How would you rate your improv performance today?

20150404_130353_resized_4We’re all improvisers. Every day we wake up, we don’t have a script, and we don’t really know what is going to happen. Anything could happen. This was one of Gary Hirsch’s messages at the TEDxMtHood Adventure: Improvising with Strangers held this weekend. Gary is a self-proclaimed improv junkie and co-founder of On Your Feet. During the 2.5 hour workshop, a group of ~30 strangers became friends by playing with improv. Through play, simple instructions, applying the principles of improv showed how it can strengthen collaboration, increase self-awareness and relationships, generate new ideas and approaches to opportunities, problems or products. Here’s what I took away from the session:

Be spontaneous: How often do you attend a meeting with an idea, opinion or a problem to solve but truthfully you’re steadfast committed to one solution? You’re not alone. Agendas have a time and a place. However a lot of people join a brainstorm or meeting with a focus on influencing or convincing vs. looking to solve real problems or find new ideas. Be honest about your intention.

Take the offer. Listen: Improvising is centered on the idea of maintaining the flow of a dialogue and acting on “offers.” We encounter offers throughout conversations and everyday events. They are mistakes, unforeseen circumstances, statements, questions, failures or gestures. Offers help us think differently or generate better ideas. It isn’t necessary to accept every offer but learn to accept the reality of others. Listen for offers to be able to help, learn, contribute, support, create and so forth (especially relevant if you’re in a position of power or authority).

Present: Improv is designed for the present which equips us for the unknown of tomorrow.

I signed up to attend Improvising with Strangers for two reasons. At the 2014 World Domination Summit, Gary handed out bravebots, I carry mine with me most days. It always prompts a smile and reminder to keep trying new things. Second, surprises are more rare these days. In our always-on lives our days are often hyper-scheduled or we’re learning about EVERYTHING new or different via social-media. It was a great experience to participate in a gathering without an agenda and a lot of unknowns. I didn’t really know what I’d signed up for. The tweet I read from @DesignWeekPDX made an offer and I took them up on it.

Check out three improv exercises that will improve your team’s performance on HBR for more ideas. You can hear more from Gary by “meeting his monsters” at TEDxConcordiaUPortland (2013).

Common Language for Sustainability

Mike Barry, director of sustainability at Marks and Spencer said it best at the 2014 Skoll World Forum, “as soon as you start to challenge language its like cussing in Church.” This is a clever, humorous, true and convenient point. The debate about the choice of words that people use to discuss the meaning of sustainability, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and so forth matters however it has been exhausted and we’ve been left without clarity and consensus. For me the baseline is that sustainability is the destination. It refers to living within limits, understanding the interconnections among economy, society, and environment and the impact and consequence of decisions on each part of the ecosystem and thirdly, the equitable distribution of resources and opportunities.

Cover of the Economist magazine, Aug. 30-Sept. 14, 2014
Cover of the Economist magazine, Aug. 30-Sept. 14, 2014

This week’s Schumpeter column in the Economist magazine make a serious point about a deficient common language. Without a definition there is “no basis for coherent policy.” Policy innovation is arguably as important as product, service and business model innovation to help rectify or overcome the social problems at the heart of society – from water access to homelessness, maternal health or access to education and training.

Mentors matter

I’ve been dabbling with a book by Sylvia Ann Hewlett titled Forget a Mentor, Find a sponsor for several months. I still haven’t finished the book however believe both mentors and sponsors matter. They have different roles in our professional life. How to make the best use of time with mentors perplexed me for a while even though I could imagine the value of tapping the wisdom and life experiences of those who have walked a similar path. How to frame the conversations or determine when to approach a mentor was less clear. I’ve learned that trusted mentors can provide and perspective to guide choices (note, I did not write advice). They are perfect people to connect with to:  

  • seek guidance on how to handle professional situations and relationships
  • uncover ideas and gather diverse perspectives on how to approach a new experience, unfamiliar task or uncertain situation
  • learn and be inspired about what to be thinking about next (ask your mentor what they are reading, blogs they follow, events they’re planning to attend or have recently attended and WHY or WHAT they learned).

 

Reflections after a visit to Silicon Valley

I spent this past weekend in Silicon Valley and it was everything I think about when someone mentions the valley and more. The weekend was filled with goodness. It was an early thirteenth wedding anniversary celebration, we a lot of fun, discovered great eateries that could give some of Portland’s best restaurants a run for their money.

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  • Embracing AirBnB: What better place to have my first Airbnb experience than Silicon Valley. Even though it has been around since 2008, it has taken me some time to get on board. We stayed in Willow Glen, a treasured neighborhood in San Jose. The set-up was perfect, it was a semi-private accommodation in an 1920s home (with private bathroom); the owner was incredibly hospitable, a kind middle-aged professional (according to my husband). Oddly enough I did not meet her in-person. The sharing economy is somewhat mystical, its intriguing and it is certainly an evolution in our culture where trust and community takes on a new meaning.
  • The social issue of our century: We went to a service at St. Christopher’s. California puts diversity in a new light. The sheer geographic size of this populous state, coupled with the fact that there’s no single racial or ethnic group forms the majority of the population, making the state a minority-majority state is impressive. Acceptance and embracing differences is a very simple and important idea to achieving harmony. While I’m sure people can pick holes in California for many reasons, it has the social foundation for our nation. The homily in Church explored a variety of themes, I was struck by a key question to contemplate. “What does it mean to be one of us?” Parishioners were also invited to support a non-profit dedicated to human trafficking among immigrants. I subscribe to the belief that safety, health and security is a human right. Reflecting on the wave of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border, the pastor brought the issue back home to the local area where some claim more than 40 percent of human trafficking in California happens in the Bay Area. This week  I read about  the 35 people found in a cargo container in Tilbury Docks, England. This is a global and one of the hottest issue of our time, everyone has a hand in being patient, having an open heart and mind, and being willing to address it head on.
  • Innovation is alive, happening fast and furious: Leaving the valley, I feel more in the know. I was probably behind the times relative to local entrepreneurs and tech enthusiasts but being surrounded by stories, ads about products that hadn’t hit my radar and speaking with local, everyday wizards from Tesla, eBay, Cisco and so on, is thrilling. Innovation takes on many flavors, from new products and services to business models. Incremental innovation has merit too; let’s take Zoho, an ad-free email service, it hadn’t crossed my path. The start-up gumption is palatable, the speed of life multiplies tenfold when you land in SJC, even the restaurant service is speedier. Learning more about the future power of the internet of things (“small, often unseen computers attached to objects that transmit data about the environment or offer means for controlling” – MIT Technology Review) was thrilling. Who knows who and how my oven will be instructed to cook exquisite recipes in the future?

We spent a relaxing day on the beach in Santa Cruz. I was surprised by the beautiful, yet curvy journey between San Jose and the coast. It reminded me of New Zealand. I love to travel – whether I travel 50, 500, or 5000 miles.

Sustainable Beverly Hills?

I’m sitting in the Beverly Hilton, Beverly Hills, California after the opening event at the Boston College Center of the Corporate Citizenship conference  (#BCConf14). Its exciting to hold this conference on the west coast (closer to home!). I’ve been pondering about the choice of venue: Los Angeles. Were the organizers (Bostonians) attracted to the nicer weather? Is the major sponsor located in LA? Is the Center trying to increase engagement and dialogue with the corporations in southern California? There are many possible merits however after spending a couple of days here in southern California, specifically Beverly Hills which has been known for the lavish and wealthy population of celebrities, its a world-renowned icon of sophistication, luxury and service and indulgence. When talking about declining natural resources, responsibility of people, businesses and governments and mindful living to secure a future, health sustainable future, this is not the first city or area to come to mind. That said, there’re are signs below surface which I’ve been excited to experience.

Strong commitment to local, organic, delicious ingredients and cuisine : Let’s take MCafe, a neat café contemporary macrobiotic  cuisine “featuring balanced, nutritious, creative cooking… our chefs prepare each item fresh daily, using only the finest ingredients without any refined sugars, eggs, dairy, red meat or poultry.” Our curiosity got the best of me and I had to  give this place a try. Bravo! Where else would I find this cuisine. It was nutritious, alternative, affordable and tasty. p.s. I’m not a vegetarian. This is just one example of a variety of food options which integrates thoughtful, local sourcing of ingredients and innovative cuisine to appeal to new audiences.

Innovative lifestyles: There’s no place that innovates like California, Silicon Valley energy is in the DNA of every county which I appreciate. From fresh juice and Cupcake ATM’s (ok, not so healthy) but the state thrives on ideas. Not just thinking about them but making them a reality and so if we’re going to drive sustainable change that’s good for society, environment and economy, we need to act on our passions and values for any idea to make sense.

Enterprise: I’ve always been blown away by the critical role of small business in the health of the US economy. The sustainability of ideas come to life on Abbott Kinney Boulevard this is a mecca for sole-trade, small enterprises and socially conscious mindset. This is where Toms has their coffee store. Toms founder Blake Mycoskie recently announced at SXSWi that the company has ventured into the coffee business. Sales from the product will be used to provide clean water for cooking, drinking and other sanitation uses to the estimated 2 billion people who don’t have access. This mindset spans beyond the world of coffee in Venice, CA.

On the larger public level, its pretty disappointing to see the City of Beverly Hills’ Sustainability Plan which is filled with ideas but no actions or measurements to progress. Then there’s the transportation , ten-lanes of bumper to bumper traffic. Sigh. Thanks goodness for the role that Daimler has  played to reduce emissions and vehicle impact because there’s one thing for sure, residents in Beverly Hills love their Mercedes.

How much has the equality needle moved since the 1960’s?

It’s just a coincidence that I watched the movie Made in Dagenham today, March 8, International Women’s Day. The movie is “a dramatization of the 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham car plant, where female workers walked out in protest against sexual discrimination.” It is based on a real-situation, which led to the creation of the Equal Pay Act 1970 in the United Kingdom, which eventually shaped labor laws across industrialized nations. For the first time, it aimed to prohibit inequality of treatment between men and women in terms of pay and conditions of employment. The movie is a great story speckled with humor, about the relationship between the low income and high income classes, courage, and determination of smart working class (this reminds me about the book Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan about the role and impact of the scarcity mindset among poor. I’ll write more on this topic on another day).

As we look at today’s headlines, it is bewildering to think about the level of progress since the milestone act. The book Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart states that women make up more than 55 percent of the Wal-Mart’s hourly workforce and account for 30 percent of the corporation’s managers are women. Al Jazeera USA headlined, International Women’s Day: Protests urge social reform, equal pay. While today’s protests focused on multiple issues from access to education and end to sexual abuse, equal pay was the most prominent focus. Have efforts stalled since the 1960’s or have we failed to keep up with the issues? Yes and Yes. As President Obama said in his 2014 State of the Union speech, “– today women make up about half our workforce. But they still make — seven cents for every dollar man — That is wrong then and 2014. It’s an embarrassment.” I agree.

Meaningful work

I’ve marked Switch and Shift (The Human Side to Business)    as one of my “dailies” for more than a year. I like the diverse perspectives, bench of thoughtful contributors and usefulness. It says things as they are and by and large, focus on the whole person. In my professional and personal life I often come back to the content of a blog I read in April about meaningful work. It is relevant beyond the traditional workplace.

I’m a program director of corporate citizenship, and responsible for helping to build a company that makes decisions through a thoughtful and honest lens, balancing and recognizing the economic, social and environmental implications of any decision that the company makes. I’m a change agent, responsible for working with a lot of people to inspire, push and negotiate actions that will serve the company and society in ways that align the business’ purpose and vision. In a service organization, similar to other organizations, employees are at the heart of the company’s success. (Arguably, this is more so in a service company because they’re the main asset). Therefore a lot of the thought and focus of my work comes down to what attracts and retains people. There’s a lot that a company can do to provide compelling experiences. I believe providing a meaningful experiences is the most powerful way a company delivers a valued experience to employees which influences their decision to stay or leave. Whether something is meaningful is a personal matter e.g. it depends on whether it aligns with a person’s goals and values.  If a company gets it right, it’s on a path to a strong partnership with employees and will in return reap the benefits of satisfaction, loyalty and results.

So, what is meaningful work? From experience, three characteristics that stand out are:

  • Fulfilled Basic Needs. The extrinsic factors need to be satisfied. Salary needs to be a non-issue, otherwise it becomes a distraction.
  • Energizing work that speaks to their sweet spot and the organization’s mission: What makes an employee tick matters a lot. Leveraging their strengths, supporting their strengths and passions inspire action, produce results and feeds their spirit.
  • Autonomy: Autonomy to imagine, explore, make decisions, have their voice heard breeds empowerment and motivation, with a close relationship with a managers, autonomy can feed the spirit, deliver results and accountability. The key is to be clear on bandwidth and guardrails and ensure everyone understands them.