Sunday, June 29, 2008

Eating as Learning

Roger Shank covered this way better than I ever could in his book The Connoisseur's Guide to the Mind - but I'll say it anyway - food provides excellent learning opportunities.

We're in Sonoma, California - which is, of course, wonderful wine country. It's also a great place to learn about olive oils and cheeses.

The photo above was taken during our dinner at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa.
After dinner, the crew brings around an amazing cheese cart, from which you can create a tasting platter.
We had cheeses from 5 countries (France, Spain, Holland, Italy, and California), including Cheddar, Gouda, a Trio, and a couple others I don't remember.

It may seem odd for me to say 'learning' and 'I don't remember' in the same conversation - but the palate and the brain are similar in that they both need to be stretched. A taste or idea that you hate today might make room for the taste or idea that you love tomorrow.

This was a good night, in that we stretched our palates without finding any tastes that we didn't like. The gouda was our favorite.... this time.

Back to School...

On Tuesday, I'll be back to school.

I've spent the last three years 'cherry-picking' my learning from various seminars, books, and workshops; but that well has run a little dry.

This week I start my Master of Arts in Adult Education and Training at the University of Phoenix. It meets all my needs, because:
a) it's an online learning program (easier with my travel commitments)
b) the focus is very tight (every course revolves around training - no fat)

I'll be looking at this program from two perspectives.
First, from a content perspective, I hope to learn a lot about adult learning.
Second, from a delivery perspective, I hope to learn a lot about online learning.

Online learning has its' advantages and disadvantages.
I'm a very social creature, so I'm not sure that online learning is the best path for me.
On the other hand, I like to learn at my own pace, so online might be perfect.

This dichotomy is one I hope to explore here over the next year or so - starting Tuesday...

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Creativity Exercise - Improv Golf...

Angie and I walked around Sonoma today, and found ourselves at a mini-putt course.
Humility prevents me from mentioning who won... but it reminded me to share a creativity practice with you.

In my mind, creativity isn't a part-time practice. It's something you need to practice all the time, so that you can rely on it on short notice.

To that end, Angie and I sometimes invent our own games.
Kids do this all the time and it's a great practice. If forces you to move beyond just being creative
within the rules to being creative with the rules.

Our favorite improv game is 'host-rules mini-putt'.
We have a putter, a ball, and a portable putting cup. For each hole, players take turns designing the course.

We played 'host-rules mini-putt' (this really needs a better name!) on this past Tuesday night with Brent and Ken at the Sonoma Valley Inn. The event took place in our hotel room.
For one hole, Ken put the hole in a bedside table drawer, set up a ramp with my Leadership Challenge Facilitator's Guide, and defined the tee-off point.
Each golfer needed to launch the ball up the ramp, into the drawer, and then into the hole.
Not an easy task - as demonstrated by Ken's score of 30 (exceeded only by Brent's 32!).

On the next hole, I had us putt from the bathroon, under the couch, and then to the hole.
And on we went. Each player had a chance to design a hole, knowing they would be the first to play it.

I've also done this with Frisbee golf - "throw around the birch tree, to the left of the lamp post, and land on the 2nd sidewalk square" - with great success.

This game is a simple way to remember that the only rules are the ones we decide on.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Attending The Leadership Challenge Workshop

Today, Angie and I head for Sonoma, where Brent, Ken, and I will attend The Leadership Challenge for 4 days.
The first two days will be spent as participants in the workshop. The second two days we will go through the process to become certified instructors of the course.

I've seen Leadership Challenge twice before.
I provided cultural support for a colleague who delivered the
course in Taiwan and Singapore.
It's a well designed class, based on an excellent book, and went over very well.

Data makes all the difference. If this same material (which can be pretty touchy-feely) was delivered to an executive audience without data, they would tear the walls down.
But a spoonful of data helps the emotions go down, it seems.

I'll update this post each day, with my observations.

Sunday, June 22nd
We drove up to Sonoma today.
It was 83 when we left Santa Clara, 59 when we passed through San Francisco, and 85 when we reached Sonoma - a good day for a top-down drive in the PT Cruiser.
We checked into our hotel, wandered around the Plaza, and then stopped at the 'northern-most mission in the California mission system'. It was closed, but had the oldest looking cactus we've ever seen.
Here is a picture of one of its flowers.

We then had an excellent dinner at the El Dorado Kitchen. Angie had halibut (the waitress told us that it was Rachel Ray's favorite dish) and I had tenderloin. And mojitos.

Monday, June 23
On Monday we explored the town, which is really nice. It's got a "Marty McFly Clock Tower Middle America" vibe about it. Good place to raise kids, I suspect.
Ken and Brent showed up and we had Mexican for dinner.
Right across the street were horses - it's that kind of town.

I can't remember the last time I got to pet a horse.... South Africa, perhaps? But I got to pet one today.

Tuesday, June 24
Class started today. It's a big group - about 25. Half our group are corrections officers - makes for a good sanity check. My biggest problem is a manager with a cycletime problem.
Their biggest problem is a murder-suicide in cell block 8. Ummm... yeah....

Amazed me to hear how spiritual and positive about the human condition these guys are. Both at our table talked about how 'prisoners are humans'. Pretty cool.
I'm not always sure that executive think front-line employees are human, so it's startling to hear officers with such a humanistic view.

The class itself is good, but struggles to compete with the attendees.

I once attended a Picasso exhibit in Boston and told Angie, as I watched the people look at the paintings, "I don't find any painting to be as interesting as a human face".

That's how I felt about today. The material is good.... but no material can be as interesting as the material of human drama. More lessons can be learned by listening (really listening) to life than by reading a book.

We had dinner at Mary's pizza with Mark Springer, a new friend from Montana.
Angie and I took a quick walk around the plaza, where the farmer's market was in progress.

We had a corn dog (first ever for either of us). It was highly recommended and was reallllly good.
So was the pizza we had afterwards. Yeah, a pizza and a corn dog....

Wednesday, June 25th

Here's a photo of Angie, Ken and Brent at the Swiss Hotel and Restaurant in Sonoma.

Today, we completed our Leadership Challenge Participant Session. Good class, good teachers, good insights. Well worth the time. We all look forward to becoming facilitators in this material over the next few days.

Thursday, June 26th

My new friends from CDCR
(California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)
Dale, Eddie, Dennis, Ken, me, Todd, Cindy, Ralph

Now it's time to commit to the material. We have to stand up and deliver 20 minutes of content. My section covers Practice 2: Inspire a Shared Vision.
Teach-backs are my favorite part of facilitator training. It's very rewarding to watch a number of people provide a new 'window' into the material.
Often, when they start, I think, "I would never do it this way. What are they thinking?" By the time they finish, however, I'm thinking, "Wow! I'm going to do it this way."

Today was no exception. All the presenters (and this isn't always the case) were authentic and consistent with the material. As I result, I found some great ideas for delivering the material myself.
My section went well. I tried an exercise from the book that I'd never seen before. I wanted to see how it played out live. It turned out very well, so I'll use it with my first session.

It's great getting a safe environment to experiment in.

Friday, June 27th

Apparently, one of us is "Leadership Allen".
This photo is with Mark Springer. Mark heads up a company in Montana that does disaster recovery.

I've spent quite a bit of time with Mark over the past few days, and learned a lot from from his curiosity, energy, and intensity. We've made plans to spend some time with Mark to share some of our practices and tap into his expertise in crisis management.

I don't want to downplay our standard business 'crisis', because any business decision in our company effects 6,000 employees directly and countless others indirectly - but talking to Mark about the work behind disaster recovery puts our problems into perspective, which is always a good thing.

Today, we did 'speed-leads' - 3 to 5 minutes teach-backs of the material - with video cameras running. Again it was a lot of fun. So many great presentations.

I have to comment on Todd's presentation. Todd is one of my new corrections friends. He started his presentation by falling on the ground and proclaiming, "Everytime I fall down, I'm 6 feet 4 inches closer to success." True words demonstrated with conviction.

I'm still digesting all that I took in over these four days.
By all, I mean the material, the Somona Valley, the wine, the food, the time with Ken and Brent, the new friendships, the experience of watching others present, and the ambiance that you only get in a room full of facilitators who believe in the material.

That's a lot... I'm sure I'll have many comments in days to come.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Learning at the Speed of Sound

I'm going to have plenty of learning opportunities over the foreseeable future.

Today, Angie and I are packing for a drive up to Sonoma - wine country.
I'm meeting two colleagues there for a 4 day training workshop.
We're getting certified in The Leadership Challenge.
I'll open another post on that...

Secondly, on July 1st, I start my pursuit of a Master of Arts in Adult Education and Learning from University of Phoenix.
I enjoy the learning world and want spend more time with folks outside my company and industry.
This program is perfect for me, because the online aspect supports my travel schedule.

My objectives from the program are:

  1. Strengthen my knowledge of education theory
  2. Strengthen my skill in instructional design and delivery
  3. Immerse myself in an online learning experience to learn more about my own learning preferences.
  4. Observe the online learning experience for more ideas on how to use it in my workplace.
  5. Network and learn from folks outside my workspace...
I'll be posting through it all!

Writing Vision and Mission Statements

Last week, I facilitated two mission statement exercises.

A lot of people get an acid stomach at the thought of a vision/mission session - and rightfully so.
Writing a vision/mission statement usually an exercise in wordsmithing that has no actionable outcome.

Because no one wants to put in writing what they are NOT going to do.
And that's essentially what a mission statement is. It's a guide to what you will and will not do.

If your mission is "to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world" (Nike), then you're not really focusing on low-cost shoes, are you?
If your mission is "to give ordinary folk the chance to buy the same thing as rich people" (Wal-Mart), you're probably not going to overstaff, or offer a lot of customization, are you?
If your mission is to "democratizing the air" (Southwest), you don't provide reserved seating.

What if your mission is "to provide personal vehicle owners and enthusiasts with the vehicle related products and knowledge that fulfill their wants and needs at the right price. Our friendly, knowledgeable and professional staff will help inspire, educate and problem-solve for our customers." What are they NOT doing?

That's the mission statement of Advance Auto Parts. I'm not picking on them. They just happen to be the first entry on And there are plenty of other mediocre missions there. In fact, Dilbert makes fun of this phenomenon with the Mission Statement Generator.

So, what's wrong with the Advance Auto Parts mission - other than the fact that no one could possibly memorize it?

Well, as an employee, it doesn't help me prioritize.
If I have to choose between 'fulfilling their wants' and getting them the 'right price', which do I choose?
If a mission statement is not a rudder, why write it?
Or just write, "Be everything to everyone". At least I can remember it.

Unfortunately, we know how well 'be everything' works for humans.
Why would it work any better for a company?

I have 5 expectations for a mission:
  1. It supports and leads to the companies long-term financial goals
  2. It acts as a rudder - should we take an action or not?
  3. It benefits all stakeholders - not equally, or even obviously, but it benefits them
  4. Easy to remember - 3-12 words, shorter is almost always better
  5. Is unique - should belong only to you as a company or a group in the company

Google's mission of "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" meets all 5 criteria - though I would shorten it (organize global information to be accessible and useful?).
Notice the customer isn't mentioned? There's an assumption that if the mission if fulfilled, the customer will benefit. Also, the customer might be mentioned in the company values - no need to cover familiar ground if that's the case.

My mission? Accelerate Learning for my clients.
What's yours?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Should I Get An MBA?

This is a question I get in almost every management/leadership session I facilitate - "Should I get an MBA"?

The question is often meant as, "To get ahead in this company, should I get my MBA?".

My response to the question is another question - "Do you read management books on the weekend for fun?"

If they say, "Yes", and enthusiastically tell me about the last book they read, then I reply "Take that MBA! You're already doing the work, and you'll enjoy the process.
Get your company to fund a piece of paper that furthers your interests."

Of course, you should consider your opportunity costs.
Is there anything you could be doing with your time that would give a better return than an MBA?
Tom Peters once wrote that your time would be better spent doing business in Asia than studying in a classroom.
As a guy who discontinued his MBA studies at Santa Clara to take an assignment in Japan, I would have to agree.
But your optimal path is assuredly different from mine...

And if you don't read management books for fun?
"Then why," I ask, "do you want an MBA?"

It usually comes down to promotion concerns. MBA's have a better chance of promotion, they think.

Well, 20 years of experience in interviewing and hiring tells me that's not true - at least at this company.
Sure, if two candidates are dead even, I'd take the MBA candidate. Putting your blood, sweat, and tears into an MBA proves you want the management path - you're not just talking about it.
But, you know what? Candidates are never dead even (unless your job definition and interviewing process sucks).
When I choose between an MBA and someone who's been kicking ass, well, the ass-kicker wins every time...

In fact, if I met a manager who insisted that every manager must have an MBA, I wouldn't work for him or her. Evolution and growth come from diversity, and a room full of MBA's is the opposite of diversity.

One other question I ask is what I call the 'tennis-ball test'.
If I throw a tennis ball down the hall, how far will it bounce before it hits an MBA?

In our company, the correct answer is between 20-75 feet.
Having an MBA is not a differentiator here.
And if it's not a differentiator, it's not adding value.
And if it's not adding value, well, neither are you, probably.

I'd sooner hire someone with a Psychology, Architecture, or Anthropology degree to work in my group than an MBA.
Not because MBA degrees are bad (they're not), but because that turf is covered.

We're past the point where 'checkboxes' get you ahead. Happily.
Passion is the biggest differentiator now.
You'll get ahead when you outwork everyone else. And you'll outwork everyone else on things you're passionate about.

So, go get that MBA - if you're passionate about business.

Corporate Activities - What is The Go Game?

Last Wednesday, our team celebrated our TRAINING Magazine Hall of Fame induction with a day out for the team, and I must say we did it right.

We hired a limo up to San Francisco.
It was 75 degrees, with a crystal clear sky.
We had lunch at the award-winning Boulevard restaurant (excellent pan-seared calimari and a soft-shell crab blt for me).
We then played The Go Game, and had a wrap up dinner at O'Reilly's pub.

The game was great. It's the third time I've seen the Go Game (first playing, however).
It's a high-tech scavenger hunt, where the game host sends you all over a city area on missions.

Above is my colleague Mike, on a mission to 'look like a celebrity'.
We borrowed this nice young woman to dress up Mike's arm.

And below is Janis (America's best librarian!) with a Go Game 'agent'.
The briefcases contained puzzles we had to solve to complete the game.

"You can learn more about a man in one hour of play than in one year of conversation.” said Plato.
Well, we learned about each other (more than we wanted, possibly...) and had a lot of fun.
So, it was a good day!

Training Magazine Interview - Globalization and Training

Late last year Efren Lopez and I (along with others) were interviewed for TRAINING Magazine's look at global training.
The article appeared in the Jan. 2008 edition.

I just stumbled across the issue online, so here's the link.

The February issue contains an article (on page 74) about our training department's inclusion in the Top 10 Hall of fame.


Thursday, June 12, 2008


Today, Sharon and I were leading a group through the Egonomics workshop.
If you haven't read Egonomics, I highly recommend it.

I'm a big believer in using language to re-center a discussion.
Marcum and Smith do this very effective in Egonomics, first by discussing humilty as a midpoint between egotistical and ego-empty - rather than as the opposite of ego.

Secondly, I love their distinction that the overuse of a strength is NOT a weakness, but rather a counterfeit. It feels and looks a lot like the original, but produces a lesser outcome.

The workshop never fails to produce an 'a-ha' moment in both the audience and the facilitators.
Check out their website, there's some good downloads there.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Happiness is a warm internet connection...

One of the best 'freebies' available on the web today are the TEDTalks downloads.

Organized by one of my heroes, Richard Saul Wurman (designer/author of the Access Guides - which I have loved since, well, forever - among his other accomplishments), TED brings together some of the smartest and most talented people on earth (and Anthony Robbins, too!) to give 20 minute talks each year.

Some time ago, TED started posting the videos on their site, and now you can get them on iTunes as well. I've downloaded tons.

On our return from Maui today, I watched five talks.
I want to recommend one in particular.
It was a talk by Dan Gilbert, author of "Stumbling on Happiness", and you'll find it here.
I could write a bunch of words about it, but I won't. If you care anything about happiness and the ability to predict it, watch (twice).

The Bali of Dreams...

This is a picture of Balinese women preparing for a an odalan, which is the anniversary of a Balinese Hindu temple.

Today I added more than 60 of my favorite Bali images to my photo site at

This is a young monkey at the Ubud Monkey Forest.
Bali is one of my favorite places on earth. It's a target-rich environment for a photographer, filled with 'eye-candy'.

The heat forces you to slow down. The sheer volume of stimuli begs you to be present at all times. It's the antidote to civilization.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Sea Turtles - Maui

Today is the last day of our vacation in Lahaina, Maui.
I could talk about the weather, the food, the hula, or the people.
Ultimately, though, a trip to Hawaii always comes down to sea turtles.

So you can see, this was a great trip!

'Ole - Lahaina, Maui

Last week, Angie and I watched part of the International Festival of Canoes in Lahaina.

We missed most of the event, but we did get to look at some of the canoes and watch part of the post-festival entertainment.

At one point the host, Wilmont Kahai'ali'i, said hello to all of the whites in the audience and then went on to explain the word ha'oli.

The popular meaning of the word ha'oli is 'white person' or 'foreigner' and it is occasionally used as a racial slur in the Hawaiian islands.

Wilmont, in a most passionate manner, explained the 'real' meaning of the word. 'Ole traditionally means breath, while ha traditionally means without - so, ha'ole means without breath. A lot of people know that.

What is not always known, however, is the reason Hawaiians called white people ha'ole.

Well, Wilmont, explained, the traditional Hawaiian greeting included pressing foreheads together and then 'sharing breath'. This ritual exchanges the energies of two people.

Wilmont demonstrated this act with a woman from the audience. I wasn't quick enough to get a photo, so I captured this in the ink drawing above, a day later.

Press your forehead and nose together with someone you would like to exchange energy with, and breath deeply. Try it.
It's quite a feeling and quite a sight.

When the first white people showed up in the Hawaiian islands, the locals hoped to exchage 'ole, but the whites extended their palms for a handshake - creating a distance that could not be breached. Hence, ha'ole.

The point of Wilmont's demonstration was that the term ha'ole has nothing to do with white, brown, or black. If you breathe in the essence of your fellow man, you are not ha'ole. If you do not breathe in the essence of your fellow man, you are most assuredly ha'ole.

In facilitation, we often call this being present.

But I like 'ole.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Jim McKay 1921-2008

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.
Sports and games were, for me (as for many), a place where I learned many of the lessons that formed me. As you can imagine, more than a few of the pivotal moments of my life occured during various Olympics.

For example, 1972 was quite a year.

I was 10 years old.
Mike Spitz was a god in human form.
Olga Korbut was the yin to his yang.
And terrorism was, for Americans anyway, invented.

There was much I didn't understand at 10 years old. But after that Olympics, I understood a few things more clearly.

I understood what perfection looked like.
I understood that the world was a far more complex place that I had ever suspected.
And I understood that Jim McKay handled pressure in a way that few of us can ever hope to.

The Learning Samurai

On our flight from Japan to Hawaii, I read William Scott Wilson's The Lone Samurai, a study of Miyamoto Musashi - the legendary Japanese swordsman/painter/author - by William Scott Wilson.

One interesting quote from The Book of Five Rings.
"I have never had a teacher while studying the Ways of the various arts and
accomplishments, or in anything at all
I take that to mean that, while he obviously learned from many, he questioned everything and proved it to himself
That's a good learning strategy for any of us.