Marsha Shenk's blog

Gorgeous Example

Language against which the mind cannot defend

Last week I was privileged to be present when David Whyte addressed a group of leaders at Intel. Kudos to my colleague Lisa Marshall and to Intel's Business Client Engineering Division 'Mindful Engineering' series for making it happen

From the poet came the gift of this phrase; "Language against which the mind cannot defend"

It was a rich 90 minutes. It's remarkable to be with a poet who keeps himself connected and contributing to the corporate, technological world - an extraordinary human being.

He pointed out that such language is always based in vulnerability. And it comes, not from the strategic mind – the mind focused on what action might be best – but from a deep quiet. From the place most of us prefer to avoid: the one embraces our inevitable vulnerability. The example he gave was a question: a parent, having spoken somewhat thoughtlessly to a teenager, punished with shunting, reaches her with genuine humility, "Charlotte, what is one thing you'd like me to do less of, and one you'd like me to do more of'?” He was rewarded with uncrossed arms and a look in the eye. Something we in business must learn to do.

I believe with all my heart that only those who fully embrace the roots of commerce in vulnerability will make it through the current economic upheaval. In the Industrial Age, [short – perhaps 10 generations of the thousands in human history] business folk were happily tranquilized to believe that commerce could be secretive, and that one party could avoid vulnerability at the expense of the other. That dream is in its death gasps, at the effect of the Information Age.

Some good thinkers are onto the deep challenge this is for enterprises:

    “CEOs today are certainly enlightened enough to understand the new world. They know they are more vulnerable than ever. In quiet moments, they say, “I don't have the answers. This is pretty hard.” That's why I'm optimistic. I think this is the right time to rethink and change how business is done.”
      Source: Strategy & Business Thought Leader Interview with Dov Seidman

‘Having the answers' isn't likely; it's the questions that move us forward. My current favorite from deep quiet works very well to put an organization on track - it's the foundation for Core Promise:

What do people rely on you for, and what do you want them to rely on you for?

What will you do no matter what?
Try it – the mind cannot defend against the question.

Marketing is dead; long live business

Love Your Customers?

Many of us have been reflecting deeply about what might re-power the economy as well as boost our own and our customers’ businesses. There’s certainly no shortage of clamoring, but little feels trustworthy.

Browsing the new Strategy & Business Fall issue, I was struck by a couple of points:

  • The winners in the digital economy are those closest to customers
  • The companies that win at innovation are not those that invest more dollars in R&D; the winners are those who align strategy & culture to innovation.
  • (Of course the latter requires the former, as Prahalad and Krishnan aptly demonstrated.)

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose?  As a Business Anthropologist, intending no disrespect for an excellent business magazine and the journeyman research it reports, my first response was, “Duh.”  But how many businesses have employed Prahalad’s formulae?  Do we know what’s missing?

Though everything seems to be changing, in fact many of the dynamics of commerce remain constant.  People do business with those they trust. And who is that? Those who demonstrate understanding of their ways and regard for their concerns.

My esteemed teacher, Humberto Maturana, articulated what he called the biology of love: “The other is a legitimate other in coordination with me” (the other’s concerns are equally legitimate to my own.)   Commerce is a form of coordination – a form of relating – that engages all of our brains’ emotional wiring.  And thus, as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., I invite you to articulate your love for your customers.

What I love about my customers is their ongoing passion for learning and stepping up to add more and more value.  If you are among them, please accept my gratitude for being on this learning journey with me, and for your commitment to looking after your employees, customers, and communities.

Think love is not important in business? That couldn’t be what’s missing? I invite you to begin this holiday season by letting your customers know what you love about them. See if that doesn’t open ways to get closer to them, to better understand their concerns, and to deepen trust.

Try holding their concerns as equal to your own.  When you realize that will require shifts in strategy and culture - no matter what size your business or division - you’ll know you’re on the right track.

got golden handcuffs?

Last week the cover of the Economist headlined BE AFRAID, Occupy Wall Street grew by giant steps around the US (in Portland, OR, where I live, the mayor and police joined ‘the 99%’,) and the balance of power shifted yet again in Syria.

David Berreby’s excellent article in Strategy & Business argues that we modern humans are actually well-adapted to live in this kind of a world.  It’s a fresh and well-researched view of what it means to be fit for the Information Age reality, what puts us at our best, and our natural urge for freedom.  One CEO

… put an end to all the complaints in one swoop, when he switched the teams from salaries and work rules to a hunter ethos: a team gets 26 percent of the company's take from a client. How and when it works is up to the team. Productivity has almost doubled…

Freedom and responsibility are the very best golden handcuffs there are…

I happened also to review this TED talk by Harvard researcher Dan Gilbert, arguing that,  no matter what happens, we’re psychologically adapted to be happy about it.  (Predictions to the contrary, a lottery winner and a new paraplegic are equally happy one year after the event…)   Most of us our are short on friends who are happy about the Euro crisis and the financial industry in general, nor are they likely to happy about it in a year’s time, but there’s some good pondering here.  Gilbert’s research shows pretty clearly that we’re strongly inclined to make it all OK.  And yesterday a BBC health news article goes further into how the brain ‘rejects negative thoughts.

I am inclined to agree. The weak ties that enable innovation, as Richard Ogle demonstrated in Smart World, are key to forging new ways to thrive in our fast-changing reality.  Berreby argues that they come naturally

Perhaps the information economy, that purely human creation, reproduces our ancestral environment, replacing literal landscapes and foraging with a virtual version.

changes promote autonomy, flexibility and "weak ties" and that the "changes associated with post-industrial systems" are "more compatible with humans' biological nature than those occurring in earlier ones.

You probably believe that the ability to learn is the sine qua non in business.  And maybe you’re on to your own and others' desire for freedom and autonomy as the ultimate golden handcuffs.  Certainly some leaders have learned to put them to good use.

So we like to learn, we’re good at change - but we have a tendency to tell ourselves that things are better than they are.

How much trouble are we really in?
And how might we know? What combination of models and thinkers might help us see beyond our biases and blindness?

Got any ideas?

Time to Reposition?

I listened to a podcast with Jack Trout of Positioning fame – indisputably one of the greats – a day or two ago. He has a new book, Repositioning: Marketing in an Era of Competition, Change and Crisis. The question set me to wondering whether ...

Learning as a Strategic Investment

I recently contributed to an eBook targeted to Pharma and Healthcare marketers. The book, intending to guide its audience toward where to invest their learning in 2010, is directly relevant to anyone in business...

Little Guys Have the Advantage in a Recession

It doesn’t always feel that way – being the little guy often doesn’t feel like the power position. But take another look.

The current recession has buyers re-thinking how they use their resources. Those of us who want to remain high-value trading partners are called upon to respond – sensitively – to new sets of concerns. Our prospects and customers are operating in new worlds. They are re-interpreting what’s most important, where they will focus, what they need, and with whom they will place their trust.

It reminds me of the moment, many millions of years ago, when the cooling of the earth offered our warm-blooded small mammal forebears advantage over the dinosaurs.

Large businesses cannot move quickly. It’s very difficult for them to notice a new nuance in Customers’ thinking, listen in a way that people experience as being heard, and respond in a way that generates new value for both parties. This most basic human interaction is not scalable. The big guys don’t have a chance competing with us in personal customer connection.

Like the dinosaurs requiring a certain amount of heat – reptiles cannot regulate their body temperatures - our large competitors thrive on scalability. That puts them at a huge disadvantage in a changing environment. They’re desperately trying to figure out how to appear responsive. But web 2.0 makes the job harder and harder.* Of course customers can tell when no one’s really listening - the human brain is very hard to fool on that score.

Little guy/gals, on the other hand, thrive on being close to our Customers. We can know every one of them personally, we can respond to each one uniquely, and naturally they can feel it.

The way to leverage this advantage is to focus on a simple question that will juice your brain and stoke the fire in your belly:
Who do you want to serve, and what do you want to make happen for them?

Use the question to focus and refocus. If you’re feeling worried about the recession (which is likely to reduce your intelligence by interfering with Pre Frontal Cortex function), the question will spark your ingenuity.

Take it one step farther, as we do in Worksheet 1, “Who would you LOVE to be working with?” That question will enable you to work with recession, not against it, by taking the little guy’s advantage: getting closer to the people you care about when they need it most.

The only reason a business exists is to help certain someone solve a certain problem they can’t easily solve for themselves. That’s why people are willing to pay their time and money, because they get help.

- Worksheet 1,">Heart of Business

* Prahalad’s brilliant book shows large businesses how to operate from n=1, but the discipline to do so is very demanding, and predictably rare.

Business is a Social Activity - A Business Anthropologist's View

For many, the insight that business is social is something of a surprise. In much of Western tradition, work and play are viewed as a dichotomy: business falls in the former, and sociality in the latter. But that’s not how the brain is organized. New insights from Neuroscience clarify how the brain functions to keep us focused on others (with emotions – ever heard of them?) A recent article from Strategy and Business explores the implications for managers.

Through the lens of Business Anthropology, it’s apparent that trading is old as the first human communities. Commerce is in our biology. Though I’ve been writing about that for decades, it’s delightful to see what Social Cognitive NeuroScience labs are revealing with fMRI studies; businesses large and small can seize new opportunities.

Our brains naturally respond to change as though it’s dangerous, and shut down our ‘thinking centers’ rather than firing them up. But we can train our brains to be ingenious when exposed to risk. I’m with Jim Collins’ assessment that the ability to face uncertainly with curiosity is the most important skill of our times. Neuroscience illuminates the challenge as well as how to focus on the desired competences.

Unfortunately, our brains are not geared to be effective in the face of ongoing stress like a global recession. We don't tend to get smart. But we humans have a rare gift: we retain plasticity into adulthood. We can learn new moves. And the current business environment certainly demands that we do so.

Perhaps most important to my practice over 3 decades is understanding how we’re inclined to respond to vulnerability. On this subject, current Neuroscience research is stunning. Even when informed that a situation is simulated – even using cartoons and stick figures – smart people feel intense pain of rejection and strong pleasure of belonging and contributing.

The actions we take, the decisions we make, the possibilities we recognize are determined by this powerful programming. Focusing on the vulnerabilities of others inspires our best work. We become ingenious. We can spark our enterprises and fire customers’ curiosity and commitment.

Solopreneurs and small business have a huge advantage in using this force, because we can be so nimble. We can quickly respond to emerging vulnerability and invent new ways to add value. Our forebears have done so for 150,000 generations – that’s how we got here. Any business can be vulnerability-centric. It’s the most powerful force at hand.

Have examples? Please share!

Where Innovation Can Take Us - The Power of Commerce - Guest Blog by Bob Eckert

We believe that the most powerful organized force for change (for good or bad) in the world that humans have built is the system of commerce through which we exchange value and find ways to feed our families. We intend to leverage that power to make the world a better place for all of us. We recognize that at times the most influential global powers have been religions and governments, but we think that time has passed in most of the world and is gradually passing in all of it. This change opens an incredible opportunity for humanity: commerce is a lever by which we can do some very positive things for the world.

In order to continue to survive in a competitive commercial environment, we must innovate.
In order to sustainably innovate, we must improve our maturity and wisdom as individuals
(see our last newsletter.)
As we do so, we become more able to tackle the larger problems that we face — even those outside of work.

We believe the desire/demand for innovation will help us learn how to be more productive with each other. This is what we need in order to create a better future for our children. Yes, it’s the competitive element that innovation has introduced to commerce that can take us to a better life, workplace, community and world. As evidence of this, we at New & Improved are as likely to get an e–mail from one of our program graduates that they have made / saved their company big bucks via what they’ve learned as we are to get an e–mail telling us how they finally had a productive conversation with their sullen teenager using the same methods.

Wouldn’t it be great if we were able to effectively pass something forward to the next generation other than our personal wealth or tax bill? Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we put front and center the idea that the most important inheritance we could leave would be generational increases in wisdom? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, from a young age, most of society was engaged in a conversation designed to answer the question

“What might be all of the ways we could improve our maturity as a species?”

And that we could be having this conversation in the place where we spend the largest chunk of our day to day lives — at work. In that context, you could reframe the question as,

“What might be all the ways we could work together better?”

We believe that the evolutionary pressures that exist in commerce might be just the pressure to energize that conversation.

The real bottom line

As you work to turn your organization’s attention to improvement of its innovation culture, as you work to build the systems, organizational structures and training processes that improve your company’s innovation quotient, you are also improving the world’s ability to effectively tackle the big issues that we have been too immature, narrow–minded and short–sighted to solve so far. We believe this is an innovation mission that ANY organization should be proud to throw themselves behind, even as they are working to strengthen their position in the market — their bottom line — via innovation. It is a great service to us all that you grow through innovation, because you create a competitive pressure for others that can only be resolved by increasing their innovation abilities...and hence their ability to think and work productively with others.

So get with it. Out–innovate others. Raise the bar for us all, and serve us all in the process of doing so.

You can reach Bob at

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