Archive for June, 2014

Do You Remember Your Very First Team?

Mrs. Garris was my favorite teacher.

Oh, she could be brutally difficult at times, and more than once, as she stood before the group of twenty-five or so sixth graders to which I belonged, we collectively withered under a glare of practiced anger. But if that were all I remembered she would never have achieved such status.

Hancock Park Elementary School, nestled in a generally middle-class section of Los Angeles, was a conventional and non-descript school back in 1969. We learned our reading, our writing, and our ‘rithmetic just like every other kid.  Teachers had their own personalities—Mr. Guest acted like his name and Mrs. Hawkman had an almost fetishistic interest in perfect penmanship—but for the most part they were largely interchangeable. What you learned in one sixth-grade class you’d learn in another, unless you were lucky enough, as I was, to end up with Mrs. Garris.

I remember things about her class that were different than the others, how, for example, the desks were not always in neat rows but were often grouped together so that kids could interact. This was highly novel at the time, and it must have caused our teacher a bit of consternation now and then, what with the extra chatting and teasing that went on.

I also remember art projects, big ones, ones that seemed silly at the time yet somehow have stuck with me, resonating meaningfully. I remember, for example, studying countries of the world, places that we barely knew existed: Ethiopia, Paraguay, Mongolia, Burma, Western Sahara, Mozambique, Bulgaria. But we didn’t just study them in conventional ways, didn’t just catalog the acres of farmland and industry, or the population caught within each border. Instead we made flags. Great big flags. And we didn’t just draw them, either. We penciled in a huge piece of cardboard, perhaps two feet by three feet, giving it the kind of outline often seen in a paint-by-numbers set: a stripe of green to go here, a star of yellow headed there. And then we took small rips from long sheets of tissue paper, twisted the shred around the eraser-end of a pencil, dipped it in glue, and stuck it where it belonged until, twist by twist, a nation’s flag, almost full-sized, emerged.

I remember thinking then (or think I remember thinking) that this wasn’t really learning. How wrong I was. The reason, you see, was simple: five or six kids, together, working as a team, built each flag, and kept building until the room’s perimeter became a colorful and endless tribute to teamwork, national flag butting national flag around and around.

And the way we made friends, the way we worked together…. I’ve gone back through every class photo I’ve ever been in, looked up and down and across at the faces in them. I remember few, except for those in that one class, Mrs. Garris’s 6th grade at Hancock Park Elementary School: Diane Rice, Karen Gibstein, Jodi Landers, Amy Gelber, Lynn Fleischer, Gary Sloate, David Goldstein, Jeff Bluen. Richard Angelini, Steve Silken, Ruth Rogow, Bari Tisherman, Sherri Spector, Roland Greene. I see the faces and the names are there. These were (and some still are) my friends, and I’m convinced it was because Mrs. Garris insisted that we be part of a team, and then led those teams to success.

Remember that? Remember when it was that much pure fun being part of a team? And when the memories just lasted and lasted?


The Power of Small Change

“The only thing that never changes is that everything changes.”
–Louis L’Amour

They’re everywhere, so ubiquitous we barely notice them. In every grocery store, dry cleaner, pharmacy, butcher, and ice cream shop. At the Hallmark store. At the Dunkin’ Donuts. And every time you need a penny, you take one. Or if you have an extra penny, you leave one. Right there in that little plastic tray.

Small change.

The pennies just sit there, irrelevant most of the time. But once in a while you need one or two and you notice the tray just there, before you, and that little bit of small change makes things a bit easier, a bit smoother. What if leadership could be like that?


I remember interviewing for a leadership position a number of years ago, an interview filled with questions that required a great deal of thought, questions I couldn’t provide pat answers to. Conducted by Sigal Srur, one of the finest HR executives I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, the interview was one of the very few that had me honestly nervous.

One of the questions she asked has stuck with me all these years, and it’s one I’ve used myself many times since: “If we hire you, what’s the first change you would make?” On the face of it the question seems ludicrous. Who, after all, starts a new job with the intention of making changes? Isn’t that flatly presumptuous? And yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all know that we will make changes. There will be something we see that can be improved, or some way of doing things that we prefer. So Sigal asked a truly insightful question. She knew that if she was hiring someone into a leadership position, change would surely follow. And she wanted to get a sense of my approach.

I gave the obligatory preface, something about how I would spend one solid week observing, conversing and learning, but that after that I would look to quickly make one small change. “It needs to be small and significant,” I remember telling her. “Something that will be remarkably easy to implement, and will make people’s work just a tiny bit easier, but noticeably so.” I gave her a couple of examples from previous jobs. It could be streamlining a process by removing one or two steps, I told her. Or it could be creating a shared drive for project documents. Maybe even something as simple as making sure I say good morning to everyone, every day. Just as long as it was small and significant.


There are tons of books out there on the topic of Change: how to implement it, what to fear about it, when to do it, what to notice when you’re immune to it. What these books often have in common is that they focus on Capital-C Change, change as an event. Our argument is that small-c change is every bit as important, requiring focus to implement and manage. Small changes are going to happen anyway and, like ripples in a pond, will constantly eddy the waters. So why not treat them as a business function in and of themselves?

We’re not alone in our thinking: Patricia Mathieson and Elizabeth Jones, Principals at the British consulting firm Bardwyck, suggest that a “one small change” approach can “find small changes that make significant improvement to the business’s efficiency and effectiveness – allowing it to become more successful more quickly.” Such small changes can build up quickly, yet each one, when treated independently, is far less likely to encounter resistance than any one major program change. Processes, methods, task assignments are all things that change over time, so why not treat them as changes, however small, to manage?

And the beauty of this approach is that it is very low risk. Nearly every leader we know already has the capacity to make a few, small changes. So why not try it out?

And let us know: What small and important change do you plan to make?


Frank Zappa, Bicycles, and the Most Important Organizational Rule You’ll Ever Need to Know

In 1968, a time of turbulence and craziness, a very young Frank Zappa went on The Steve Allen Show and played what appeared to be a Concerto for Bicycle and Orchestra. The experiment (for these were experimental times) failed miserably.

It failed for a number of reasons, including the fact that those of us, in 2014, watching it for the first time, expected brilliance. Zappa, after all, is an acknowledged musical genius who died too young, a composer of rare talent who not only enjoyed pushing the envelope, but at times would intentionally shred that same envelope into a million tiny musical pieces, daring listeners to try and assemble meaning out of chaos, rhythm out of cacophony. And it was always there. So when a short-haired, clean-shaven Zappa ignores the obvious mockery Allen throws at him, we find ourselves thinking that we’re about to see genius shine, and expect, also, that Steve-O might just need to eat a healthy serving of humble pie.

It didn’t happen. Go ahead and check out the clip for yourself. It’s truly awful, and sounds rather like my Aunt Elsie screaming and crying at Easter dinner when she found out that she wasn’t eating roast beef, but had been lied to and it was—Oh, Dear!—lamb!

You can’t, it turns out, just throw seemingly disparate pieces together and expect them to sound good unless they are, somehow, aligned and in tune. The bicycle sounds themselves were rather interesting, as were the various horn sounds and string sounds and drum sounds and piano sounds. But without a proper composition and alignment across the instruments, nothing productive, nothing musical emerged.

The same is true in organizations, and here comes that Most Important Organizational Rule You’ll Ever Need to Know: If the various parts of your organization are not in tune and playing the same composition, all you’ll get is noise.

So how do you make sure things will sound melodic and perfectly in tune?

  1. It starts with the composition: These are your organizational goals, 5-7 clear SMART statements created by leadership. Without these, how will anyone know what melody to play?
  2. It continues with providing the right instruments: These are the people, processes, knowledge, and technology needed to play the parts. Having that beautiful Gibson Les Paul means nothing unless someone knows how to play it, after all.
  3. Then people need to become aware about their relationships with each other: Each person’s part meshes with everyone else’s; no one person can play the entire composition. A symphony is more than everyone playing their individual role, it’s also about everyone knowing what other parts people are playing. Only then do the full rhythm and beauty of the sounds emerge to achieve everyone’s goal—beautiful, melodic music.

That’s what it takes: Composition. Instrumentation. Relationship. That’s how you create an organizational symphony.

And one more thought: Now and then, it’s not a bad idea to throw a Zappa into the mix. They’re the players who keep us pushing the envelope. Let’s remember that the so-called Bicycle Concerto may not have worked, but it made us all think about new ways to compose and new instruments to play. Throwing that into the mix—and turning it, when possible, into new compositions—can keep our organizations fresh, creative, and growing.