Practice the Art of Possibility

The elderly Mr. Withers leaned over me and whispered, “What? You’ve been practicing it for three minutes, and you still can’t play it?” (Ben Zander’s early cello teacher to the young Benjamin.)

I just finished a couple of good books last week. This quote was from Benjamin Zander in the book he wrote with his wife Rosamund Stone Zander, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. This is not a new book, but it was recently recommended to me. She is a family therapist and coach. He is conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and an amazing teacher. (Search YouTube for Ben Zander and you see examples of marvelous teaching of young musicians.) He also speaks to company executives about leadership.

People, that would be all of us, often try something for a short time, a few minutes, find it difficult, and quit. Meditation, study, eating well, exercising, calming a temper…

The Zanders’ book offers 12 practices for transforming your professional and personal life. “Our practices will take a good deal more than three minutes to master. Additionally, everything you think and feel and see around you will argue against them. So it takes dedication, a leap of faith, and, yes, practicing to get them into your repertoire.

It’s like the old joke about the young man carrying a violin case stopping someone on the street in New York City and asking, “How can I get to Carnegie Hall?” The quick reply, “Practice, my boy, practice.”

This book offers practices that are transformational. Digital transformation spews forth from the lips and computers of many of my colleagues and marketers. However, without personal and professional transformation, we may not be able to take advantage of this digital “revolution.”

These practices are geared toward causing a total shift of posture, perceptions, beliefs, and thought processes. They are about transforming your entire world.

I will not discuss all 12 practices. Rather I’ll pull out a few that I found especially impactful.

Possibility. We can look at obstacles, or we can see possibilities. The action in a universe of possibility may be characterized as generative, or giving, in all senses of that word—producing new life, creating new ideas, consciously endowing with meaning, contributing, yielding to the power of contexts. The relationship between people and environments is highlighted, not the people and things themselves. Emotions that are often relegated to the special category of spirituality are abundant here: joy, grace, awe, wholeness, passion, and compassion.

Contribution. Instead, life is revealed as a place to contribute and we as contributors. Not because we have done a measurable amount of good, but because that is the story we tell.

When I began playing the game of contribution, on the other hand, I found there was no better orchestra than the one I was conducting, no better person to be with than the one I was with; in fact, there was no “better.” In the game of contribution you wake up each day and bask in the notion that you are a gift to others.

The practice of this chapter is inventing oneself as a contribution, and others as well. The steps to the practice are these: 1.  Declare yourself to be a contribution. 2.  Throw yourself into life as someone who makes a difference, accepting that you may not understand how or why. The contribution game appears to have remarkable powers for transforming conflicts into rewarding experiences.

I leave you with this little story about creating a certain culture of humility.

Two prime ministers are sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him: “Peter,” he says, “kindly remember Rule Number 6,” whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes, and withdraws. The politicians return to their conversation, only to be interrupted yet again twenty minutes later by an hysterical woman gesticulating wildly, her hair flying. Again the intruder is greeted with the words: “Marie, please remember Rule Number 6.” Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology.

When the scene is repeated for a third time, the visiting prime minister addresses his colleague: “My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?”

“Very simple,” replies the resident prime minister. “Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so g—damn seriously.’” “Ah,” says his visitor, “that is a fine rule.” After a moment of pondering, he inquires, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?” “There aren’t any.”

Pick up a copy and read it a couple of times. Then practice.

Book Review: Build Your Own Business

Blog Review Start from Zero

The other day, I received a review copy of Start From Zero: Build Your Own Business, Experience True Freedom by Dane Maxwell.

A further subtitle could be become a millionaire while working only 2-3 hours a day.

Or, become a millionaire by joining his site.

Three basic components of his book include—writing effective ad/marketing copy, make the calls, buy his system. (Not to be cynical. All God’s children need to earn an income somehow.)

Much of the first half or so include ideas I first picked up in the 1980s from Napoleon Hill, Denis Waitley, and Brian Tracy. Then he, a little later, added ideas on neuroplasticity—the finding that you can change and grow your brain through reading and experiences.

His outline of ideas are:

  • The Three Rocks
  • What you don’t need
  • What you do need
  • 4 Brains
  • 7 Skills
  • 15 Examples (people who have done the work and succeeded)
  • 4 Growth Levels

If you are younger and just beginning, this book offers many tried and proven tips. Read it and take a few ideas and put them into practice.

If you are older and have been studying building businesses, most likely you’ll find little new—unless you find motivation from examples from life.

I picked up at least one new idea—questions to ask while doing some market research. Sort of looking for those delicious morel mushrooms in the spring that pop up unexpectedly, ideas are there for the finding.

In the book, he mentions that as people grow in business, the move from reading 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss to Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio. This book is sort of a 4 Hour Work Week. Once you get moving, you’ll grow more by reading Principles and other such books.

Where Is Shift to Digital Transformation Lagging?

My new office is getting organized. Better than my outside life. Remind me why we moved 200 miles north when I went outside for some exercise in 0.5-in. of snow with some icy patches on the trail. Didn’t do my Fartlek run this morning. But, I am relishing one of my new favorite news sites–Morning Brew. Check it out.

I might have a new office with the getting into a new routine with a new house and neighborhood plus the revised routine due to shelter-in-place. Some things remain the same. Half of my emails deal with “Digital Transformation.”

Sometimes I think we’ve been going down this road for such a long time that no one except the worst of the laggards is not already reaping dividends from digital projects.

Speaking of laggards, let me drift a moment into what must be a gross lack of leadership and management. No, I’m talking about government.

Virginia-based Smithfield Foods announced Sunday that it is closing its pork processing plant in Sioux Falls until further notice after hundreds of employees tested positive for the coronavirus — a step the head of the company warned could hurt the nation’s meat supply.

Here is a statistic—Health officials said Sunday that 293 of the 730 people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in South Dakota work at the plant.

So what does our genius leader say? Is he concerned about the health and safety of his workers for whom he has responsibility? Well, “The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,“ Smithfield president and CEO Kenneth Sullivan said in a statement. “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running. These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation’s livestock farmers.”

Sounds more like he’s whining than stepping up to the plate taking responsibility and changing the culture and workplace.

Back to the regularly scheduled program—lack of digital transformation.

I read every blog post of Seth Godin and listen to his awesome podcast. Marketing and management along with thinking is his schtick not so much tech. But yesterday, he reached out and touched a sour note for our manufacturing and production leaders.

Try this on:

Some of the shift to digital is unwanted, fraught with risk and lonely.

But in some areas, organizations and leaders are realizing that it’s actually more powerful and efficient.

So why didn’t you do it before?

Because it’s easier to follow.

Because it’s more comfortable to stay where we are.

Waiting to do something because you’re forced to is rarely a positive approach to growth or leadership. Abrupt shifts against our will may cause change, but they’re inefficient and destabilizing.

Next time, take the lead. Not because you have to, but because you can.

Be like Seth. Take the lead—because you can.

Working from Home—Watch Your Relationships

My wife looked up from dinner last evening and blurted, “I wonder if there will be a spike in babies born. Or, divorces filed.”

Give me five seconds and I can list at least a half-dozen reasons why there won’t be a a baby in our new house in December or January. She must have been hinting at the other thing?

We lived for most of our marriage in Ohio. We had an occasional blizzard in the winter that kept everyone indoors for a few days. My wife taught third grade (8-9 year olds) and knew that in a few years, she’d have a larger class.

Seriously, I saw a news item from China reporting a surge in divorces. Another news item from America reports a surge in calls to help lines for domestic abuse victims.

I’ve worked from home for the past 20 years. But we have a routine where we both get out of the house. I would go to the park for a run, the gym for weights and sauna, the coffee house for writing. She would go to the Y a few days, teach Yoga, workout, and sometimes have a women’s Bible study or gathering. Now, no such thing.

Many of you had to construct home offices because the work at the plant still needed to be done, and they didn’t need you sick with covid-19. It’s a new reality. And the spouse can’t leave, either.

If your spouse is a health care worker, the added stress is immense. Recognize that, too.

Take care of how you separate work and life. And an occasional deep breath (inhale deeply, hold for a few seconds, then gently exhale for twice as long of a time as your inhale–it’s the exhale that has all the benefits) works wonders for calm and focus.

Engineering and management are not all about technology. It’s about that machine called yourself. Maintain it, as well.

Things Will Never Be The Same

There is no escaping discussing the effects of the Coronavirus / covid-19 / SARS-CoV-2 infection and disease. Almost everyone in the world is affected in one way or another.

The meme of the week seems to be working from home advice. The Rework podcast lately is a two-part Q&A with Basecamp leaders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. Basecamp has always had a remote work culture and this podcast captures the excitement. I’ve been working at home for more than 25 years. Almost all of the advice I’ve heard will get you on the right track. If you have questions, you can comment or send me a note. I’ve convinced a few companies of the benefits of remote workers.

So, whenever anything happens, pundits crawl out of their burrows and speculate about what all this means for the future. “Everything has changed. Nothing will ever be the same,” constitutes their collective mantra.

The truth is that every day something happens that changes the way we live, work, or think. Sometimes just a little thing; sometimes a bigger thing. Will this crisis change the way we work and live? Probably a little. But I bet we return to handshakes and hugs when things pass over. It’s a natural urge for most cultures. Probably the same for our supply chains. And our health care systems. In other words, we seldom learn and apply from a previous situation in order to prepare for the next one.

It’s like travel. “We’ll never fly again. Either it will be a virtual meeting or we’ll drive.” I’ve heard that one. But as soon as the crisis passes, we’ll rediscover the value of the face-to-face meeting.

I’m seeing one conference after another announce moving to a virtual meeting format. There have been many technologies used for virtual conferences over the past 20 years. I’ve even participated in one or two. Tried to listen to a few. These are tough. It’s hard to set aside 2-3 days while you’re still in the office to devote the time to a computer screen whether listening to a keynote or to a panel. I can last through a half-hour presentation. More time than that is difficult for me.

It has gotten to the point for me that when I go to a conference most of the value comes from 1-to-1 discussions and casual conversations in the hallways, coffee shops, and bars. Perhaps there is a speaker at a session I’d like to hear. Sometimes a keynote is excellent. I mostly do not like the panel format, but there are times when it is a worthwhile discussion rather than four 5-minute presentations (that run over time) followed by routine questions. The virtual conference is a poor substitute.

Culture, fashion, experiences seem to be described over time more like sine waves than straight lines up and to the right. Or, I prefer the model that French Jesuit paleontologist, philosopher, and priest Pierre Teilhard devised-a spiral looping upward each trip around similar to the last stage yet building on it to a new reality. Things are the same, yet different.

In a few weeks, we will all be back at work—but with cleaner hands. And perhaps a better appreciation for how we spread germs and viruses.

Industrial Leadership—Beyond The Buzz

Have you heard “digital transformation” until your ears ring? Every supplier, every analyst, every consultant promises to take you on the digital transformation journey.

Pause and reflect. Aren’t you already using many digital tools in your business and production processes?

Are marketers and gurus trying to induce panic in you with FOMO (fear of missing out). These days we have plenty of people inducing panic and fear with health concerns. Do we need to add to that with fear that when production returns we will be left in the dust by the digital few?

What I have seen as I tour manufacturing and process plants is a triumph of good leadership using sound management and judicious application of technology to solve problems that improves the business. And treats people well at the same time.

In my own journey, I learned about the importance of sound data from the ground up. And working with people to improve processes. Later, I learned about computer applications and digital technology as I implemented an early MES system that improved processes and life for inventory control and cost accounting. These savings paid for the system. And we had barely tapped the potential.

Then as a quality assurance manager I studied W. Edwards Deming and and the work behind the Toyota Production System pioneered by Taiichi Ohno and Eiji Toyoda, Japanese industrial engineers, who developed the system between 1948 and 1975.

What we learned was good leaders working with all people involved identified and solved problems adding digital technologies into their tool set as they helped solve problems.

The worst thing was when engineers wanted to apply technology just because it was new and cool. It has been several years since I’ve seen or heard of “over automation”—at least until Elon Musk blamed his Tesla production problems on it.

People like me who are not beholden to a particular supplier or type of solution can help find the way that works for what your culture and problem require. It’s important to consider both. Trying to change everything at the same time is a recipe for certain disaster.

As we sort through the sickness mess we’re in now, we also need to remember that startups after a prolonged shutdown never go smoothly. Machine problems that were previously hidden by continuous running suddenly demand immediate attention. People take some time to return to speed and focus.

If you are still in production or trying to develop a product or process specifically for this outbreak, remember that it is hard for you and all your employees and contractors to maintain focus when fear and worry linger in the recesses of their minds. Anti-stress breaks and encouragement for nutrition and sleep help build the immune system and keep them in the race.

And rather than focus on social media negativity and panic, check out some of the positive sources for information such as Peter Diamondis.

Stay safe, stay healthy, stay focused on solving problems.

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