Monday, February 27, 2012

If It's Not Broken, Brake It and See Where It Leads You

I was recently interviewed on the "Jim Blasingame: Small Business Advocate" show on the subject of lateral thinking and how to make a "break" from old ways of thinking in order to see new opportunities before us. Click on this link to hear the interview.

Necessity is the mother of invention. When things get broken, people come up with new ideas. What many people don't realize is is that you don't have to wait for things to get broken. You can just break them (metaphorically) yourself and see where that leads you.

If your phone got broken you might find the benefit of face to face meetings or realize how much time you were wasting on silly conversations and text messages.

If your car broke down and could not be fixed, you might learn to ride a bike to work and get more exercise. Or you could carpool and make new friends. Or maybe ride the bus and learn about the value of public transportation.

What if you suddenly lost your job? It would be a bad thing right? Maybe not. It could present you with an opportunity to learn a new trade or realize that you could do without all the material things you once had.

The point is if we assume something is broken, we can disrupt all the patterns that are in our head that are preventing us from seeing new ideas. Give it a try and leave me a comment here on how it goes.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

How "The Growth Coach" Uses Lateral Thinking

I recently attended a talk sponsored by the Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce featuring Daniel Murphy, the founder of the highly successful Growth Coach Franchise, which provides business and sales coaching services. Dan has built his business into a nationwide network of more than 150 franchisees that are helping 5000-plus business owners across the country achieve more success in business AND obtain more quality time with their families. Throughout the talk, Dan repeatedly emphasized the importance of thinking in creating a successful business. Since he started The Growth Coach, he has adhered to a weekly discipline of taking time to think intently about his business.

Dan is a lateral thinker. In his talk, he made reference to two lateral thinking techniques that students of Edward de Bono's work will recognize as "random entry" and "provocation." He uses a packet of cards with quotes from famous people as well as a series of provocative questions - similar to Roger van Oech's "A Whack on the Side of the Head" - to help businessmen and women enter problems at random points and advance their thinking.

In his book "Becoming a Strategic Business Owner," Dan also advocates another thinking principle called "simplicity," which de Bono has written about extensively.

I had a good conversation with Dan at the reception that Mark James, chairman of the Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce, was kind enough to sponsor at his local business Home and Hearth (where, incidentally, I learned a tremendous amount about how to save money on home heating!). Dan said he had heard about de Bono's work but had not yet attended any of his classes. I often find that highly successful people like Dan are compelled to do extraordinary things to stimulate their thinking. They are frequently amazed at how powerful the full complement of "thinking tools" are.

Speaking of, I am forming a new "Six Hats Thinking" class that will be conducted on the afternoons of March 1st and 8th, 2012 at the headquarters of AVCOM of Virginia. Send me an email at bob at if you would like details.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What I Told President Obama

President Obama called me last night. He told me he was frustrated with his advisers because they just kept coming up with the same old tired ideas. He knew I was teaching "Lateral Thinking" to business owners, so he wanted to know if I could help him come up with some good ideas for the country. The President wanted some ideas that would help our country immediately, that were not controversial, and that would not cost billions of dollars. Together we came up with the idea of planting victory gardens. Basically, we would encourage everyone in America to plant a vegetable garden. Our goal would be for the average person to grow 5% of the food they eat next year. Here are the benefits:

  1. It would dramatically reduce poverty. For a family of four, the federal poverty level is less than $22,000 per year. But I suggest to you that a family of four who has a large vegetable garden and four laying hens is much wealthier than a family of four without a garden.
  2. It would reduce health care costs by reducing obesity and other food-related illnesses like diabetes. It should be obvious that not only would the country be eating healthier, but we would be getting more exercise. (Tell the kids to put away the video games and get out in the backyard and pull some weeds.)
  3. It would reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Fossil fuels are used extensively in food systems, from production (including use of fertilizer) to distribution (transporting foods to market).
  4. It would be good for the environment. If the average person grew 5% of their food, that's 5% less plastic packaging that has to go into landfills (and the ocean sometimes, unfortunately).
  5. It would raise the spirits of the country. Anyone who is unemployed who grows his or her own vegetable garden has got to feel better about themself than someone who is unemployed and watching TV all day.
Of course, this is not a new idea. During Word War II, the government encouraged people to plant victory gardens to support the war effort. Canned goods and other food supplies were in short supply then, and by planting victory gardens, it made more of these supplies available for the troops. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that in 1943, there were 20 million gardens planted that produced 10 million tons of produce. In fact, the number of pressure cookers sold in the country quintupled between 1942 and 1943 to can all the vegetables that were grown. People felt like they were doing something good for the war effort then, and we could get that same sense of civic pride back now if people were more self-reliant.

Okay. . .President Obama really didn't call me. I used a technique called "Provocative Operation" or PO to illustrate a lateral thinking technique for generating new and original ideas, essentially, proposing a "crazy" idea or making a random statement about a problem and seeing what solutions develop. No judgement about the idea or statement. Maybe someone should tell Congress about this "novel" technique.
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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Casino Called Life

There is a fundamental misunderstanding about the effect randomness has on life.

We have heard a lot lately about the amount of wealth some of the candidates for U.S. President have. We have also heard populist politicians despair at the "unfairness" of the wealth distribution in America. The top 1% own 30% of the assets, and some people think something is wrong with this.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Mitt Romney's income makes most of the people in the top 1% look like paupers. Many years ago, a brilliant economist Vilfredo Pareto observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people. In fact, the Pareto Principle states that for many events, 80% of the effects are created by 20% of the causes. In business, frequently 80% of sales come from 20% of your customer (and 80% of your problems come from 20% of your customers).

The fact is the Pareto Principle is at work in the distribution of wealth. But there is another effect: randomness. In a county with 300 million people, a small percentage are bound to get lucky. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Mitt Romney are all very smart, hard-working men, but there are other equally smart men who have not accumulated even 1% of what Romney (the poorest of the three) has accumulated. And much of this is because in the 'casino called life,' sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time.

While we might not like the fact that some people get extremely lucky in life and others don't, we have to realize that in a way life is like a casino. You can go to Las Vegas and see the names of people who have won hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions, playing slot machines. But most people don't have that kind of success.

Some people decry a system that allows a few people to accumulate such a disproportionate amount of the wealth and say it is not fair. And they are right, but the fact is life is not supposed to fair. It never has been and it never will be. So we might as well get used to it.

If you're smart and you work hard and save your money you can still get very comfortable in this country. But it takes some luck to be a billionaire.

Government should try to create opportunity for everyone, but it should not and cannot create equal results for everyone. To those who think it's government's role to create equal results for everyone, I suggest you take your next vacation in North Korea.
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Thursday, February 16, 2012

What Thinkers Can Learn From The Man in Black

I have always loved country music and the legend Johnny Cash has always been a favorite of mine. While some may see his song "A Boy Named Sue" as just a humorous tune with a nice beat, for me it is a powerful metaphor for the power of provocation to affect a change in thinking. Listen to the song and I will tell you what I mean:

As Sue tells the story, life was very tough growing up, getting teased about his name. He makes a solemn vow to get vengeance for the awful thing his father did to him by naming him Sue. And Sue's father certainly had his share of problems. The song suggests he had commitment issues, alcohol issues, and maybe even gambling issues. So when Sue finally confronts his father - the man he has hated his entire adult life - he expects to feel sweet satisfaction for killing the man.

But this is where we see provocation taking place. Sue, a young man in his prime, is stunned to learn that his "old bent gray" father is one of the toughest men he has ever fought. After they go rolling into the alley in the "mud and the blood and the beer" and Sue pulls his gun on his dad, the most unexpected thing happens: Sue's dad smiles. This is the last thing in the world we would expect of a man who just had the fight of his life and is now facing certain death. And he tells Sue:

This world is rough
And if a man's going to make it, he's got to be tough
And I knew I wouldn't be there to help you along. 
So I gave you that name and I said good-bye
I knew you would have to get tough or die
And its that name that helped to make you strong. 

Now you just fought one hell of a fight 
And I know you hate me and you got the right 
To kill me now and I wouldn't blame you if you do. 
But you ought to thank me before I die 
For the gravel in your gut and the spit in your eye 
Because I am the SOB that named you Sue.

At this point Sue's entire attitude changes. He realizes his father really loved him all along and he gave him that awful name to make him a stronger, better man.

Let's look at what we can learn about thinking and provocation from the song.

First, naming a boy Sue is definitely a provocative thing to do. I don't recommend it, but clearly there are benefits. A child named Sue might learn quickly to deal with bullies and how to battle back against adversity. We can extract a concept from this: by giving our child a special name, we might be able to give him or her an advantage in life. There are examples of this with more appropriate names.

Maybe we can inpire our child to be a great leader by naming him Moses as NBA basketball great Moses Malone's parents did. Or we can make her memorable by calling her Moon Unit as musician Frank Zappa did with his daughter. The key thing here is to use the provocation, "What if I named my son Sue?" to see if there is a beneficial concept that we can extract.

Next, let's look at what happens when the provocation is doing something unexpected. When Sue's father - facing death - smiled, it changed Sue's entire point of view. We see this in life when something unexpected happens. The workaholic suddenly changes his attitude about life when he gets divorce papers or the chronic overeater finally gets the motivation to change her eating habits after the doctor tells her she has diabetes.

We know that provocation can cause us to change our thinking and see new ideas. But we don't have to wait for random provocations to occur. We can use tools to create them. Read Edward DeBono's books Lateral Thinking or Serious Creativity to learn how.

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Frames and Methods

Let's say that someone you know has done something that you believe has seriously harmed you. What should you do? If you ask an attorney, they might addres your concerns from whether a tort has occured and what can be proven and what are your damages. You pastor might have a different view. He might ask, "What would Jesus do?" and suggest that you go to the person and express your feelings and seek reconciliation. Your best friend might tell you just to forget about it and that it isn't worth the emotion energy that you are wasting stewing about it.

So who is right? Well, it really depends. But what I want to focus on is that the lawyer, the pastor and the friend all may believe that they have your best interst at heart when they are giving you advice, each is approaching the problem from their own particular framework. And when we approach a problem from a narrow framework, we miss opportunities.

Consider a different situation in which you are trying to decide whether to buy long term care insurance you your parents. You ask your spouse who is an engineer, your brother who is a statistician and your best friend who is a health care provider. The engineer does an elaborate spread sheet that lists the pros and cons of long term care and then compares the costs and benefits of the top companies. The statistician takes a different approach and calculates the probability that you will use the coverage and the estimated benefits that might be paid and weighs these against the premium. The health care provider says, "Don't even think about going without long term care, all the people I see who have it are really glad that they bought it."

So who is right? Again it depends. But the point is that each person used a method to come to his or her conclusion, but there are many methods that lead to different conclusions.

While not a panacea, the Six Hats Thinking Strategu is an effective way to approach thinking that reduces the problems of narrow framing or limited methodolgy that results in much more robust full colored thinking.

The next Six Hats Class scheduled in Richmond starts of February 8th at 8:00 AM  until 9:30 AM at the Days Inn near Chesterfield Town Center. The class will run for six weeks. The cost is $300.
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