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: Onward — How Starbucks fought for its life without losing its soul

Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul

By Howard Schultz

Rodale

$29.99

Now here’s a cool way to brainstorm.

You walk into a ballroom. You’re given a black sharpie, a white iPod and a pack of index cards.

You hit play on the iPod and start listening to Come Together. You walk over to a large table covered with enlargements of album covers and photos from The Beatles.

You flip over one of the index cards and you’re asked to answer the question what does it take to reinvent an icon?

That’s the exercise Howard Schultz did a week into his second tour of duty as CEO of Starbucks in 2008.  Schultz had stepped aside almost eight years earlier from the company he had built from 11 stores into a ubiquitous global brand. He was back to reinvent an icon.

“It had never been my intention to return as CEO,” says Shultz. “But I have always said that people are responsible for what they see and hear. I could not be a bystander as Starbucks slipped toward mediocrity, especially since I had played a role in and bore some responsibility for our troubles.

Schultz started to worry that something was wrong with Starbucks back in 2006. “The merchant’s success depends on his or her ability to tell a story. What people see and hear or smell or do when they enter a space guides their feelings, enticing them to celebrate whatever the seller has to offer. So when I walked into more and more Starbucks stores and sensed that we were no longer celebrating coffee, my heart sank. Our customers deserve better.”

Many little things were dangerously slipping by unnoticed or unacknowledged. “How could one imperfect cup of coffee, one unqualified manager, or one poorly located store matter when millions of cups of coffee were being served in tens of thousands of stores? We forgot that ‘ones’ add up.”

Schultz returned to the helm just as Starbucks posted its worst three-month performance since the company had gone public in 1992. For 16 years, same-store sales had grown five per cent or better. Sales were now at an anaemic one per cent. “Sales were in free fall. Every day, around the country, fewer and fewer people were coming into our stores. And those who did were spending less money than in the past.”

Schultz wasted no time getting back to basics or, as he called it, getting in the mud. He hung a poster in the boardroom that showed a pair of dirt-smugged hands palm up framed with the words “the world belongs to the few people who are not afraid to get their hands dirty.”

His first order of business? Discontinuing warm breakfast sandwiches.  The stink of burnt cheese overpowered the aroma of coffee and that drove Schultz to distraction. “Despite the sandwiches’ loyal following, and disagreement among Starbucks’ top managers, I was convinced this was right for business.”

In February of 2008, Starbucks closed all of its 7,100 for three hours to retrain every barista on how to make espresso.

Shultz drafted and rolled out a transformation agenda with seven big moves for Starbucks. Be the undisputed coffee authority. Engage and inspire our partners. Ignite the emotional attachment with our customers. Expand our global presence while making each store the heart of the local neighbourhood. Be a leader in ethical sourcing and environmental impact. Create innovative growth platforms worthy of our coffee. And deliver a sustainable economic model.

Starbucks launched a loyalty card, a new brew, instant coffee and MyStarbucksIdea.com, a website where customers and employees could submit big and small innovative ideas. More than 100,000 ideas have been submitted so far by 250,000 registered members. “Starbucks is at its best when we lead, not follow, when we reinvent categories, create new rituals and transform an industry.”

Some hard decisions also got made.  Six hundred stores closed and there were deep job cuts at head office. “One particular statistic raised my ire,” says Shultz. “Seventy per cent of all stores slated for closure had been opened in the past three years during the aggressive growth period when we opened 2,300 locations. We were closing almost 20 per cent of our newest stores. A lesson resonated. Success is not sustainable if it’s defined by how big you become. The number that matters is one. One cup. One customer. One partner. One experience at a time.”

By the third quarter of 2009, Starbucks had its first earnings growth since the first quarter of 2009. The company earned $152 million, compared to $7 million a year earlier. The company had cut $580 million from its cost structure and improvements to supply management management saved another $400 million.

The transformation was gaining traction and an icon was reborn.

“Starbucks has regained a healthy balance with a culture that celebrates creativity and discipline, entrepreneurship and process, as well as rigorous innovation,” says Shultz. “But perhaps the most vital thing that came out of the past two years has been the confidence we gained knowing that we could preserve our values despite the hardships we faced. Holding fast to those values steadied us throughout the tumultuous journey.”

This is a must-read for every entrepreneur, aspiring entrepreneur and anyone who’s trying to rescue, reinvent and renew an organization.  If you’ve got the passion and the vision, the rewards will be far greater than all of the tough calls, heavy lifting and muddy hands.

Review:

This review first ran in the May 8th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

You Can't Fire Everyone

By Hank Gilman

Portfolio ($32.50)

Congratulations on your promotion and welcome to middle management.

For your orientation, here’s a quick introduction to your new team.

Kent has a great sense of humour that will be entirely at your expense.

Jane mostly keeps to herself, although her recurring bouts of silent sobbing will, if ignored or acknowledged, become full-on meltdowns that weird out the rest of the staff.

George had an incredibly productive year once back in the early 1980s and is overdue for a comeback.

Brenda is a fiercely loyal and devoted follower whose allegiance is to the manager we fired so we could hire you.

Rick is a real go-getter who’s well on his way to reaching 100,000 followers and 10,000 tweets on his “Things I’d rather be doing than working” Twitter feed.

Kate is a freshly minted grad and academic all-star who considers our organization and whatever work you try to assign to be beneath her and unworthy of her attention.

And Phil has moved past denial at not getting your job and has moved straight to anger.

So, welcome aboard. And while it’s last minute and your first day on the job, could you please submit your annual departmental budget with a 15 per cent clawback by 4 p.m. today?

Like parenting, there’s no instruction manual that comes with managing. And while there’s no shortage of advice, theory rarely translates into practice.

Hank Gilman can relate. He was a rock-solid, major league journalist who was promoted to editor with no training provided. Twenty years later and now the deputy managing editor at Fortune magazine, Gilman is sharing what he learned through trial and error in his book, You Can’t Fire Everyone.

“If any human resources type could be honest with you for a second, they’d tell you their company was filled with folks who have no clue how to be good bosses and make their people better at what they do,” says Gilman. “They scream, discourage, hire the wrong people, take all the credit for great work and blame their employees for their own mistakes. Most of them don’t even know how to fire someone the right way. Some of this misbehaviour can be blamed on really warped personalities. But the biggest problem is that no one ever trained them how to be good bosses — or any sort of bosses, for that matter.”

So here are some highlights from Gilman’s guide to effective managing in the real world.

You can’t be both boss and friend. Loneliness, says Gilman, is the penalty of leadership. “You can never have good, close friends on your staff once you start being their boss. If you’re doing your job the way you’re supposed to, you’ll invariably do something to fracture the relationship.”

Drop the myth that all employees are created equal. Treat your stars differently. “The hardest part of the job is making sure your most important employees stay happy and you get the most out of them.” Let your stars work from home on occasion, give them a nicer office and some extra time off. Above all, says Gilman, give them interesting work. “Your stars do the best work, typically are the hardest workers and tackle the projects with the highest degree of difficulty. They’re also a rare commodity.”

Avoid the cardinal sin of casting the right people for the wrong job. “It’s the ‘asking the short guy to dunk the basketball’ thing,” says Gilman. “The very worst thing you can do for anyone is put them in a position where they’re sure to fail.” Trust your gut. You’ll know what your staff can and can’t handle. Doling out assignments on the hope that your staff will rise to the challenge is a bad idea that will lead to predictable results.

Firing employees is unpleasant, unavoidable and one of the most important parts of your job, says Gilman. Terminate quickly. Don’t leave staff languishing in jobs they have no hope of excelling at.

And don’t delegate the dirty work. “The best bosses always do the firing themselves. They want to show the rest of the staff that they’re not afraid to take on unpleasant tasks. You do not want to be perceived as a wimp.”

Always pay attention to how things look. Optics matter. “In boss land, how you behave and how things look is more important than almost everything else.”

Stand up for your staff. “Management is a lot about conflicts,” says Gilman. “Probably the toughest thing a manager has to do is stick up for his or her employees — largely because there’s not a lot of upside in terms of your own career advancement.” Don’t shy away from the unpleasant confrontations behind the scenes with your boss and peers.

One final piece of advice from Gilman. Don’t force your employees to abandon their families. “When workers feel like they have to ignore their husbands and wives and miss their kids’ after-school events because their boss has those expectations — or sets those expectations through example — that’s a big problem.”

Clock punching is silly, says Gilman. He doesn’t care when his staff come in. He doesn’t care when they leave or how many hours they put in. He only cares about getting the job done right and on time.

If you’re new to the management ranks, or looking for a new approach to leading the troops, give Gilman’s book a read. He’ll make your life easier with some battle-tested, practical advice.

Book review: The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District

The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District

By Richard Whitmire

Jossey-Bass

$29.95

My kids spend a lot of time in the principal’s office.

They’re not in trouble. My daughter drops in during recess and lunch to knit. My son swings by to play Monopoly.

Every student at this west-end elementary school is welcome to pay a visit at any time. The door is always open. This student-first attitude from the principal, combined with outstanding teachers and staff, is exactly what my wife and I hoped for when we went house-hunting a decade ago. Living in a safe neighbourhood within walking distance of a great public school topped our wish list.

We got it and our kids, who love going to school and already know more than their dad, are off to a fast start.

Many kids and families in Washington, D.C. weren’t so fortunate. Their city’s school district had the lowest academic scores in the United States. Too many of the city’s schools did a better job of turning kids into dropouts rather than graduates.

The problem wasn’t poverty. Poor kids in other cities were outperforming poor kids in Washington. The real problem was summed up in a sign posted low on a wall at a D.C. elementary school. “There is nothing a teacher can do to overcome what a parent and a student will not do.”

“For those children, the sign was a daily admonition that the teachers were not responsible for students’ failings,” says author and veteran education reporter Richard Whitmire. “We’re not the reason the test scores at this school are awful. We’re not why D.C. schools rank at the bottom all of the nation’s schools. Look to yourself, look to your parents. You are to blame. We’re doing the best we can with the flawed kids sent our way.”

Whitmire says that in the minds of teachers, administrators and the school district, family formation, race and poverty added up to destiny. It wasn’t their fault, or responsibility, if kids failed to learn.

Michelle Rhee didn’t agree. In 2007, Rhee was appointed by Washington’s mayor to serve as superintendent and turn around the city’s public schools. Rhee was a Teach for America rebel with no prior experience running a school district. She had previously led The New Teacher Project, which recruits high-quality, non-traditional teachers for school districts. From that experience came Rhee’s belief that great teachers and strong principals have the single greatest impact on student achievement.

Rhee wasted no time driving major reforms. She gutted the bureaucracy at the school district’s headquarters, reducing staff by half. Rhee fired incompetent staff and ended the long-standing practice of sending poor performers from central office into schools. “The worst central office disaster was the special education operation, which was so incompetently run in 2007 that it sucked up $203 million a year and comprised 20 per cent of the school budget,” says Whitmire. “Over the years, platoons of lawyers had found an easy mark in the special education system, whose paperwork deficiencies allowed the lawyers to win court orders that sent students to expensive private schools.”

Rhee closed 23 low-enrolment schools with lousy test scores. When she arrived, the district had 101 elementary schools but needed only 86 to meet current and future demand. “The dollars that should have been going to the children instead were spent on maintaining too many boilers and painting too many lightly used hallways,” said Whitmire.

Principals were put on notice and dozens were dismissed. They had a year to “lock down” and regain control of their schools. In years two and three, they had to drive measurable teaching and learning improvements.

Rhee and her team rolled out a teacher evaluation system. The teachers then ratified a contract that tied their pay and job security to their evaluation scores. Rhee issued $45 million in retroactive pay increases to 650 high performing educators who could now earn six-figure salaries, terminated 165 poor performers and another 737 teachers were put on notice and told they’d be fired within a year if they failed to measure up. Jobs for life and last in-first out rules no longer applied.

Rhee pulled off major reforms in her 3½ years on the job, drove up student performance on reading and math scores and increased enrolment. But in the fall of 2010, she stepped down as superintendent after the mayor who brought her to Washington lost his re-election bid.

The best chapter in Whitmire’s book should be mandatory reading for any reformer who’s quarterbacking large-scale transformational change. While she did a lot right, there were a few critical missteps. Rhee failed to create public buy-in for reforming the D.C. school system from adult-centred to student-centred. Parents rallied behind schools that had failed their children.

Rhee fought battles that didn’t need fighting. She took on councillors who’d agree in private there were too many schools yet publicly condemn closures. “The political brushbacks added up,” said Whitmire.

Rhee made some terrible media judgments, like appearing on the cover of Time magazine in a classroom with a broom in hand. Or telling Fast Company magazine that among the teachers she laid off were people who had hit or had sex with students. Or inviting a PBS camera crew to watch her fire an unsuspecting principal.

As well, Rhee drove out some good teachers. While she made a point of praising high performers, the media opted to only focus on quotes and soundbites where Rhee singled out lousy teachers. And Rhee came up short on school supports. High-performing school districts offer teachers and principals online tool boxes to help with anything and everything. “When Rhee arrived in D.C., the district had solid learning standards but not much else in the way of academic supports. Although Rhee took steps in that direction, her efforts bordered on the frantic.”

Whitmire says it takes a crazy person to produce results under the conditions Rhee faced in Washington. “Ultimately, The Bee Eater is the story of a crazy woman taking on a crazy school system. It’s also about what it actually takes to achieve what just about everyone agrees is not only the right goal but also the necessary goal for the future of our country.”

Every child, whether in Washington or the west end of Hamilton, deserves a quality education from teachers, principals, staff and a union fully committed to putting students first.

Book review: The Improvisation Edge

This review originally ran in The Hamilton Spectator.

The Improvisation Edge: Secrets to Building Trust and Radical Collaboration at Work

By Karen Hough

Repeat after me.

Wow! That’s a great idea. Yes!

Let’s try again. Only this time, with a straight face.

Wow! That’s a great idea. Yes!

Sometime during the next month, we’re going to say it for real and out loud to someone who works up the courage to pitch an idea at work.

Now, seldom are heard such encouraging words. This goes a long way to explaining not only why the skies are so cloudy all day around the office, but why you’ve been seconded to yet another staff engagement and morale-boosting committee and why you’re booked for an offsite trust and team-building retreat.

We instinctively react to new ideas with the same enthusiasm as finding the in-laws unannounced on the front porch with their overnight bags.

Instead of a wow, we say not now. That’s an interesting idea but we don’t have the time. The budget. The people. We have other priorities. There’s too much on our plates. We tried or thought about that idea before and it didn’t fly. The idea will never work here. That idea solves a problem that’s not ours to worry about. Why don’t you go away and think about it some more?

But if you want to boost morale, engage the troops, build up the trust and forgiveness account and shore up communications, try saying wow, great idea and yes.

“By voicing the word yes, you are saying yes to possibility,” says author Karen Hough, founder and CEO of ImprovEdge. “Yes is not a literal commitment, as in ‘yes, we will’. It is a commitment to considering a possibility, as in ‘yes, we could.’ This means that every idea or contribution is considered valid.”

Having been a professional actor and done improv in Chicago for eight years, Hough now makes a career out of teaching improvisational skills offstage and in the corporate world. Nothing, says Hough, works better than improv at creating, earning and keeping trust. “Anyone can improvise, and anyone can learn to collaborate on an extreme level. Improvisers collaborate radically — their level of trust and the intensity of their work are far above and beyond normal teamwork. That sort of behaviour is the key to building, managing, showing and engendering trust.”

Hough says there are four transferable keys to success from the world of improv.

1. Create what Hough calls Yes! Space. You do this by saying “yes,” putting your inner critic on hold and making your support public. “By saying yes to ideas and contributions, just long enough to enable them to breathe and live for a while, you take a break from the critic ruling your interactions, and your positive example creates safety, trust and collaboration among your team.”

2. Break out the building blocks. Say “yes, and …” to new ideas. “This is where the skin in the game really happens,” says Hough. “Your creative juice, your connected idea and your responsibility for success all rely on the block that you bring.” Think of an idea as a brick. If you toss out a bunch of unrelated ideas, you end up with a pile of bricks. If you build off each other’s ideas, your bricks build a castle.

3. Build team equity. Don’t confuse equity and equality. Team equity is about having the right people in the right places and doing the right things. It’s not about giving everyone equal time and say and pretending that everyone has equal skills. Effective teams have a diversity of backgrounds, skills and strengths. Or, as Knute Rockne once said, “the secret is to work less as individuals and more as a team. As a coach, I play not my 11 best but my best 11.”

4. Get comfortable with the concept of “Oops to Eureka!,” what Hough calls the scariest concept of improv. Know that you’re OK if you screw up. “In improv, the best moments onstage often come right after a train wreck. That’s because people are impressed if you can do something brilliant with a mess.” Mistakes happen. It’s how you recover that matters.

While some of the exercises Hough puts her clients through may strike fear in your heart (one game has teams of three coworkers hopping around a room pretending to be a giant rabbit and shouting “bunny, bunny, bunny” non-stop), Hough offers practical advice if trust is lacking and there’s a failure to communicate on the work or home front.

“Improvisation, along with the skills and behaviours that are the breath and blood of improvisers, is the surest way to start working at a higher level, creating high-performance teams, exhibiting greater leadership behaviours and building and engendering trust at work.”

And it all starts with saying “Wow! That’s a great idea. Yes!”

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: When the Headline is You

This review was orginally published in the March 14 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

When the Headline is You: An Insider’s Guide to Handling the Media

By Jeff Ansell

I happen to really like reporters. I like their slightly warped sense of humour, the bemused way they look at our mixed up world and their fearlessness in asking tough questions.

I trained to be a journalist. I did a brief and unspectacular stint as a cub reporter before crossing over to the dark side of public relations.

And I got very lucky and married a really good journalist. I get to be her arm candy at reporter retirement parties and journalism award shows.

Pitching good news stories to the press is pretty cool and it’s one of the best parts of my job.

Yet despite all of that, I still get nervous when reporters call to ask a few questions and get some clarification about a story they’re working on.

I get anxious because, just like author and former journalist Jeff Ansell, I know the media coverage will only be as good as my worst quote.

“Though someone answering a reporter’s questions may strike all the right notes for the majority of the interview, it takes only a single miscue to trigger disaster,” says Ansell. “The cut and thrust of a media interview is not subject to the rules of everyday chit-chat.”

Ansell says that when you and I have a conversation, we’re able to appreciate the context of everything we say to each other. But a reporter won’t include everything you say. “A journalist’s job is to separate the wheat from the chaff and sometimes it is only the chaff they seek to report. It all comes down to the edit.

“Reporters, along with editors and producers, decide who plays the hero or villain in a story,” says Ansell. “Supporting roles are available for the victim, witness, survivor, expert and goat – or as I like to call that character, the village idiot.”

So here’s what Ansell recommends you do to avoid being cast as the villain or village idiot.

Be friendly with the reporter right from the start. “If the reporter hears stress, irritation or anxiety in your voice, it could be an immediate tip-off that you may be less than co-operative and may, in fact, have something to hide.” Instead, convey a desire to be helpful and forthcoming. The reporter has a job to do and you have a story to tell.

Create a buffer zone for yourself. While the reporter will want you to drop everything and do the interview immediately, you’re entitled to a stoppage in play. Tell the reporter you’ll call back in a few minutes. Clear your head, focus your thoughts, take a few deep breaths and return the call.

You’re also entitled to ask the reporter questions. “The answers you get to these initial questions will provide insight into the content and context of the proposed interview and the resulting news story,” says Ansell. What’s the purpose of the interview, the overall objective of the story, and who else are you interviewing are all fair questions to ask a reporter.

Asking to see the questions in advance and demanding to review the story before it’s published or goes to air is way out of bounds and all but guarantees you a rough ride.

Ansell recommends heading into media interviews with something called a value compass. It’s a guide that will help you stay onside with messages that match up with your organization’s values. The compass takes into account the spokesperson’s nature and standards and the stakeholders’ emotion and well-being.

When it comes to dealing with bad news, always fess up if you’ve messed up. Aim to tell it first and fast. Be accessible and forthcoming with reporters. Lying low and avoiding the press is never a smart strategy.

Be among the most upset at what’s happened. Know that the facts will never trump the emotion that people are feeling, whether it’s anger or fear. Always show humility, give people a reason to trust you again and couple your obvious concern with a genuine commitment to action. Tell the reporter that you’re sorry about what happened and here’s what we’re doing to fix the problem.

Whatever messages you give, always use simple words. Keep your sentences short and avoid qualifiers. “Scratch your ‘but’,” advises Ansell. “Spokespeople say but far too much and often with harmful consequences.” Sticking a but in the middle of your sentence cancels out whatever goodwill preceded it and signals that an excuse is forthcoming.

Along with a value compass, Ansell offers a one-page template for crafting quotable messages that meet the needs of reporters and assure you’ll get the opportunity to tell your story without stepping on a landmine. Ansell also walks you through 20 what-if scenarios.

“Answering questions from reporters is risky business. Knowing how to talk to reporters is like learning a new language, a language that bears little if any resemblance to everyday conversation. Exposing oneself to media scrutiny requires more than simple candour. It requires knowledge, training and a keen understanding of how reporters write the news.”

Book review: Workarounds That Work

This review originally ran in the Feb. 28 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Workarounds That Work: How to Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way at Work

By Russell Bishop

McGraw Hill

You and I belong to one of two clubs at work.

We’re either part of the 99 per cent crowd or charter members of the 100 per cent club.

If you’re in the 99 per cent crowd, you can be counted on to always try to your best to see things through and get the job done. But you’re prone to bail on projects when the going gets tough and you slam into the inevitable roadblock that makes work so wonderfully unpredictable.

Launching a new project is not unlike getting strapped to a rocket and shot across the Grand Canyon. It’s a high risk proposition. And even if you’re 99 per cent committed, that missing one per cent will set you up for a really long and painful fall.

Unlike the 99 per cent crowd, folks in the 100 per cent club get the job done with a “no matter what” mindset. You don’t play the blame game. You don’t make excuses. And you don’t cast yourself in the starring role of innocent victim who’s at the mercy of conspiring forces beyond their control.

Instead, you turn problems into puzzles to be solved. And you prove that where there’s a will, there’s always a way.

Everyone in the 100 per cent club has mastered the art of the workaround. Author Russell Bishop calls workarounds a method for accomplishing a task or goal when the normal process or method isn’t producing the desired results. Maybe it’s a wonky procedure, an outdated policy, a dysfunctional team, risk-averse boss or a less than helpful co-worker standing in the way of you getting the job done.

When you hit a roadblock, the first question to ask is “What could I do that would make a difference that requires no one’s permission other than my own?” The answer may be all it takes to move from roadblock to effective, productive action, says Bishop.

“The most powerful thing you can do when laid low with the frustrations that will surely arise is to keep your mind focused on your positive intention. Stay focused on what you want and why it matters. If you allow yourself to lose sight of your purpose or intention, then you will be unlikely to find a successful workaround and will instead become preoccupied with the hurdle in front of you.”

There are no shortage of roadblocks at work. Consensus and its close cousin buy-in are two fan favourites. Both can grind your project to a halt or kill it before you even get your bold and brilliant idea off the ground.

“In most versions of consensus, whenever someone objects to a decision, it is fair game to resurface the issue,” says Bishop. “And to resurface it again. And again. The basic rationale is that everyone must be on board.”

The belief that everyone will get on board is a really bad assumption to make. Savvy coworkers who like the status quo or who don’t like you or your project know they can stall momentum and reverse decisions by raising doubts and disagreements at any time. Instead of getting the job done, you’re trapped in endless meetings where an ever-widening net is cast to safeguard against anyone feeling excluded. Everyone gets a chance to weigh in, even if they have nothing to contribute and their motives are less than pure.

So here’s a good workaround to the pain of consensus-based decision making. Decide upfront who has the ultimate authority to decide something, who has the right to be consulted prior to a decision being made and who has the right to be informed once a decision’s been made.

“By clarifying rights to decide, along with the rights to contribute through consultation, you can differentiate roles and accelerate the process considerably. This simple roles and rights clarification allows more streamlined meetings involving only those who need to contribute given the nature of each meeting.”

And then there’s buy-in. Organizations that love consensus-based decision making also give buy-in a warm embrace. “Over and over, we hear the apparently sage advice that we need to create buy-in before proceeding in any new direction,” says Bishop. “In my experience, buy-in is a laudable concept that is also pretty much guaranteed to slow anything down, if not kill it outright.”

While consensus is about inviting anyone and everyone to join the discussion, buy-in looks to gain upfront support from anyone and everyone before a project moves forward.

Again, you’ll find yourself trapped in a never-ending series of meetings, discussions and debates to deal with every imaginable doubt, complaint and concern.

The workaround to buy-in is progress. Just do it. Get your project started and rack up some early wins. “If you are waiting for everyone to buy in on an idea, you may be retired before they all give the thumbs up,” says Bishop.

Instead, recruit some members from the 100 percent club, figure out what you can do on your own and get on with it. Once you start showing real progress, others will readily sign on and won’t need to be persuaded. Everyone loves a winner.

“Remember, it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission,” says Bishop. “If you keep asking for permission and seeking buy-in, you may merely be giving people reasons to object.”

Far better to give the powers that be something that’s already been completed rather than an idea that may require a ton of debate and discussion in an endless series of meetings.

Bishop offers an arsenal of workarounds to turn seemingly intractable problems into easily solved puzzles. All the solutions rest on you first taking ownership and control.

The final word goes to Henry Ford. “Whether you believe you can or cannot, you are right.”

Letter to the editor: Integration beats segregation at schools

This letter originally ran in the Hamilton Spectator.

Re: Poverty and segregation(Editorial, Jan. 31)

While poor kids in Niagara get a school to call their own, the people of Raleigh, N.C., opted for integration over segregation.

They recognized that kids can’t learn and teachers can’t teach in schools that are overrun by poverty. So they decided that no elementary school could have more than 40 per cent of its students qualifying for subsidized lunches. Along with integrating low income students into middle class schools, Raleigh created magnet schools to bridge the divide. Family incomes and circumstances became irrelevant. All that mattered was the students’ talents, passion and potential. Test scores went up and Raleigh today ranks among the top U.S. cities for economic growth and social well-being.

With the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board looking to consolidate and close schools to deal with falling enrolment, now may be the time to borrow from Raleigh’s playbook and give low income families something they rarely get — choice. Let’s give families a real choice when it comes to their kids’ education. That freedom to choose and the power of integration may prove to be their kids’ best shot at a better life and one of our city’s most powerful poverty-to-prosperity solutions.

And here’s hoping the rest of us find the courage and the will to welcome families from Hamilton’s lower city into our schools and neighbourhoods.