Book review: Triumph of the City

This review first ran in the Sept. 12 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier

By Edward Glaeser

Penguin Press

$37.50

As a Hamilton taxpayer, I’m less than thrilled that we’re picking up the $100,000 tab for the fiasco that was lingerie football at Copps Coliseum back in July.

And I’m not completely convinced that Festival of Friends needs a $100,000 handout from local taxpayers.

But I’d have no problem if $200,000 from the public purse paid for special events put on by Hamilton Hive.

The Hive brings together Hamilton’s new blood and young guns. It’s in the business of building networks among our city’s next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, small business owners, corporate leaders and civic boosters.

And it’s through these Hive-brokered conversations, connections and collaborations that we could finally fix Hamilton’s image problem and our never ending search for an identity. The Hive could prove to be a catalyst in building Hamilton’s reputation as the start-up capital of Canada. The best place and first choice for young, smart and savvy professionals looking to set up shop, launch a business, grow a company, raise a family and make their mark. 

Hamilton Hive is contributing to a key requirement for all successful cities, says author and Harvard University professor Edward Glaeser who believes the world isn’t so much flat as it is paved and urban. “To thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively. Cities thrive when they have many small firms and skilled citizens.”

So what’s it take to attract smart people and small firms? Glaeser says there are two competing visions. There’s the Richard Florida vision of chasing after the creative class by embracing the arts, celebrating alternative lifestyles and investing in a fun, happening downtown.  With a fondness for coffeehouses and public sculpture, Glaeser says it’s a vision that seems aimed at a 28-year-old wearing a black turtleneck and reading Proust.

The second vision of city building is boring by comparison, with a focus on doing a better job of being brilliant at the basics and delivering core public services like safe streets, fast commutes and good schools. It’s a vision built around meeting the needs of a 42-year-old biotech researcher concerned about whether her family will be as comfortable and their quality of life will be as good in Hamilton as they’d be in Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver.

With scarce resources, cities can’t afford to be everything for everyone. So which vision is best? Where should a city invest limited revenues and the energy of its leaders? While Glaeser supports subscribing to a bit of both visions, sticking to the basics is the best option for most cities on the rebound.

“There are roughly three times as many people in their thirties, forties and fifties as there are in their twenties, so it would be a mistake for cities to think that they can survive solely as magnets for the young and hip,” says Glaeser. “As much as I appreciate urban culture, aesthetic interventions can never substitute for the urban basics. A sexier place won’t bring many jobs if it isn’t safe. All the cafes in Paris won’t entice parents to put their kids in a bad public school system.”

Struggling cities confuse aesthetic interventions with urban basics and accelerate their decline. “Too many officials in troubled cities wrongly imagine that they can lead their city back to its former glories with some massive construction project – a new stadium or light rail system, a convention centre, or a housing project,” says Glaeser, who calls this the edifice complex.

It’s a blind belief that struggling cities can build themselves out of decline and that abundant new building leads to urban success even if the existing stock of housing and office space outstrips demand. “Successful cities typically do build, because economic vitality makes people willing to pay for space and builders are happy to accommodate. But building is the result, not the cause, of success. Overbuilding a declining city that already has more structures than it needs is nothing but folly.”

Glaeser says city planners and civic leaders need to be realistic and expect moderate successes rather than blockbusters. “Realism pushes toward small, sensible projects, not betting a city’s future on a vast, expensive roll of the dice. The real payoff of these investments in amenities lies in attracting the skilled residents who can really make a city rebound, especially if those residents can connect with the world economy. We must free ourselves from the tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”

Glaeser says municipal leaders have one overriding priority. “Ultimately, the job of urban government isn’t to fund buildings or rail lines that can’t possibly cover their costs, but to care for the city’s citizens. A mayor who can better educate a city’s children so that they can find opportunity on the other side of the globe is succeeding, even if his city is getting smaller.”

What cities must build first and foremost is their workforce. “There is no such thing as a successful city without human capital,” says Glaeser. Building that capital starts with kids and teens staying in school, getting a good education and going on to postsecondary. A highly educated, highly skilled workforce serves as the magnet that attracts employers with high skilled, high paying jobs. And those employers in turn attract even more highly skilled newcomers.

“The path back for declining industrial towns is long and hard,” warns Glaeser, who says Rust Belt cities built their economies around major employers that required low skilled labour. “Over decades, they must undo the cursed legacy of big factories and heavy industry. They must return to their roots as places of small-scale entrepreneurship and commerce. Apart from investing in education and maintaining core public services with moderate taxes and regulations, governments can do little to speed this process. Not every city will come back, but human creativity is strong, especially when reinforced by urban density.”

Glaeser’s case studies and histories of thriving and dying cities from around the world should be required reading for all Hamiltonians. His book also begs a question. We had no trouble taking $45 million out of the Hamilton Future Fund to rebuild a football stadium. What if we took another $45 million and covered the full costs of apprenticeship training, college diplomas and university degrees for every child in our Code Red neighbourhoods?  As Glaeser makes clear, educating our kids is a surefire way to fund a city’s future.

Book review: Pinched: How The Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures

This review originally ran in The Hamilton Spectator.

Pinched: How The Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures And What We Can Do About It

By Don Peck

Crown Publishing ($25)

Rejection letters were my postcards from the lost summer of ’92.

I’d graduated from the Harvard of the North into the teeth of a recession. No one was hiring. Everyone was firing. Baby Boomers hunkered down in their jobs. And freshly minted grads with bachelor’s degrees in political science and master’s degrees in journalism didn’t stand much of a chance.

All through that sunless and soggy summer, I made a daily trek to a job centre and then over to the library to read the help wanted ads in newspapers from near and far. I sent out a forest worth of resumes, got a sapling worth of rejection letters in return and joined the starting lineup of Team NEET (not in education, employment or training).

After four grinding months of fruitless searches and marinating in self-pity, I lowered my sights, pulled up my big boy pants and learned to say yes. I said yes to a job at the restaurant where I’d worked during high school. Yes to a string of freelance gigs where I earned about $2.50 an hour. Yes to a part-time job working weekend nights at a daily newspaper. And, a full year after graduation, yes to a job that launched what’s been a rewarding and durable career.

It’s been 19 years but that lost summer has left both an indelible mark on my psyche and empathy for 20-somethings who’ve been battered and bruised by the Great Recession.

The Millennial generation is sinking, warns author Don Peck, an award-winning reporter and features editor with The Atlantic. “Many twentysomethings will emerge from the Great Recession with their earning power permanently reduced, their confidence dimmed and their ideals profoundly changed.”

Making a bad situation worse is an ingrained sense of entitlement and a highly structured and scheduled childhood. Peck says the checklist generation has a serious lack of independence, entrepreneurialism and sense of perseverance. “Trained throughout childhood to disconnect performance from reward, and told repeatedly that they are destined for great things, many are quick to place blame elsewhere when something goes wrong and inclined to believe that bad situations will sort themselves out — or will be sorted out by parents or other helpers.”

But it’s not just 20-somethings who are struggling. The Great Recession has accelerated the sorting of winners and losers and the hollowing out of the middle class. A two-speed society is taking shape, with a highly educated professional class moving ahead and everyone else getting stuck in neutral or falling into reverse. In March of this year, the U.S. unemployment rate was 12 per cent for people with only a high school diploma, 4.5 per cent for college grads and 2 per cent for people with professional degrees.

A large, white and predominantly male underclass is forming along with a new politics of grievance. In growing numbers, women are the breadwinners in working-class and non-professional middle-class families. In the United States, men suffered roughly three-quarters of the eight million job losses in 2008 and 2009. In January of this year, 18.8 per cent of men in their prime working years didn’t have jobs. Fewer prime-age men have been employed than at any time since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the statistic in 1948. As the male-dominated manufacturing sector shrinks, the female-dominated service sector grows.

“Joblessness corrodes marriages and makes divorce much more likely down the road,” says Peck, who was told by the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia that marriage is an increasingly fragile institution among couples without college degrees.

Peck calls chronic and all-consuming unemployment a pestilence that slowly eats away at people and families and becomes society’s most noxious ill.

“One of the largest long-term risks to society is that the norms of a very large class of people, in a very large number of places, are now changing in unhealthy ways.” A broad array of measures of family dysfunction are blinking red. The lives of moderately educated families increasingly mirror those of high-school dropouts, burdened with financial stress, job loss, partner conflict, single parenting and troubled children.

These pressures can prove to be fertile ground for discontent. South of the border, public views toward society’s more marginal members have hardened since the crash. “Proliferating signs of a turning inward and a narrowing of minds should not be surprising,” says Peck. “As hard times linger, they reliably produce resentment toward outsiders, suspicion of unfair treatment and zero-sum thinking. Frustration is typically strongest not among the most marginalized groups, but among the newly marginalized, those whose status and self-image have collapsed the most abruptly or are in the greatest danger of doing so.”

Peck says the Great Recession offers a preview of where our economy is headed and what’s in store for our communities. “While this preview is troubling, it is also clarifying. Many of the deepest economic trends that the recession has highlighted and temporarily sped up will take decades to fully play out. We can adapt successfully to them, if we start now.”

According to Peck, the key to building a stronger, more resilient economy and healthier society rests on smarter, more creative and decisive government actions and a renewed private commitment to civic responsibility and community life. “This was not a vanilla recession and vanilla responses will not end it,” says Peck.

To save and strengthen the middle class, Peck recommends a continued push for better schooling, clearer paths into careers for people who don’t immediately go to college or university, better access to affluent communities and dynamic cities and stronger support for low-wage workers.

Yet Peck says we tend to underestimate the costs and consequences of a lingering recession and overestimate the risks of aggressive action to jump-start the economy. We should expect little if any action from governments that have already closed the door on stimulus funding and are focused on reducing deficits through funding cuts.

“If we remain stuck in an economic climate in which stagnation and disappointment are the norms for large numbers, the most likely risks to our politics are not rogue leaders or an insurgent populist party. They are endless vacillation, low levels of public trust, and political options that are stunted by a poisonous atmosphere and heavy discontent.”

Book review: The Great Workplace

This review originally ran in the Aug. 1 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Great Workplace: How to Build it, How to Keep it and Why it Matters

By Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin

Jossey-Bass

$33.95

Maybe you’re tone deaf when it comes to singing your employees’ praises.

Maybe you believe the troops should be thanking you for their steady jobs and decent paycheques.

Or maybe you’re just too busy with meetings, reports and paperwork to give thanks for a job well done.

That’s your choice. But here’s the deal. You can invest some of your time every day saying thank you in big and small ways. Or you can waste every minute managing for compliance and dealing with the headaches and hassles of constant turnover.

A demographic shift of epic proportions is headed our way. By all accounts, there won’t be enough Gen Xers and Millennials to fill the high-skilled jobs vacated by retiring Baby Boomers.

Embedding recognition into your organizational DNA will help you weather the storm. Show the love to your best and brightest and they’ll be less likely to stray.

But if you’re unwilling or unable to formally and informally recognize your staff, you risk turning your workplace into the Land of Misfit Toys. You’ll be left with a motley crew of malcontents and nonperformers who have nowhere else to go.

Effective recognition starts at the top with strong leadership. “Where you invest your time and attention as a leader serves as a powerful model for what employees see as important and meaningful,” say authors Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin, who work with the Great Place to Work Institute. Established in 1991, the institute is a global research and consulting firm that publishes annual lists of the best places to work in 40 countries.

“When a leader focuses time and attention on their people’s successful performance behavior, employees respond with even greater energy and commitment.”

Yet based on the institute’s research and their own consulting experience, Burchell and Robin claim the majority of leaders and organizations don’t earn a passing grade on formal and informal recognition. “Most people aren’t thanked enough for their contributions, instead they are rarely praised at all for their good work and extra effort.”

Recognition demonstrates respect. And respect, together with credibility, fairness, pride and camaraderie, are the key dimensions that make up the institute’s tried, true and tested Great Places to Work Model.   

Employees at great place to work believe five things to be true. They believe in their leaders. They believe they are valued members of the organization. They believe that everyone plays by the same rules. They believe that they contribute something meaningful. And they believe the people they work with are great.

Trust underpins the Great Places to Work Model. Open and honest two-way communications is the place to start for leaders looking to build buy-in.  

“If you were to work on one single aspect of a great workplace, you’d likely make far-reaching improvements by strengthening two-way communications,” recommend Burchell and Robin. “Two-way communication is arguably the most important dimension of the Great Place to Work Model. It is foundational to employee perceptions of credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie. How can you believe your leaders are competent in the first place if you have no idea what they’re up to?”

Communications is about more than setting expectations, giving employees the information they need to do their job and letting them how their performance measures up. It’s also about giving straight answers to tough questions, being accessible and approachable and actually listening to what staff have to say.

A great workplace is built by great leaders.  “In the best companies, leaders at all levels have a strong commitment to creating strong ties between the employee and the organization. Indeed, enhancing trust, pride and camaraderie in the workplace is the central task of effective leadership in today’s organization.”

Great leaders also understand the need to balance the tensions between responsibility and humility, passion and patience, relationships and results.

“As a leader, you must accept responsibility for your role in culture,” say Burchell and Robin.  “You are the chief role model and trust builder, and people look to your behavior and decisions for guidance on their own behavior and decision making. But you also need some degree of humility that allows you to reach out and enlist people. Your responsibility needs to become everyone’s responsibility if you want to create a great workplace.”

If your organization is less than great, there’s still time and hope for a turnaround. Burchell and Robin offer a proven gameplan for shoring up your employees’ relationships with you, their work and their colleagues.

And if you’re not feeling the love at work, Burchell and Robin will introduce you to employers that get it right when it comes to credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie. It’s about to become a seller’s market so don’t settle for anything less than a great place to work.

Review: Being Strategic

This review first ran in the July 18 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Being Strategic: Plan for success, outthink your competitors, stay ahead of the change

By Erika Andersen

St. Martin's Griffin

$18.50

Here’s a quick and easy test to see if you’re a strategic thinker.

A new initiative is ramping up at work. You’ve been assigned to the project team.

Within the first 10 minutes of the team’s inaugural meeting, do you propose launching a newsletter, blog, Facebook group, Twitter feed and weekly podcast?

Do you pitch a contest where every employee is invited to design a logo for the project?

Do you then lay out plans to put the winning logo on a shipping container worth of coffee mugs, key chains, mouse pads, lapel pins, pens, paper weights, mantle clocks, picture frames, golf shirts, ball caps, note pads, temporary tattoos, laptop bags, Christmas tree ornaments and other giveaways for staff?

Do you walk the team through the minute by minute logistics of an all-staff pig roast barbecue in the head office parking lot featuring a marching band, clowns, balloons, dunk tank, carnival rides, circus acts, performances by the last five winners of American Idol and a flyover by the Canadian Forces’ Snowbirds?

Or, instead of a laundry list of tactics where money and common sense are no obstacles, do you convince your colleagues to first define and agree on the problem that your team has been assigned to solve?

If the latter, you’re a strategic thinker and a godsend to senior management who want their people to work smarter and actually deliver stellar results on time and on budget.

All of us want to be strategic. Most of us have thought, or said aloud, in a meeting mired in the weeds that we need to be more strategic. Yet few of us can agree on what it means.

Here’s a good working definition, courtesy of author Erika Andersen, founder of an organizational development firm that helps big-name clients develop winning strategies.

Strategic thinking is about consistently making those core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future.

“Being strategic involves a way of thinking and a set of skills that are applicable to almost any decision, large or small, professional or personal,” says Anderson.

You start thinking that way and building the required skill set by following a five-step process.

Start by defining the core challenge. What’s the real problem you’re trying to solve? The goal you’re trying to reach? Don’t jump to solutions until you’ve nailed the problem.

“Until you have a clear sense of the problem to be solved, it’s impossible to envision what ‘solved’ would look like — that is, the future you want to create.”

Define the challenge by answering three questions. What isn’t working? How can we …? And would this feel like success?

Next, clarify what is. Get a clear sense of where you’re starting from relative to your challenge.

“People tend to err in one of two directions,” says Andersen. “Either they look too narrowly, overfocusing on one or two aspects of the ‘what is’ or they focus too broadly, trying to look at every single aspect of their current reality.”

Look too narrowly and you won’t have all the information you need. Focus too broadly and you’ll get buried in data. And always be what Andersen calls a fair witness. Are you stating things as they really are or as you’d like them to be? Are you neglecting or ignoring uncomfortable and inconvenient facts?

Now focus on what’s the hope.

“For most people, this is the fun part of being strategic: envisioning possibilities. It’s also a key element of most successful lives. People who achieve important goals rarely do it by accident. Aim for a reasonable aspiration. Pick a time frame for success. And imagine yourself in that future.

Face what’s in the way. Take a step back. Look at where you’re starting from, where you want to go and what’s between you and the future. By knowing this, you can figure out what you need to get over, around and through.

And finally, determine the path. Set strategies first, tactics second. Strategies are the roadway. Tactics are the asphalt.

“This step of the process is central to being strategic — and is the point where many people, even if they’ve made it this far, are most likely to run off the rails and just start doing stuff.”

Clear strategies serve to filter and screen tactics. To craft winning strategies, always test for feasibility, impact and timeliness. Can you do what you’re proposing? Is this the best use of limited resources? And is this something that can, and needs to be, done now?

The temptation to jump straight to tactics and create the illusion of progress can be overwhelming. But do yourself, your team and your organization a favour.

Focus first on defining the challenge. Clarify what is. Envision what could be. Face what’s in the way. Find the right path. And banish anyone from the team who suggests a logo contest.

Book review: Science Fair Season

This review ran in the June 20th edition of the Hamilton Spectator. For Hamilton, one way to get kids out of poverty is to get them into the Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair.

Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, A Robot Named Scorch And What It Takes to Win

By Judy Dutton

Hyperion

$26.99

Somewhere in Hamilton’s Code Red neighbourhoods is the next Kayla Cornale.

Cornale invented Sounds into Syllables while she was a high school student in Burlington.  It’s a computer-based teaching system for children with autism that uses music as a bridge to learning. Cornale"s motivation for the project was personal. She was looking for a way to connect with her younger cousin who has autism.

Cornale’s project would go on to win more than 50 awards, including top honours at the regional Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair and the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in 2005 and 2006.  In 2007, she won a CNN Hero of the Year Award. Kayla used her science fair prize money to apply for patent and launch Sounds into Syllables in special education classes across North America.

 “The lesson I would learn from her was that the ultimate reward of doing science fairs isn’t fame or money or college scholarships,” says author Nancy Dutton about interviewing Cornale, who at the time was a sophomore at Stanford University. “It’s far simpler than that. It’s about connecting with the people you care about most.”

Cornale is one of 12 science fair competitors profiled by Dutton.  There’s a 14-year-old radioactive whiz kid who built a nuclear fusion reactor. A junkyard genius who built a solar-powered room and water heater for his family’s trailer on the Navajo Indian reservation. A 16-year girl with leprosy who set out to replace fear with facts about the disease. The science fair stars behind bars at a juvenile correctional facility. A kid who took on DuPont. And a teen actress and model who shot a documentary on honeybees and colony collapse disorder.

While every story is unique, there’s a common theme. Every young person had a parent or teacher in their corner and pulling for their success.

Dutton also covers the Superbowl of science fairs, Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). The annual competition draws more than 1,500 teens from more than 50 countries. More than $4 million worth of scholarships and prizes is on the table.

“Science fairs bring back memories for just about all of us,” says Dutton. “The petri dishes. The potato clocks. The classic, crowd-pleasing baking soda volcanoes.”

Flash forward to today and the times have changed. As one of the ISEF judges tells Dutton, high schoolers are now solving problems that have puzzled scientists for years. “The level of sophistication in these projects is in many cases beyond the level of graduate school and doctoral research.”

And the value and importance of science fairs cannot be overstated, says Dutton.

“Winning changes kids. And not all of these changes can be measured in a cheque, plaque, ribbon or even whether the kids go to college. Some of the most significant changes are far more subtle. Winning opens their eyes to a world of possibilities. It nudges them to take risks. It turns on that little voice inside their heads that says you can do this, even when they swear they can’t. It gives them grit, and guts, and the knowledge that they have the smarts and heart to handle whatever life throws their way. It gives them hope that, in spite of the odds, they have what it takes to end up on top.”

What’s good for the kids is also good for our communities. We’re part of a global economy that’s driven by innovation and entrepreneurship. Encouraging kids to consider and pursue STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is a smart move if we’re serious about tackling growing labour shortages, closing a widening skills gap and addressing complex problems that have no easy solutions.

It’s also a smart move if we’re serious about making Hamilton the best place to raise a child. One way to get kids out of poverty is to get them into the Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair. It’s one of Canada’s largest and longest running fairs, open to Grade 7 to 12 students from Hamilton and Halton, and entirely volunteer-run.

So here’s a project for Hamilton. What would happen if an all-star line-up of hometown engineers, researchers, technologists and technicians signed on as mentors and coaches for elementary and secondary school students in Code Red neighbourhoods? What if we gave kids an all access pass to our city’s wealth of labs and workshops, equipment and technology?  

What if local businesses, service clubs and philanthropists doubled down on scholarships and prizes and underwrote the cost of putting together projects? What if marketing, advertising and PR pros helped sell the fair and helped kids practice and perfect their pitches to judges? What if lawyers offered to help kids complete the paperwork to patent their winning ideas?

And what if our civic leaders celebrated the winners, their teachers and mentors, BASEF volunteers and sponsors with the same enthusiasm that we’ll shower on the Tiger-Cats when they win their 16th Grey Cup?

Add this book to your summer reading list. It’s an inspiring read, a reaffirmation that the kids are alright and a reminder of the difference one grown-up can make in the future of a child.

Book review: Innovative Intelligence

This review originally ran in the March 28 issue of The Hamliton Spectator.

Innovative Intelligence: The Art and Practice of Leading Sustainable Innovation In Your Organization

By David Weiss and Claude Legrand

John Wiley & Sons

$39.95

Innovation is important to the future success of your organization. Agree or disagree.

Your organization is effective at innovation. Yes or no?

Now let’s compare your answers with senior executives at 500 large organizations who were surveyed by authors David Weiss and Claude Legrand.

While 88 per cent of leaders agree that innovation is important, only 33 per cent say their organizations are effective when it comes to innovation.

So why the gap?

“The root cause of the innovation gap is the inability to effectively manage the complexity inherent in the knowledge economy,” say Weiss and Legrand, who lead firms specializing in innovation leadership and sustainable innovation.

“Enhancing the ability to lead through complexity will dramatically contribute to closing the innovation gap,” says Weiss and Legrand

The biggest obstacle to leading through complexity is the way leaders think today.”

If you’ve been tapped for a leadership role, chances are you’re an ace trouble-shooter. You have a proven track record of simplifying and fixing problems. You’re fast on your feet. You’ve been there, solved that. You religiously read Harvard Business Review. And you have a cavalry of consultants on speed dial for industrial-size clean-ups and salvage operations.

But there’s a world of difference between complicated problems and complex issues. In today’s knowledge economy, we’re up against increasingly unpredictable and unique challenges. The old rules no longer apply.  Complex issues tend to come with underlying and unchallenged assumptions. There are more moving parts, more chefs in the kitchen and more stakeholders at the table.

More than a few leaders confuse the complicated with the complex. And that gets them, and our organizations, into a mess of trouble. “Instead of focusing on the uniqueness of the complexity, which distinguished it from previous problems, the leader assumes that the problem is not unique, that the ambiguity can be ignored, and that a quick answer that was used before will suffice.”

Good luck with that. Falling back on the tried and true in the face of complexity is a surefire way to fall behind and turn the innovation gap into a canyon.

“The most effective way to lead through complexity is to apply innovative thinking to tap into the innovative intelligence of leaders, employees and their teams.”

Weiss and Legrand define innovative thinking as the process of solving problems by discovering, combining and arranging insights, ideas and methods in new ways. “Innovations are mostly derived from linking together separate ideas in new ways to gain insights into issues and to discover new solutions to problems.”

Innovative thinking is a four step process.

Step one is what Weiss and Legrand call building the framework. It’s a critical first step and one that too many of us overlook or rush to finish. At this first step, you create a project charter that defines the complex problem to be solved and your objective. You also set clear boundaries and decide how to measure success. “A clearly defined framework greatly increases the probability of a successful outcome,” says Weiss and Legrand. “No framework or an unclear framework almost guarantees failure or sub-optimal results.”

Step two is issue redefinition. This is where you strip a problem down to its root causes, make complexity manageable and identify the real issue to resolve.  “Simple answers to the right question are always preferable to brilliant answers to the wrong question.”

Step three is idea generation. A rigorous process and structured approach to resolving complex issues is essential, according to Weiss and Legrand.

 “The proponents of unstructured creativity tell fascinating stories about how a group of random people had great fun playing music or creating art and produced an innovative business idea. What they do not talk about are the many sessions spent arguing the issue rather than resolving it or the sessions where brilliant ideas were later shot down because they did not answer the real problem.”

Step four is implementation planning where you fine-tune the best solution. You do an honest assessment of risks and weaknesses. You make your pitch for approval and ensure a successful hand-off and roll-out. “Innovation is successful only when a solution is implemented successfully, not when an idea or a solution is identified. This is the main difference between creativity and innovation.”

Along with a four-step process for innovative thinking, Weiss and Legrand explore the essential elements for fostering a culture of innovation in any organization and the key role leaders play in making it happen.

“A leader needs to excel at facilitating innovative thinking rather than being the most innovative person,” say Weiss and Legrand. “A leader’s role is to raise the overall innovative thinking capacity of employees and teams so they understand a complex issue thoroughly before even considering a resolution. Most complex problems are unique, so a leader needs to excel at asking questions to expose the underlying assumptions and uniqueness of the issue that created the complexity.”

Book review: Resonate — Present visual stories that transform audiences

This review originally ran in the Jan. 31 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences

By Nancy Duarte

Mark your calendars.

Say No to PowerPoint Week starts Feb. 7. It’s an annual nationwide event aimed at getting business types to deliver PowerPoint-free presentations.

Now, you may be asking why just a week? How about a month, a year or a permanent moratorium?

We can always dream. But for now, let’s make the best of what we’ve got and spend the week setting some ground rules for presenters.

Rule number one. Don’t be boring.

Rule number two. Don’t read your PowerPoint slides word for mind-numbing word. Give us a handout instead and talk with us instead.

Rule number three. Don’t throw up charts and graphs we can’t read and will never understand.

Rule number four. Resist the urge to tell us everything. Stick to the highlights.

And rule number five. Don’t start putting together your PowerPoint until you’re absolutely clear on the point and purpose of your presentation. Know exactly what you want us to do or think once you stop talking. You may even find that you don't need a PowerPoint.

If you break any of these rules, we reserve the right to completely ignore you without having to look like we’re paying attention.

And here’s one other rule. You’re not allowed to stand and deliver until you’ve read Nancy Duarte’s latest book.  What Duarte has to say will be good for your audience, good for the big idea you’re pitching and good for your career.

“Presentations are the currency of business activity because they are the most effective tool to transform an audience,” says Duarte. “Presentations create a catalyst for meaningful change by using human contact in a way that no other medium can. Yet many presentations are boring. Most are a dreadful failure of communication and the rest are simply not interesting.”

Get it right and you can transform audiences. “Movements are started, products are purchased, philosophies are adopted, subject matter is mastered – all with the help of presentations.”

There are no shortcuts to a great presentation. Be prepared to invest long hours thinking about, working on and finetuning your talk.  Audiences can easily and quickly tell when you’re unprepared. If you're not willing to make the effort, why should we?

Preparation starts by getting to know your audience. It’s not about folks tuning in to what you have to say. Instead, it’s all about tuning your message to your audience. What’s on their minds and in their hearts? What unites them? Incites them? What makes them laugh and cry? Know your audience and your big idea stands a better chance of resonating. “Your goal is to figure out what your audience cares about and link it to your idea.”

Don’t be bland and boring. “The enemy of persuasion is obscurity,” says Duarte. “Don’t blend in; instead clash with your environment. Stand out. Be uniquely different. That’s what will draw attention to your ideas.”

Go easy on the facts and stats and tell us a story instead. Structure your story to have a beginning, middle and end. Lead off with an opening that grabs our attention.  Move into a call for adventure where you contrast what is with what could be. And then wrap up with a call to action.  Tell us how to join the journey and play a part.

“Stories are the most powerful delivery tool for information, more powerful and enduring than any other art form,” says Duarte.

Whatever the story, know that you’re not the hero or the star of the show. Your audience is the hero. Put them in the centre of the action. Make it all about them. And make yourself the mentor. Or as Duarte puts it, the audience is Luke Skywalker and you’re Yoda.  

“Changing your stance from thinking you’re the hero to acknowledging your role as mentor will alter your viewpoint. You’ll come from a place of humility, the aide-de-camp to your audience.”

And drive home the big idea at the heart of your presentation by including something they’ll always remember or what Duarte calls a S.T.A.R. moment.  Aim for a profound and dramatic moment that keeps the conversation going long after your talk. Your S.T.A.R. moment can be a memorable hands-on dramatization, a a brilliant sound bite, an evocative visual, a great story or a shocking statistic.

Once you’ve done all this, think about how you can complement your talk with a few slides. Try very hard to stick to images, quotes and key words that reinforce your story. Always remember that we can't read your slides and listen to you at the same time. It's one or the other. So pick your spots.

There’s a whole lot more in Duarte’s book and it’s great insurance for avoiding death by PowerPoint.  “Passion for your idea should drive you to invest in its communication,” says Duarte. “If you can communicate an idea well, you have, within you, the power to change the world. So be flexible, be visionary and now go rewrite all the rules.”

Book review: All marketers tell stories by Seth Godin

This review was first published in the Dec. 3 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

All Marketers Tell Stories By Seth Godin

Portfolio ($30)

The launch of Hamilton’s Innovation Factory tops my shortlist of local good news stories from 2010.

The Innovation Factory will do more than help entrepreneurs bring new ideas to the marketplace. It will also give Hamilton another great story to tell to aspiring entrepreneurs here at home, coast to coast and around the world.

The National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.S. put out a working paper last year showing that young companies, and especially start-ups, create the most jobs. So if we want more paycheques and prosperity for all Hamiltonians, we need more entrepreneurs to set up shop in Steeltown. And the Innovation Factory gives us a pretty cool story to tell aspiring entrepreneurs who are looking for a helping hand.

If you want to launch and grow your business, choose Hamilton, the start-up capital of Canada.

A great story is at the heart of all successful marketing, says bestselling author and marketing guru Seth Godin. “Marketing is about spreading ideas, and spreading ideas is the single most important output of our civilization.”

When you tell us a great story, we’re far more likely to pay attention, believe what you’re telling us and retell your story with friends and family. “Either you’re going to tell stories that spread, or you will become irrelevant,” says Godin.

We’re hardwired for storytelling. Stories make it easier for us to live in a complicated world where we’re too overwhelmed with data to drill down into all of the details.

“We tell ourselves stories that can’t possibly be true, but believing those stories allows us to function. We know we’re not telling ourselves the whole truth, but it works, so we embrace it.”

We don’t buy facts. We buy the story. “The facts are irrelevant. In the short run, it doesn’t matter one bit whether something is actually better or faster or more efficient. What matters is what the consumer believes. It’s the story, not the good or service you actually sell, that pleases the consumer.”

According to Godin, great stories succeed because they capture the imagination of large or important audiences. All great stories are true because they’re consistent and authentic.

“Storytelling works when the story actually makes the product or service better,” says Godin.

Great stories make a bold and audacious promise and inspire trust. Great stories are subtle, allowing us to draw our own conclusions. Great stories happen fast and engage us immediately. Great stories don’t appeal to logic and they’re rarely aimed at everyone.

“If you need to water down your story to appeal to everyone, it will appeal to no one,” warns Godin.

Great stories don’t contradict themselves and they agree with our personal worldview. Our worldview is built on our beliefs and biases and it’s the lens we use to look at every decision we’re asked to make.

The best stories don’t teach or tell us anything new, says Godin. The best stories agree with what we already believe and remind us how smart and right we are. None of us like to change our minds or admit that we’re wrong. “Don’t try to change someone’s worldview is the strategy smart marketers follow,” says Godin. “You don’t have enough time and you don’t have enough money. Instead, identify a population with a certain worldview, frame your story in terms of that worldview and you win.”

Godin says the best stories promise to fulfill the wishes of our worldview by offering a shortcut, a miracle, money, social success, safety, ego, fun, pleasure or belonging.

“The organizations that succeed realize that offering a remarkable product with a great story is more important and more profitable than doing what everyone else is doing just a bit better. Make up great stories. That is new motto. “If what you’re doing matters, really matters, then I hope you’ll take the time to tell a story. A story that resonates and a story that can become true.”

We’ve got a great story to tell here in Hamilton when it comes to helping entrepreneurs succeed. Here’s hoping we spend 2011 telling that story far and wide and close to home.

Book review: Do More Great Work

This review originally ran in The Hamilton Spectator on Oct. 25.

Do More Great Work

By Michael Bungay Stanier

Workman Publishing Co ($14.95)

When coworkers suddenly start leaving to unexpectedly pursue other opportunities, playing it safe can seem like the smart bet.

So you stay well within your comfort zone. You make yourself busy and useful, sticking with productive work that’s familiar and predictable. Work where there’s little chance you’ll screw up. Work that you’ve done a thousand times before.

You settle for good work and take a pass on what author and senior partner in Toronto-based Box of Crayons Michael Bungay Stanier calls great work.

Great work takes a great deal of effort. Great work comes with a great deal of risk. Great work takes you to the outer edge of where you’re capable and competent, to a strange new world with a whole lot of uncertainty, self doubt and more than a little discomfort.

“The discomfort arises because the work is often new and challenging, and so there’s an element of risk and possible failure,” says Stanier. “It can be a time of uncertainty, groping forward when you’re not sure of where you’re heading. It can mean picking yourself up off the floor and carrying on after the unexpected has just slapped you around a bit.

“The very nature of doing more great work means there will be times when you stumble, times you lose the path, times when you’re hacking through the jungle.”

So during a time of budget hacking, pink slips and unplanned pursuits of new opportunities, forgoing great work in favour of good work might seem like the better, smarter and safer bet.

But it’s not. And here’s two compelling reasons why.

All of us want to make a difference. To do work that matters. Work that makes an impact and has a real purpose beyond just earning a paycheque. We want our work, and our lives, to count.

That’s what great work delivers.

Great work is engaging and energizing. It inspires, stretches and provokes. Great work is where you’ll develop new skills and build new strengths.

“Great work is the work that matters. It is a source of both deep comfort and engagement – often you feel as if you’re in the ‘flow zone’ where time stands still and you’re working at your best, effortlessly. The comfort comes from its connection, its sight line, to what is most meaningful to you – not only your core values, and beliefs, but also your aspirations and hopes for the impact you want to have on the world.”

Doing great work is your best safeguard against falling into a rut and getting pushed off to the sidelines or out the door altogether. Great work will make you a more valuable and valued employee. And most important of all, great work will make you a happier and better person.

Not only is doing great work great for you. It’s great for your employer.

“For organizations, great work drives strategic difference, innovation and longevity. Often it’s the kind of inventive work that pushes business forward, that leads to new products, more efficient systems and increased profits.”

To find the great work that’s right for you, Stanier offers up a series of 15 exercises. You’ll start by figuring out where you are right now in terms of your mix of good and great work and what great work is best for you.

“You don’t need a coach or a shrink or a consultant or a weekend retreat to figure out how to do more great work,” says Stanier, who was named Canadian Coach of the Year in 2006. “You just need a pen, some paper, and a little bit of time to get clear on what matters and to build your own plan to do it.”

We spend more than half of our lives at work. We owe it to ourselves, our families, our employers and our community to make sure we spend as much of that time doing great work that matters and makes a real difference.