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Your computer is a factory for ideas. Go build something.

Month: December 2013

Government as a Character in Harry Potter and The Hunger Games

Hunger Games

If you’ve read the Harry Potter or The Hunger Games books (or seen the movies), you know that the protagonists in those series have to contend with the “powers that be.”

For Harry and his friends, it’s the Ministry of Magic, which mostly serves as an obstacle to the young wizards’ efforts to defeat Voldemort. Katniss, on the other hand, is fighting a more sinister and systemic evil: government itself.

Here’s an intriguing comparison of the role of government in the two series. Interesting how the latter may mirror many Americans’ attitudes now.

Peter Blair – “Remember Who the Real Enemy Is”

Why You Spend Most of Your Life in Two of the Least Creative Places on Earth

School
Photo Credit: Ol.v!er [H2vPk] via Compfight cc

Steve Jobs, Frank Lloyd Wright, Dave Brubeck, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, Martin Scorcese, Ansel Adams.

You’d like to think you breathe the same air as these creative geniuses–at least some of the time, right?

It turns out that you probably don’t, and the two major obstacles are the places you spend most of your life: school and work.

Jessica Olien, writing in Slate, offers this:

In the United States we are raised to appreciate the accomplishments of inventors and thinkers—creative people whose ideas have transformed our world. We celebrate the famously imaginative, the greatest artists and innovators from Van Gogh to Steve Jobs. Viewing the world creatively is supposed to be an asset, even a virtue. Online job boards burst with ads recruiting “idea people” and “out of the box” thinkers. We are taught that our own creativity will be celebrated as well, and that if we have good ideas, we will succeed.

It’s all a lie. This is the thing about creativity that is rarely acknowledged: Most people don’t actually like it. Studies confirm what many creative people have suspected all along: People are biased against creative thinking, despite all of their insistence otherwise.

If you’ve tried to push a new idea through your organization, you’ve probably faced this resistance. And anyone who’s been through the school system in the United States (I can’t speak for schools elsewhere) has experienced the factory-like approach to education. Ken Robinson’s outstanding TED talk on the creative desert in schools highlights the problems many of us have faced.

So what do you do?

Most people are inclined to conform, and new ideas make you different, an outlier. Don’t be surprised when you face resistance, take risks, and keep trying.

To get something new done you have to be stubborn and focused, the the point that others might find unreasonable.
–Jeff Bezos

What’s Happening to Lincoln, Illinois (Or Your Small Town)?

Rural areas have been in decline for years–the data shows it. Jobs and people have been moving away from small towns, crime and other problems have crept in. Books and news reports tell the story.

But data is simply an intangible abstraction. What happens when it’s your town that’s featured in the news story?

Last month former Lincoln, Illinois, resident and NPR correspondent Kelly McEvers wrote a story about returning to Lincoln. It aired on NPR on Tuesday, November 12, and portrayed a town that had given itself over to drugs, decay, and fear. A town that had curled up like a wretched, dying dog, a town waiting for its last generation of children to move away forever and then, finally, to be consumed by the very prairie which had given it life 150 years earlier.

No phoenix for Lincoln, just ashes.

Some folks who live here took exception to that NPR story. They didn’t dispute the facts as they were presented, but they did feel it was characterized by a biased view and an unrepresentative sample of the people who live and work here. Some have shared their own views in our local media:

Mike Fak – Logan County Herald

Mayor Keith Snyder – Logan County Herald

Sam Redding – Lincoln Courier

Dr. Lynda Ulrich & Dr. Chuck Verderber – Logan County Herald

Many of the people who live in Lincoln like the community and want it to be a vibrant place for living, learning, business, and raising families. It’s not the town that was one-sidedly sketched in the NPR story but, honestly, we’ve got some work to do.

There’s a growing movement that’s being called We Are Lincoln. It’s not been created or ordained by the mayor, city council, or county government.

It’s just people.  People who live here and who want to make a difference.

We met a month ago and we’re meeting again tonight at Abraham Lincoln Memorial Hospital at 7:00 PM to talk about making this a better place to work and live.

Love to see you there–come on out if you’d like to be part of the future of Lincoln.

By the way–got a news story to share? Drop it in the comments below.

This Airline Did Something Remarkable for Christmas #WestJetChristmas

Airlines typically earn our ire for poor customer service. WestJet Airlines, however, recently went way over the top to delight a plane full of passengers. This is marketing done right.

You may not have an audience or budget to do something like this, but what could you do that would be amazing for the customers, family, or friends in your life this year?

How to Create a Pecha Kucha Presentation with Google Drive

My students at Lincoln Christian University are doing pecha kucha presentations this week, and a few have chosen to use the Presentation app in Google Drive. While Google Presentation will allow you to create timed slides, there’s no option to time the slides for 20 seconds–essential for a pecha kucha slide show. But there is a “back door” solution.

The YouTube video above walks you through the process–it’s simple and takes just a few seconds.

Two Books I Hope You’ll Read This Month

The potential for future strife, in my view, involves maximizing acquisition and application of knowledge. We will see both institutionally (nations, businesses, enterprises) and individually a chasm grow between those who can readily use knowledge and those who cannot. That strife will be both internecine and international. We need to stop teaching people irrelevant content which can be acquired in seconds when needed, and start teaching them how to learn, so that knowledge acquisition is natural and lifelong. — Alan Weiss

My students at Lincoln Christian University are winding down the fall semester. Like students at schools all over the country, they’ll have about four weeks of vacation before the spring semester begins. So what to do with all that unstructured time?

How about this: keep learning.

Just as consultant Alan Weiss asserts, your ability to constantly learn is a competitive advantage, and one that doesn’t depend on any school or classroom.

With that in mind, here are two books you could read over the Christmas break that have the potential to pay dividends throughout your life:

Dan Pink, recently named by Thinkers50 as one of the top 15 business and management thinkers in the world, wrote the first American business book in manga, the Japanese comic book style. An instant bestseller, it offers career advice for young and old alike–and it has a pretty cool trailer (below).

Johnny Bunko trailer from Daniel Pink on Vimeo.

Richard St John’s book offers similar advice but from a different angle. After being asked the seemingly simple question “How do you become successful?” by a young teenage girl, he set out to find the answer. Ten years, 500 interviews, and reams of data later, 8 to Be Great tells you what successful people do–and you can do what they do. Here’s a summary of the book that Richard St John gave in a TED talk (below).

Both books are fun, easy to read, and undeniably helpful. You can read Dan Pink’s book in 90 minutes–it’s a comic book, for crying out loud. Richard St John’s can be read in a couple of sittings, so you have no excuse to not read them both.

I’m encouraging my children to read them. In fact, my thirteen-year-old daughter has already read Johnny Bunko and we’ve had some good conversation about its lessons.

I wish these books had been available when I was 20. If you’re in college now, please do yourself a favor and read them. You’ll get a 20 year head start on me.

Bonus assignment if you finish these: Seth Godin’s Linchpin.

Book Review: “The Year Without Pants” by Scott Berkun

Can you name a company that hires employees without formal interviews and instead gives prospective job seekers a real assignment to see how they deal with it? Or a company that has a headquarters but whose international workforce hardly ever works there? Or that requires every new hire to spend their first weeks at the company working in customer support?

It’s the same company that hosts nearly 73 million blogs, and the platform on which this blog runs: WordPress.

Scott Berkun, a former project manager at Microsoft and now an author of some fine books, wanted to find out more about what it would be like to work at an organization with an entirely distributed workforce. So he spent a year as a team manager at WordPress and then wrote a book about the experience. Hence The Year Without Pants.

I’ve read Berkun’s books on project management and public speaking, and am a regular reader of his blog. He’s typically insightful, provocative, and funny. When I saw that he’d be doing a book on WordPress, which I’ve used for about seven years now, I figured it would be worth the read.

What: The book is structured chronologically, running from the initial arrangements that led to Berkun’s hire through end of his year+ of employment with WordPress. Berkun offers a look at the dynamics of his team and the projects on which they worked, as well as how that work and the team fit into the larger WordPress structure. There’s also some reflection on larger management, culture, and leadership issues as well as Berkun’s thoughts on “the future of work” in a world where a computer and an Internet connection can link almost anyone anywhere in the world.

Audience: Anyone who wants an inside look at how WordPress works as an organization, project managers, and HR and business types who are curious about how a distributed workforce can really get stuff done. I’d also recommend it for anyone who wants to do better at leading teams–you’ll get the vicarious experience of watching Scott Berkun lead his team and get a glimpse at the thinking and motivations behind his decisions.

Nuggets: Here are few bits that I underlined (well, highlighted on my Kindle version).

No technique, no matter how good, can turn stupid coworkers into smart ones. And no method can magically make employees trust each other or their boss if they have good reason not to. (p 29)

Product creators are the true talent of any corporation, especially one claiming to bet on innovation. The other roles don’t create products and should be there to serve those who do. A classic betrayal of this idea is when the IT department dictates to creatives what equipment they can use. If one group has to be inefficient, it should be the support group, not the creatives. If the supporting roles, including management, dominate, the quality of products can only suffer. (p 38)

Every tradition we hold dear was once a new idea someone proposed, tried, and found valuable, often inspired by a previous tradition that had been outgrown. The responsibility of people in power is to continually eliminate useless traditions and introduce valuable ones. An organization where nothing ever changes is not a workplace but a living museum. (p 76)

Morale isn’t an event; it’s the accumulated goodwill people build through work together. (p 206)

Application: After reading the book, I decided to try an experiment in one of my Lincoln Christian University classes. The marketing class is working on a project in teams. In the past, I’ve always met with each team to check on their progress and address problems. For a class with four teams, this meant scheduling multiple meetings with each team–a significant logistical challenge at the end of the semester.

For this class, I asked each team to select a project manager. Instead of meeting with all of the teams, I’m meeting only with the project managers. So far this has created two improvements: fewer meetings and more collaboration. Instead of scheduling four meetings with four teams, I have one meeting with the four project managers. And the teams are sharing ideas more than I’ve seen in the past. The semester isn’t over yet, so the plan could still flop but I like what I’m seeing so far.

This upcoming spring semester, I have two of my LCU students working on a human resource management independent study. I’ll have them read The Year Without Pants as one of their texts. I also want to use more project management ideas in future classes, passing more responsibility along to the students with the hope that it better prepares them for life after LCU.

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