Bookstore Serendipity: Creativity In The Efficient World Of Amazon

Lance Creativity, Forbes, Ideas Comments

Originally posted at

To begin, a confession: I am a huge fan of Amazon and everything it is about. I have been a Prime member for years, and I have given Prime memberships as gifts. I marvel at the way Amazon makes everything so easy to do as a customer, whether it is buying, watching, listening, or returning. Amazon has mastered the art of the frictionless sale, and has scaled to unimaginable heights — selling enough 4K TV’s this Christmas to reach the peak of Mt. Everest nine times! — while still retaining the customer experience of a small outfit. With Amazon I watch my movies, listen to my music, stock my pantry, fill up my bookshelves and check off the Christmas lists of my kids — both naughty and nice. This Christmas, my Wife gave me another of Amazon’s wonders: Amazon Echo.

Alexa … is it a great time to be alive?

Sorry, I couldn’t find the answer to your question.

Yes, Alexa. The answer is yes.

Yet, for all of Amazon’s efficient glory, there is one thing brick-and-mortar bookstores like Barnes & Noble can do better: serendipity. Combining the definitions from both and yields a marvelous picture of what serendipity is: an aptitude for making desirable discoveries of things not sought for by accident Note that the discoveries of serendipity are not mere accident. There is a skill in making them, and it is a skill the physical bookstore has over the Amazonian database.

On the day after Christmas, we took our two kids (ages 9 and 11) to Barnes & Noble so they could use the gift cards they received for Christmas. As they camped out in the kids section with my Reading-Teacher Wife, I aimlessly wandered the store. I was not “shopping,” per se. I had no intention on buying anything, and no focused direction for my looking. I was, in the truest sense of the phrase, “killing time,” which is the perfect metaphor for such an aimless and wasteful spending of that most precious of resources, Time.

After meandering through the Science Fiction aisles and walking along the cookbooks and art compendiums, I ended up as I often do in the Leadership and Business Management section. Expecting nothing new, I began running my eyes along the titles, most of which I had already either bought or rejected as sounding uninteresting. Then, right as I was nearly finished with the aisle and ready to go cruise the Science section, my eyes spied a single copy of a smallish book nearly hiding between two larger titles.


What a bizarre title and a whimsical cover … in the business section! As I thumbed through the book, I saw that it was full of what appeared to be hand-drawn doodles on nearly every page of the book, along with bright colorful illustrations throughout. There was even a chapter that appeared to be handwritten in Sharpie on a yellow legal pad. It was the subtitle grabbed my attention: “A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace.”

Gasp! Did I need that!

I flipped the book over, and found none of the blurbs by the names of the hot authors and thinkers that adorn seemingly every leadership book nowadays. Then I looked for the copyright date: 1996.

! ! !

Something about this 20-year-old book that appeared to have been illustrated by my 11-year-old told me I needed to read it. With my surprise find in hand, I headed over to the kids section, waited for my Wife and two kids to make their book choices, paid for our purchases and headed home. By the time I turned out my light to go to sleep, I had finished reading all 224 pages of Gordon MacKenzie’s pure, unadulterated wisdom. Orbiting the Giant Hairball instantly became one of my Top 5 favorite/most influential books that I’ve ever read.

And I never would have found this treasure without wastefully “killing time” in a physical bookstore. A two-decade-old book without any major names behind it just isn’t ever going to surface on my computer screen as I visit Amazon’s super-site. While I have purchased and browsed a wide variety of books on the topics touched upon in Orbiting, it is simply a book unlike anything I have ever read. The efficient database that makes Amazon go thrives on quickly and invisibly pushing to view the connections to things from a user’s past: past purchases, past pages viewed, past searches made. Drawing a customer’s eyes to the truly different and novel is simply not within Alexa’s grasp. Instant delivery of nearly anything you could possibly want is Amazon’s thing. Serendipity is not.

This tale of my surprising buy of the book with the catchy metaphor is, itself, a metaphor as well. This is how Creativity works. The genius that we recognize as Creativity is not the same as the processed and cliched notion of Innovation.  Creativity requires empty space and unfilled time to come into being. Innovation, on the other hand, is Creativity’s corporatized, better behaved, on-demand cousin. Witness, for example, the power of a fully-operational Innovation plan:

1. Strategize and plan: Settle on an agreement of the vision for the initiative that is also in line with business goals. Then establish the resources and budget, and integrate the vision with IT and business plans.

2. Develop governance: Establish a process for making decisions. This includes identifying and engaging stakeholders, agreeing on who is in charge and what the flow for decision making is, and also having feedback mechanisms in place.

3. Drive change management: Have systems by which people can communicate and socialize via multiple channels; get buy-in from stakeholders at all levels; and assess which open innovation initiatives and cultural shifts will help the company optimize contributions to innovation.

4. Execute: Make sure to draw from a wide range of sources to generate ideas for innovations that will transform the business, align the initiatives with business goals, and then update and drive new elements of the initiatives in response to changing business requirements.

5. Measure and improve: Once the innovative initiative is in place, monitor and measure how it has affected business outcomes. It is also important to seek feedback from stakeholders and to continue to study innovation best practices and case studies from other organizations. Also make sure to continually drive improvements through process changes and upgrades.

Or consider the collective thoughts of several CIO’s interviewed and asked about the process of Innovation:

Creating a culture of innovation begins with bringing these different groups to the table to document processes and discover where they overlap or could make use of shared efficiencies. The trend is toward lean operations, which are made possible by a shared consciousness of how best to get there. Lean principles even dictate that representatives of the various organizational limbs meet in the same room.

“Innovation” they may be talking about, but “creativity” they are not. It is only from deep within the “hairball” that the former could be confused for the latter.

To use Gordon MacKenzie’s wonderful metaphor, the efficiently productive notion of “innovation” would be the standardized process of hooking up the milk cows to the milking equipment in the barn. “Creativity,” on the other hand, happens out in the field:

A management obsessed with productivity usually has little patience for the quiet time essential to profound creativity. Its dream of dreams is to put the cows on the milking machine 24 hours a day. … [ignoring] the time the cow spends out in the pasture, seemingly idle, but, in fact, performing the alchemy of transforming grass into milk.

Bringing forth milk from a cow is not creative; turning grass into that milk is.


If real creativity is what leaders want from themselves, their people and their organization — and survey after survey says it is — then it isn’t more efficient plans for innovation and scheduled meetings for ideation brainstorming that is needed. Rather, what is needed is —

• the freedom of empty time to simply think;

• the “wasteful” opportunity to browse ideas, without the requirement that a productive “purchase” be made;

• the safety to investigate the whimsical oddity that is unlike the things that have worked in the past.

If it is true creativity you seek as a leader, then set aside the Lean Management rule book and take the bold steps necessary to build up the aptitude for making serendipity happen.

Hillary Clinton’s Loss In Michigan And How Leadership Teams Fail

Lance Forbes, Leadership Comments

Originally posted at

No shortage of digital ink has been spilled examining the causes and amplifying the outrages of Hillary Clinton’s shocking electoral loss to Donald Trump last month. But, for leaders interested in things other than politics, Edward-Isaac Dovere‘s piece for Politico —  “How Clinton Lost Michigan–and Blew the Election” — is the most interesting and insightful piece of journalism to come out of this post-election period. Set aside the politics of the story, and even ignore the candidate herself. Dovere’s article is a fascinating autopsy of how an organization’s leadership team utterly failed, and a blueprint for leaders in any type of organization to avoid the same, predictable fate.

If you are an organizational leader, here are four lessons from Team Clinton’s loss that you should think long and hard about as it relates to how you lead:

1. The Hubris Of Knowing Better

Hubris — it is that special brand of Pride that has been a favorite character flaw used by storytellers since the days of Homer’s Greek epics. In The Illiad, it is Niobe’s pride in her lineage and fertility that causes her to anger the gods and lose all of her 14 children as a consequence. With the leadership brain-trust guiding Team Clinton’s operation from the campaign’s headquarters in Brooklyn, hubris pushed their faith in their own smarts to the extreme.

Everybody could see Hillary Clinton was cooked in Iowa. So when, a week-and-a-half out, the Service Employees International Union started hearing anxiety out of Michigan, union officials decided to reroute their volunteers, giving a desperate team on the ground around Detroit some hope.

. . .

Turn that bus around, the Clinton team ordered SEIU. Those volunteers needed to stay in Iowa to fool Donald Trump into competing there, not drive to Michigan, where the Democrat’s models projected a 5-point win through the morning of Election Day.

Michigan organizers were shocked. It was the latest case of Brooklyn ignoring on-the-ground intel and pleas for help in a race that they felt slipping away at the end.

“They believed they were more experienced, which they were. They believed they were smarter, which they weren’t,” said Donnie Fowler, who was consulting for the Democratic National Committee during the final months of the campaign. “They believed they had better information, which they didn’t.”

Set aside the bizarre tactic of trying to head-fake the other side rather than admit a weakness by shoring it up. This decision by the Clinton campaign’s management team was the classic calling card of Hubris, in which leaders succumb to the easy temptation of confusing experience with intelligence, and under-valuing the information and insights of front-line workers as a result.

2. The View From The Echo Chamber

Dovere’s long article is full of detailed accounts of an ongoing disagreement between the Clinton campaign’s national headquarters and the various local teams leading efforts at the state level in key battleground states. Yet, amidst the story of these arguments was this single line that was both astonishing and yet predictable:

Politico spoke to a dozen officials working on or with Clinton’s Michigan campaign, and more than a dozen scattered among other battleground states, her Brooklyn headquarters and in Washington who describe an ongoing fight about campaign tactics, an inability to get top leadership to change course.

Then again, according to senior people in Brooklyn, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook never heard any of those complaints directly from anyone on his state teams before Election Day.

There is no shortage of wisdom available to leaders teaching against the dangers of surrounding themselves with “yes men,” usually citing Abraham Lincoln’s Team of Rivals in the process. Any leader who actively seeks out uniformity of opinion and only positive news is doomed to fail.

Far more common, however, is the phenomenon of the management team putting the leader into the self-reinforcing isolation of an echo chamber all on their own. In Hans Christian Andersen’s iconic tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, each of the emperor’s ministers had his own self-interested reason for keeping the lie going:

“I know I’m not stupid,” the man thought, “so it must be that I’m unworthy of my good office. That’s strange. I mustn’t let anyone find it out, though.” So he praised the material he did not see. He declared he was delighted with the beautiful colors and the exquisite pattern. To the Emperor he said, “It held me spellbound.”

If campaign manager Robbie Mook was kept in the dark about the concerns of various state officials, it’s hard to imagine it was for reasons much different than those of the Emperor’s ministers: self-image protection.

3. Falling In Love With The Plan

It should go without saying that strategic planning is a vital component of any leader’s hopes of successfully accomplishing the organization’s mission. However, there is a real danger in becoming too attached to the view of the world that is part of that planning. Emotional attachment to the models we create is perfectly understandable. However, when it is unacknowledged, and the pride of ownership masks itself as scientific objectivity, a nasty leadership failure will likely result as new, contradictory information is disbelieved or ignored.

The anecdotes are different but the narrative is the same across battlegrounds, where Democratic operatives lament a one-size-fits-all approach drawn entirely from pre-selected data — operatives spit out “the model, the model,” as they complain about it — guiding Mook’s decisions on field, television, everything else. That’s the same data operation, of course, that predicted Clinton would win the Iowa caucuses by 6 percentage points (she scraped by with two-tenths of a point), and that predicted she’d beat Bernie Sanders in Michigan (he won by 1.5 points).

. . .

“It was very surgical and corporate. They had their model, this is how they’re going to do it. Their thing was, ‘We don’t have to leave [literature] at the doors, everyone knows who Hillary Clinton is,’”

. . .

Operatives watched packets of real-time voter information piled up in bins at the coordinated campaign headquarters. The sheets were updated only when they got ripped, or soaked with coffee. Existing packets with notes from the volunteers, including highlighting how much Trump inclination there was among some of the white male union members the Clinton campaign was sure would be with her, were tossed in the garbage.

. . .

On the morning of Election Day, internal Clinton campaign numbers had her winning Michigan by 5 points. By 1 p.m., an aide on the ground called headquarters; the voter turnout tracking system they’d built themselves in defiance of orders — Brooklyn had told operatives in the state they didn’t care about those numbers, and specifically told them not to use any resources to get them — showed urban precincts down 25 percent. Maybe they should get worried, the Michigan operatives said.

Nope, they were told. She was going to win by 5. All Brooklyn’s data said so.

When I read accounts like this, I can’t help but envision a 16th Century sailing ship on an exploration mission, in which the professional cartographers hunched over their maps in the hull of the ship keep insisting to the captain that there is no land ahead because the maps say there isn’t … even as the dirty uneducated deck hands up on deck keep shouting “Land HO!”

There’s a reason racing tire engineers actually go to the track to see their designs tested: to gain actual data that may just expose flaws in their plan’s design. In Team Clinton’s case, they had actual experience in the Michigan primary that should have told them their model of Michigan’s electorate was flawed. Instead, the contradictory data was ignored. When new information is dismissed as mere unreliable anecdote, and the proof of such is the very fact that the new information contradicts the model, a management team is well on its way towards a leadership failure.

4. Dancing To Fear’s Tune

All of the above leadership errors can fall broadly into the category of an over-estimation of and reliance upon the team’s own professional expertise. It is, therefore, striking to read near the end of Dovere’s article of the ill-fated decisions made by the campaign’s strategic leadership team as a result of that most unscientific of motivators: Fear.

But there also were millions approved for transfer from Clinton’s campaign for use by the DNC — which, under a plan devised by Brazile to drum up urban turnout out of fear that Trump would win the popular vote while losing the electoral vote, got dumped into Chicago and New Orleans, far from anywhere that would have made a difference in the election.

Regardless of what one thinks of the Electoral College and its role in selecting who will serve as President, Team Clinton knew from Day One the rules governing how the election would be won or lost: winning required earning at least 270 electoral college votes as assigned by the results of each state’s individual election results. By the rules in place since the dawn of the Republic, a national popular vote total is interesting trivia, at best, and an irrelevancy at worst.

The Clinton campaign leadership feared a scenario in which Donald Trump appeared more popular but still lost. As a result of that fear, they made the head-scratching choice to spend much needed dollars and efforts in running up vote totals in states in which the extra margin of victory literally meant nothing, while ignoring places like Michigan in which a relatively small margin of victory ended up costing them everything.

Leaders everywhere, read the account of Team Clinton’s failure and take note:

• Humility is the set of brakes that will keep you from driving off the cliff;

• Everyone becomes stupid inside of an echo chamber, eventually;

• If your model doesn’t leave room for Reality to have a say, throw out the model;

• Fear is a liar.

4 Ways Your Annual Review Is A Game Of ‘Calvinball’

Lance Accountability, Communication, Forbes, Integrity, Leadership, People Comments

Originally posted at

As the end of the year fast approaches, employers and employees everywhere are embarking upon the annual exercise of the performance review. For too many, this experience is less like a genuine moment of competency evaluation and improvement insight, and more like a game of Calvinball with a salary increase at stake.

For the too young or the uninitiated, Calvinball is the name of the game created by Calvin, the infamous, imaginative six-year-old, and Hobbes, his best friend/stuffed tiger, who owned the comic strip universe in the late ’80s through the mid-’90s as Calvin and Hobbes.

The game itself represented pure, undiluted imagination run amok, with very little in the way of operating rules. In fact, there were only two:

  1. rules are made up as you go along, and
  2. you can’t play Calvinball the same way twice.

To go with these two anti-rules, Calvinball was played with a bizarre array of equipment, ranging from masks, volleyballs, and croquet mallets to songs, poetry, and buckets of cold water. In Calvinball, the game is as likely to end in an escalating cycle of revenge as it is in declaring a winner, and the only things that are impossible are predictability (see Rule #1) and improvement (see Rule #2).

On the other hand, personal and professional improvement is supposed to be the whole point of the performance review exercise. Yet, surveys consistently show that the majority of employees find this process both a waste of valuable productivity time and largely irrelevant to the actual task of getting their jobs done and done well. The numbers are even worse for management:

Furthermore, about 66% of employees say the performance review process interferes with their productivity, and 65% say it isn’t even relevant to their jobs, according to a CEB survey of 13,000 employees worldwide.

It’s not just employees who are unhappy. About 95% of managers say they aren’t satisfied with their organizations’ performance management processes either, and 90% of HR professionals don’t believe their companies’ performance reviews provide accurate information, CEB researchers found.

These aren’t likely to change until those in charge of the performance review process start looking to avoid these Calvinball-esque tendencies:

1. “The score is still Q to 12.” – Byzantine Metrics

It isn’t about the precision of the scoring system. As Google’s Laszlo Bock writes in his book, Work Rules!, Google’s “ludicrously precise” 41-point scoring scale of 1.0 to 5.0 didn’t make it an accurate one for judging their people and making decisions about their pay. Whether your system uses a five labels, a 41-point scale, or a series of color coded judgments, the key is to recognize that clarity should be the goal, not merely precision. Now matter how well-crafted and how far past the decimal point they may be measured, ranking metrics fail when managers aren’t clear what they mean, and when employees aren’t clear on how they can truly earn the best score possible … whether that’s a “Q” or a “12.”

This brings us to …

2. “I switched goals. This is your goal, and mine is hidden.” – Moving Targets

Identifying specific goals for individual employees at the beginning of the year is supposed to serve a purpose beyond just making the annual review at the end of the year appear objective. It is supposed to give people targets at which to aim their efforts that, when hit, drive the organization towards hitting its targets. But, if those targets routinely get changed in the middle of the year (maybe even more than once), then it isn’t just the fairness of the end-year review that gets damaged. Ever-shifting goals rarely drive behavior.

3. “I declared it oppositely by not declaring it.” – Lack Of Forthrightness

As Dave Ramsey oft says, “To be unclear is to be unkind.” When expectations are left unspoken but still very relevant to the judgment rendered against an employee, “unkind” is an understatement. Unfortunately, it is easy but wrong to believe that only the oblivious George Constanzas of the world wouldn’t know “that sort of thing is frowned upon.” It seems too obvious to need to be said, and yet it must: if an activity or behavior is going to factor in the annual judgment of an employee, it has to be openly and clearly declared ahead of time. Unless, of course, you have an “opposite pole.”

4. “This game lends itself to certain abuses.” – Gaming And Arbitrary Enforcement

When the metrics are opaque, the goals malleable, and some of the expectations unspoken, arbitrary mischief gets baked into the system design This remains true even if the actual people involved in administering the performance evaluation do so with the most honorable of intentions. That mischief is made worse by the application of outcome-determinative modifications like forced ranking and forced distribution of ratings across an organization.

These same problems that hollow out the usefulness of the performance review for the employee’s sake does the same from the organization’s perspective. When a performance review system has a low degree of clarity and a high degree of arbitrariness, opportunities arise to game the system by enterprising employees. Once that begins to occur, the organization begins to drift off-course as it puts stock in supposedly objective measures and metrics that are not accurately reflecting reality.

Remember: nobody wins Calvinball. The point of the game is simply to waste time and avoid getting stuck in a vortex inside the boomerang zone. Assuming you want more from your performance review system, avoiding these problems has to be as important a priority as having the performance review system in the first place. Otherwise, to quote Bock once again, your performance review will be nothing more than a “rule-based bureaucratic process, existing as an end in itself rather than actually shaping performance.”

In a word: Calvinball … without the masks and the Perimeter of Wisdom.

The Poker Mindset

Lance Ideas, People Comments

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, we did something thoroughly unexpected: we taught my 8-yr-old son how to play poker. The logic of math is his native tongue, so when he said he wanted to join in with the adults who were trading chips and laughs, we gave him his own stack and explained the rules for 5-card draw poker. I don’t just mean the rank of different hands — I mean everything: how to ante, bet, call, bluff, take new cards, etc. Watching him throw out a bet that was more than minimum was a sight to see; so, too, was seeing his losing pair of 5’s. Learning how to lose is part of learning how to play.

This experience reminded me of Carol Dweck‘s insightful book, Mindset, in which she lays out the two different versions of our psychological software that shapes how we approach nearly everything in life:

  • The Fixed Mindset, which sees talent, skills, intelligence and potential as static qualities that can be maximized, but only to their in-born limit;
  • The Growth Mindset, which sees these qualities as malleable qualities that can be grown beyond their original dimensions.

People with the Fixed Mindset see things that are currently beyond their ability as dangers that threaten their ability,  while the Growth Mindset folks view them as opportunities to grow their ability. As a result, the Fixed Mindset focuses on “playing the cards they’ve been dealt” as best they can, whereas the Growth Mindset focuses on the opportunity to get better cards.

Imagine actually playing poker that way! Even a poker novice like my 8-yr-old can see the folly of being dealt a poor hand by the dealer and then declining to draw any number of new cards on the theory that “I’m just playing the hand I’ve been dealt.”

Even with a very good hand — say, three Aces — it is poor strategy indeed to sit comfortably and decline the opportunity to take a new card or two and possibly improve that very good hand even more.

Anybody who has ever played even a friendly game of family poker with zero money at stake understands this … even Fixed Mindset people. Yet, when we push away from the card table and return to our normal pursuits, whether professional, intellectual or relational, it is easy to slip right into the Fixed Mindset trap:

  • “Either I’m good enough for you or I’m not. Quit trying to change me.”
  • “This assignment is too hard. I’m not good at math.”
  • “I can’t do creative work. I’m a numbers guy.”

The key to a fun night of poker is knowing not only when to fold ’em, but when to bet on a not-yet winning hand in order to get the chance to turn it into a winning one. Being dealt a bad hand doesn’t mean being doomed to lose, and trading bad cards in for new cards isn’t an admission of failure.

It’s no different in life.