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



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


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.

Book review: Brainsteering — a better approach to breakthrough ideas

This review originally ran in the Hamilton Spectator.

Brainsteering: A Better Approach To Breakthrough Ideas

By Kevin and Shawn Coynes


At some point this year, you’ll find yourself trapped in a conference room with your comrades in arms.

With relentless enthusiasm, a “creativity moderator” with little or no knowledge of your organization will facilitate a day-long brainstorming session. After a few painful reindeer games and icebreakers to get those creative juices flowing, you’ll be encouraged to think outside the box and told to take comfort in knowing there are no bad ideas.

Most of you will adhere to the social norm of saying nothing in large groups and never making a fool of yourself in front of the senior executives who sign your paycheques and decide who gets promoted and who gets to pursue other exciting opportunities outside the organization. A few of your obnoxious and socially unaware colleagues will seize the day to pitch their pet projects and toss out bizarre ideas pulled from an alternate reality.

Every idea regardless of merit will be duly noted and the walls will soon be covered in flip chart paper. At the end of what will be a very long day, you’ll be asked as a group to walk around the room, review each and every idea and together come up with the top 10 best ideas. Wanting only to make a quick exit and deal with the real work that needs to get done, you’ll throw your votes behind whatever ideas the group thinks are winners.

There’s no real commitment to any of the ideas because everyone knows the ideas will quickly disappear into the ether, never to be heard from and spoken of again.

“Bad brainstorming sessions are actually the norm,” say authors Kevin and Shawn Coyne, brothers and managing directors of the Coyne Partnership. “The most widely utilized group ideation technique in the world usually fails. The problem with traditional brainstorming is that its methodology violates many of the psychological and sociological principles regarding how human beings work best together in a group setting.”

Instead of the usual brainstorming session, try what the Coynes call a brainsteering workshop.

“A great brainsteering workshop begins with careful planning, much more careful planning than most people are used to,” say the Coynes.

That planning starts by knowing exactly what criteria will be used to make decisions on the ideas coming out of the workshop. Are there any absolute constraints? What’s an acceptable idea? How will one idea be chosen over another? Out of the box thinking sounds good in theory. In the box thinking works far better in practice.

Pick the right questions to ask. To help you along, the Coynes at the back of their book list 101 right questions to spur breakthrough ideas. “Right questions are ones that make you take a different perspective on your problem than any you’ve taken before.”

Choose the right people to put in a room. Don’t go by job titles alone. “Pick people who can answer the questions you plan to ask, and who have the mental orientation to translate those answers into ideas,” say the Coynes.

When it comes time for the workshop, lead off by orienting us. Explain why a question-based, inside-the-box approach is the best way to get great ideas.

Now talk about the goals for the day, the criteria for evaluating new ideas, and the constraints that apply to all ideas.

Rather than attempt a group think, assign subgroups of three to five people. Give the groups 45 minutes to come up with ideas to a specific question.

“One of the worst aspects of old-fashioned brainstorming is the tendency for participants to ricochet from one shallow (and poor) idea to the next. The group never takes the time, and never develops the focus, to take a shallow idea and mould it into a better one.”

After 45 minutes, give the groups another question and repeat for four or five times for the rest of the day. Each 45-minute session should yield a couple of great ideas.

Be sure to quarantine what the Coynes call “Idea Crushers”. Big mouths and subject matter experts intentionally or unintentionally do a masterful job of discouraging and killing ideas. Do not let them mix and mingle with innocent bystanders. Instead, give them their own group.

Wrap up the workshop by explaining next steps. Have your senior executives review the questions as soon as possible. “The probability of real action resulting from any ideation declines quickly with time unless firm decisions are made right away,” warn the Coynes.

Green light the best ideas. Park good ideas for when the time is right and the stars align. Do more homework on ideas with promise. And don’t hesitate to put to rest any ideas that don’t measure up or fit the criteria you’ve established up front.

And finally, communicate back to the group on the decisions made for every idea, even the rejects. “Participants desperately want to know that they’ve been heard, that their ideas have at least had their day in court.” Close the loop and folks are more likely to participate next time and continue generating ideas that could prove to be game changers.

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.