Sunday, April 26, 2009

Get the Walnut

The wonderful video by Danish animator Bente, above, provides an interesting metaphor for strategic planning. The video starts off with a game of Bocce--trying to get a silver bocce ball closest to the red target jack. The first round in the scene ends by taking a measurement, followed by another round as each silver ball knocks the next out of the game.

Meanwhile a bunch ants are intently watching the game unfold, pursuing an errant ball which they commission for the next scene. One ant takes a position on top of the ball while the other ten lift and carry the globe to the whistle-time of the top ant. They carry the ball out of the village into the country side where five fellow ants are waiting patiently with a walnut at the base of a cliff. (Get the picture? Watch the video!)

The top ant on the bocce ball takes instruction from the top ant on the walnut. Soon the first team is carrying the ball up the cliff to the first landing, where --after the walnut team scatters-- they push it off so the silver orb rockets down to the walnut, driving it into the sand. The walnut is unscathed.

Surveying the results, the team places the walnut on a shard of tile and carries the ball up the cliff again for another try. This time the tile is shattered, and the walnut is again untouched. For the next attempt, the ants put the walnut on a rock. The bocce ball scores a direct hit, but the walnut ricochets away, and lands whole.

The lead ant carefully surveys the situation, sets a higher target, and calls the team to carry the globe to a higher perch. The ball rockets down, with the lead ant riding along, and it hits the nut squarely. Finally the top of the walnut is broken, but all is not well. There's a worm inside the nut munching away. The story ends with a team of ants looking a bit wide-eyed and in despair.


So what is so compelling about this for the strategist? I'd like to call your attention to a half-dozen things:

  1. All the process, planning and measurements don't get you to your results; playing the game does
  2. First tries usually don't work, but there are opportunities for adjustment (and you gotta love the ants' industriousness)
  3. The try-try-again team approach produces learning; it may also produce results. (Don't forget one for the other.)
  4. The coach doesn't carry the ball, but sometimes takes a ride for the team.
  5. Setting your sights higher sometimes produces something closer to the outcome intended
  6. Even in success, there are usually unintended consequences; life, like worms, is what happens when you're making other plans.
There are probably another half-dozen insights you can pick up from this short story. That's the power of telling rich stories; they inspire our imaginations.

Tell me what jumped out at you. Here's what most jumped at me:
  1. Start with a vision and a need (they need to dialog)
  2. Look outside for more ideas (nothing happened in the ant farm)
  3. Have a specific destination (out of town, where the real obstacles are)
  4. Vary like mad to get the one that works (if times are bad, vary more, not less)
  5. Don't get surprised by surprises (find another nut)
I'll leave you with two classic quotes to mull over:

"A good deal of corporate planning ... is like a ritual rain dance. It has no effect on the weather that follows, but those who engage in it think it does. ... Moreover, much of the advice related to corporate planning is directed at improving the dancing, not the weather." -- Brian Quinn, Dartmouth College

"Would you mind telling me, please which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where--" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
" --so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."
--Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

A strategist would do well to study the stories.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Peaks and Valleys

A good friend of mine, Jim, is preparing a seminar on Peaks and Valleys[1], about how we get out of the valleys in our lives, our work and our relationships. Here is what I wrote him.

One of the stories I tell is about William Stafford, a twentieth century U.S. poet who taught for many years at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. He was the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the forerunner to the U.S. Poet Laureate program. Stafford had a practice of writing a poem each and every morning as the first thing he did for the day. A reporter once asked him what he did on days he wasn’t so good. Stafford’s reply was classic: “I just lower my standards.” (See the Robert Bly interview in Bill Moyers book The Language of Life.) This was a liberating comment in that Stafford was saying that the important thing for a writer was to write.

When I apply Stafford’s experience to my own, the first thing I tell people is that writing first thing in the morning does not work for me. First, I am not a morning person. Second, I can’t schedule being creative; I have to be “in the zone” to write. However, I’ve noticed that there are times when I am most creative, when I most come alive and am animated with a radical sense of paying-attention. One of these times is while I’m hiking in the woods. I started bringing paper with me and jotting down poems and fragments of poems as thoughts and scenes presented themselves on the trail. Much of my poetry has literally come from the trail. I found that what works for me is choosing to put myself in situation where I know I’ve been creative, where I expect the muse to come.

I’ve also noticed in my work that my conversations with certain people also generate creativity. I’ve found that putting myself in a situation where I'm talking with really bright, creative thinkers—forward thinkers—stimulates my thinking and I come up with all sorts of incredible new ideas that can bear fruit. (It occurs to me that this is what Jim was doing by asking me these questions about peaks and valley stories.) The key thing is that I can choose to put myself in situations where “peaks” can happen, where I'm debating and dialoging with bright people expecting that brighter answers and possibilities will come out of that interaction. It's very Socratic, putting myself into the dialog, making the dialog happen. On the trail the dialog is happening with myself; in the office it’s happening with interesting people. Those are the people I need to spend more time with, and frankly less time with the others that are a drain on creative energy.

So to come out of a valley and onto a peak, I need to put myself on the trail and into the bright conversation. That's where the new peaks will come from, and the new ideas and innovations. Ultimately its where the potential programs and products will come from.

How do creative moments happen for you?

[1] See Spencer Johnson's book of this title, here.

For a link to my Tuck/Dartmouth Fellowship Blog, click here.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Where will we be tomorrow?

On Tuesday NTEN held an on-line virtual book party for the launch of Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission (see Each of the authors had the stage for a five minute "what are the key take-aways" from your chapter. Here's what I said about the chapter I wrote on the future of IT in nonprofits.

I'd like to tell a story and invite you to imagine the scene: a three year-old boy is sitting on a stack of books on a chair in front of a computer. Two of his friends are watching what he's doing, and chiming in their ideas about what's happening on the screen and what to do next. The computer program hits a slow spot and the action stops. Without taking his eyes off the screen, the boy picks up the mouse a inch or so and bangs in down on the mouse pad, partly out of frustration and partly to make the program move again. He expects it to keep up with him.

One of the things I learned listening to students present at the Imagine Cup Competition last year (see
"Turning the Pyramid Upside Down") is that the question we need to ask about the future of technology is not "what do you study to see the future"; it's "who do you study?" What students are doing with technology today is what organizations will be doing with technology tomorrow.

So what about our story of the preschooler and his friends, and what does this have to do with my book chapter? The lessons from watching children are:

  1. Think small. We will increasingly need to use bite-sized applications in nonprofits, something we can easily get our hands around, and throw out when something better comes along.

  2. Think sharing. With most corporations spending five times per desk what we are paying, the only way we will be able to embrace the full benefits of technology is by sharing our IT services, like sharing our toys.

  3. Think play. Michael Shrage was right when he said we need to play our way to innovation. The mission-moving IT pilots we run today will create the nonprofit technology of tomorrow.

The last point is perhaps the most important; it is also the hardest to do in the midst of a recession. Echoing Jim Collins, I ended the chapter by saying that “when there is rapid change and uncertainty, smart organizations vary like mad.” This takes a certain kind of humility: admitting that when it comes to the future of technology we most often don’t know. This may be a bit philosophical, as my editor pointed out—after all, people want to know about the impact of the “cloud.” My short answer is that it will be different than we expect; so make your bets small, shared and vary like mad.