more successful and manage the stress associated with having to "fix your baby," the technology solution:
  1. Expect that it will take you a really long time to develop a solution to the problem. You will have to test it, fix the bugs, redesign it, show it around, fix it again, over a period of months and maybe years.
  2. Expect that nobody cares that you solved the Rubik's cube. You are the geek and they are the end user and usually, never the twain shall meet.
  3. Expect that you will need help packaging the solution for the end user. Usually that means finding someone in a leadership function who is not a communicator, but who has something to gain by promoting this technology. This person will know exactly how to market it to other people who need to support it.
  4. Expect that you will have to pare down the solution's capabilities to only the simplest and most obvious things. The end user does not want to know about every possible thing that can be done, only the thing that solves their problems.
  5. Expect that you will also need help from a non-technical communicator to help you design the interface so that it is easy to use from a visual standpoint. (This is a HUGE mistake technology companies make, thinking they need technical communicators instead of ordinary folks who don't speak in jargon, ever.) You'll also need an easy-to-use set of screenshots to walk a user through the first time.
Sometimes when you're working on technology solutions you can get frustrated yourself. You may think that it's a waste of time, nobody will ever use it, and things don't change. Not true! I have pushed through a few significant projects like this and while not all of them have gone through (yet), enough have actually been adopted that it's worth taking the game.

Think of it like archery. You have 20 arrows to throw at the target. If you don't know how to shape them only 1 may hit it. By learning in advance how to package and refine your work, and then sell it to the end user, you may up that number to 5 or 10. Which is really totally awesome.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!


Image via Wikipedia

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Are you addicted to the problem?

Old joke --

Father: "Why are you banging your head against the wall?"

Son: "Because it feels so good when I stop."

Are most of us really so different when it comes to solving our problems? We actually create them and then we spend our lives flailing around trying to make them go away. In the end we are like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" - realizing we could have just clicked our glittery red shoes together instead of making such an arduous and dangerous trip.

It's not a new idea that we subconsciously seek out interactions that will force us to confront our own problems. I wish I had a dollar for every psychologist who put their kids through med school on the frustrations of clients who seek out the same kind of painful and often impossible relationships again and again. The person "can't get it through their head" that if you play with your own particular type of fire you are more than likely to get burnt. They do it again and again, try to "fix it" again and again, and too often fail.

Come to think of it I wish I had a dollar for every self-help book that's been published on this topic, too. I wish I were Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura.

It is easy to tell people addicted to pain that they should turn instead to less challenging situations. But that would be the wrong advice.

The reason we seek out challenging interactions is because we know that we have to heal. In effect we use other people as a way of pinpointing the defects in ourselves.

The way people do this, normally, is to find someone or some situation totally on the opposite end of the spectrum. Overtly they are trying to justify their own extreme-ness. Covertly they want the other person to bring them back into balance.

So for example, glamorous, shallow, attention-seeking LA lady Kim Kardashian rushes to marry a simple homebody who represents the polar, extreme opposite and who literally tells her to her face that her career in the limelight is short-lived.

The truth, if you ask me, is that Kim doesn't even like the limelight but is only trying to please her mother Kris. Who really, really does. And who has pushed Kim into an identity that is fake. And so Kim's way of "rebelling" is to find someone who disagrees with her mother's values. So that she can battle him, instead of dealing with what's eating her.

Ultimately Kim's marriage fell apart fast. She went too far, too fast in choosing Kris, and he is not going to be able to help her reach the balance that she needs. So she'll go on to the next relationship. But until she deals with the inner demons driving her, it is always, always going to be about Kim's inner conflict.

Will Kim Kardashian live the rest of her life satisfied to be a pure object for the camera, with no self, no inner life? Or will she walk away from her mother's projected expectations and discover a calling, an identity that is more meaningful and not dependent on her "assets"?

Similarly, will Kris Humphries evolve in terms of having respect for other people? Will he become respectful and gentle instead of "brutally honest" (rude) and roughly physical (throwing Kim around, shaking baby Mason in his play house)?

Only time will tell.

In a sense, it can be socially productive to try and heal yourself by finding out-of-balance situations that only you can address effectively, because you are so unbalanced in the other direction. For example, sometimes you need someone who is obsessed with rules to tighten up a loosey-goosey culture, and vice versa. (If you ever watched that show "The Odd Couple," you know what I mean - it's that Felix vs. Oscar dynamic.)

At the same time, just because an imbalance works for you, doesn't mean you should let it drive your life and use it as an excuse to avoid achieving more balance on your own - without having to be confronted by challenging people and situations. If you're walking around with your iPhone in front of you, texting all the time, then you probably ought to take it upon yourself to put the device in the drawer a few hours a day. Rather than wait for someone to tell you to stop managing by e-mail.

In the end it really comes down to two things: Choice and objectivity. You are free to choose how to live your life, but the choices you make will be vastly better if you can be objective about why you are making them.

Ultimately whether you are dealing with personal choices or business decisions that affect your brand, it is more gratifying to confront yourself and grow, rather than ignore the subconscious drives that keep you locked in the same painful patterns again and again.

Your existence on this planet is intentional - you have been placed here to accomplish a goal. You have the power to eliminate the distractions that are getting in the way. Stop wasting time looking for negative people and negative situations that you can complain about. Start focusing on what matters to you, and then go out and get it done.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

P.S. RIP Amy, I am still a huge fan.

10 Things Bosses Appreciate That You May Overlook

1. Look for ways to add value instead of waiting to be asked.

2. Stay out of the way unless you are needed. Bosses are busy.

3. Work with other people to resolve issues that will affect implementation of an idea before you present it.

4. Ask how they are doing sincerely, not just to score points.

5. Bring them a fully packaged brief but leave room for them to customize it their way for later presentation.

6. Volunteer for crappy stuff that nobody wants to do.

7. Refuse at all costs to participate in miserable negative talk that just drags everybody down.

8. Dress more formally than you think you have to.

9. Take notes in meetings where your boss is present and provide them afterward as a courtesy.

10. Follow up on conversations where a next step is needed - do not wait for them to ask you.


Image via Flickr, courtesy of thebarrowboy
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Uncontrollable, Yet Predictable

Brand like a tree lives. It has the appearance of bending and stretching in all directions, suddenly sprouting leaves, decaying and then starting again.

I love looking at trees because they are naturally beautiful. It doesn't hurt that they remind me how to brand.

Brand Yourself for the Cost of a Paper Plate

The concept of a "brand bubble" is not new. It's a way to categorize consumers based on the types of brands they like and buy.

This morning it occurred to me that you could do your own little "brand bubble" test as a 5-minute exercise in self-discovery. I took a paper plate and scribbled all the brands I could think of that are "me."

The ones I feel strongly about are circled.

Note that "steak" is among my brands. It's not a brand name, but it just really seems to me that we carnivores are in a class by ourselves.

So I'm a Starbucks-drinkin', Merrell-wearing, Madonna-admiring, Lubavitcher Rebbe/Dalai Lama/Joel Osteen watching, Penelope-Trunk reading person who relates to VW but dreams in Christian Dior.

Who are you?

Finding out can save you lots of time, effort and money.

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