Monday, November 28, 2011

Film Directing Lessons in Innovation and Leadership

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I got way more out of this 20-minute HBR interview with film director Francis Ford Coppola than I thought I would. What lessons in innovation and leadership can be mined from the views of the man who brought us such classics as Patton, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now?

The things that you get fired for when you’re young are the exact same things you win lifetime achievement awards for when you’re old.

This comes about five minutes into the interview, and Coppola is speaking specifically about that opening scene in Patton when George C. Scott is talking to us “sons of bitches” in front of the American flag. The studio Coppola was working for then didn’t pick up his option after that, evidently not happy with that and other directorial decisions he had made. Forty years later, of course, it is one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history.

The lesson in innovation is, of course, to be aware that the things that are truly revolutionary and trailblazing are always more apparent in hindsight than they are in the views of a powerful status quo. That’s not a license to be flippant or reckless, but it is a caution not to be too reliant on the opinions of those who benefit from the established order. To be innovative is, by definition, to go against the grain, to do things that are not common and not always logical. It may be dangerous swimming upstream, but it’s the only way to differentiate yourself and what you’re trying to accomplish.

The smaller the budget, the bigger the ideas can be. The bigger the budget, the smaller the ideas are.

This is practically Coppola’s next comment, and it’s wonderfully illustrative of where to find places where it’s less dangerous to swim upstream. Notice his phraseology. It sounds off-the-cuff in the interview, but I think it’s carefully chosen. The smaller the budget, the bigger the ideas CAN BE. The bigger the budget, the smaller the ideas ARE. In other words, when there’s less money at stake, there is greater freedom to be bold and inventive. To take chances. To do things the established order may not approve of. When big money is involved, then there’s much more scrutiny, and decisions have to be made that preserve the investment that the order has made.

The parallel to innovation in any bureaucratic organization couldn’t be more clear. Start small. Start where few people are looking. And if you’re the boss, give the people who work for you more freedom to be inventive in their individual areas. Find the smallest areas of your budget and take your biggest chances there. Let them be the idea engine for the larger organization. What works on the small scale can be applied to larger areas, and then they’ll have the evidence of some success to support them.

Identify a one or two-word theme for every project you have, and use that theme to help you make the tough decisions.

This comes about 13 minutes in, and it speaks the most deeply to me. When the stakes are high and the way forward isn’t clear, Coppola always returns to the simple theme he has chosen for his project. For The Conversation, that theme was Privacy. For The Godfather, it was Succession. And every time he reached an impasse in production, he would return to that simple idea and it would give him a framework within which an intelligent decision could be made. It helps to break the deadlock, and it helps bring people together around a common goal.

Now, that’s what I call movie magic.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Things I've Learned from Being a Board Member

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I've recently accepted the nomination to move onto the Executive Committee of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives. I started serving on their board two years ago, a commitment I made, in part, to observe things from the other side of the table. After serving as an association staff person for thirteen years, and now as a chief staff executive (CSE) for the last four, I thought serving on a board myself would help me be a better staff person by experiencing things directly from their perspective.

And I've certainly learned a few things. Things I may have anticipated before, but things that seem abundantly clear to me now. Things like:

Association staff are pulled in too many different directions. And staff that work for an association management company (AMC) are pulled in even more.

Maybe it's because of my background. I've worked at an AMC and now I work for a stand-alone association, so I've seen both models in action. And most associations in my experience, of either stripe, have too much on their plates. Their staffs are stretched too thin, their resources are inadequate to the tasks they set for themselves, and their goals assume an inflated sense of their own competence and abilities.

Boards are partly responsible for this. They keep coming up with new plans, pushing staff to do more and more without thinking about how the work is going to get done. Staff in AMCs typically have an even greater burden, since many have more than one board pushing them in multiple sets of new directions.

And yet, knowing this, knowing the true extent of what can and can't be done, CSEs keep their mouths shut, accepting more responsibility, and pushing more and more work down on the shoulders of their sometimes unsuspecting and ill-equipped staff.

Why does this cycle continue? Why is it so hard to have a conversation about resources--both those that are on hand and those that will need to be acquired if we are truly going to accomplish what we say we must?

Board members, in my mind, should demand it. They should spend less time brainstorming on what should be done next and more time thinking hard about how the stuff on the plate now is going to get done.

And CSEs, especially those that work for AMCs, should help them in this regard by being brutally (i.e., professionally) honest about what's possible and what isn't. If a board and its CSE can't speak frankly about the resources the association has and those it will need to acquire in order to be successful, there is little hope that any set of elaborate plans will be properly executed.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hemingway’s Chair by Michael Palin

Clearly picked this one up because of who the author is. I’ve always been a big Python fan, and Palin is one of my favorites. So I thought, how bad could his novel be?


It wasn’t horrible. I’ve certainly read worst, but it also was not very good. The main character, Martin Sproale, is the assistant manager of a post office and a huge Ernest Hemingway fan. This is, perhaps, all we need to know about him, but it is, in fact, all that we really do know about him. We don’t spend enough time with him in the course of the story, bouncing from one character’s point of view to another in a way that is neither calculated nor effective.

There’s a plot about the post office being taken over and privatized by some interloper who steals Martin’s girlfriend, and there’s a new love interest for Martin who is an American Literature professor who is writing a new book on the women in Hemingway’s wife, but none of that really held my interest.

The best bit is the part about Hemingway’s chair—an old, padded thing taken from off a fishing charter Hemingway had once used that Ruth—the professor and love interest—helps Martin secure from a collector. It becomes something of an obsession for Martin, and affects him in strange ways.

When she came out of the kitchen, Martin was no longer there. In his place was a hunched, wary figure wearing a white tennis cap, grey sweatshirt and a light brown cotton jacket with a pattern of tiny check. He wore plain white Bermuda-length cotton shorts. His calves were bare and he sat, leaning forward, as if waiting. Ruth approached cautiously. The figure in the chair was concentrating on something in the middle distance. His face wore an ironic, self-mocking smile. She held out a glass of whisky.

‘You want a drink?’

For a moment nothing moved, but when the figure slowly lifted his head, Ruth experienced once again the uncanny sensation of being with a stranger she knew well.

‘I guess I look ridiculous,’ came a voice that was slow and heavy and yet in which the smile remained. She said nothing.

‘I don’t look like a decent fellow should look, huh?’

He took the whisky from her and drank it back in one. Then he held the glass out again and watched her refill it.

He drank again, more slowly. This one was neat and he gasped at the after-taste. Then all of a sudden he looked up and breathed deep and beamed around him.

‘Well, I look like this because this is the way I like to look most of the time. I look like this because, come tomorrow, I shall be in Havana and I shall be drinking cold beers with Mrs Mason on the deck of the HMS Anita.’

Ruth caught all the allusions. In 1933 Ernest left Pauline behind in Key West and took a two-month fishing holiday in Havana. He met up with the beautiful, willful, twenty-three-year-old Jane Mason, whose husband was working and couldn’t go with her, and they fished together off a boat called Anita, which belonged to Joe Russell, one of Hemingway’s Key West cronies. It was an episode of his life she and most Hemingway scholars had always wanted to know more about. A rare extramarital affair, known to have taken place, but still steeped in mystery.

Ruth poured herself another drink and sat down opposite him, one side of her face caught by the lamplight. ‘Why are you going away so soon?’

‘Because I worked goddamn hard at that book and I need to get it out of my system.’

‘I worked hard to get this house ready for you,’ she said quietly. ‘You know how much money I spent?’

His face clouded. ‘That’s the only way you see these things. Through the end of a bank balance. So your father bought this house. Great. So you put in nice furniture, big curtains. Paint everything. Great. I do no more fucking writing because I have to sit around choosing curtains when I could be out on a boat chasing marlin with my real friends.’

‘You call those bums you hang out with your friends?’

‘They’re simple guys. They drink and they gamble and they live off the sea. But I love them. Okay?’

‘You love them more than me?’

‘Maybe I do. Maybe they don’t keep wanting to hang onto me and tidy me up and put me on display.’

‘I just want to have you here in the house with me. I don’t care if you wear nothing but a pair of sneakers and a leopard-skin loincloth, I’d rather I looked after you than Mrs Mason. I’m your wife, dammit. What happened? What did I do wrong?’

‘You did too much. You tried too hard.’

‘You loved me once. You loved me so much and I loved you and we went everywhere together and we made each other very happy.’

‘If you say so.’

‘You don’t know?’

‘I do know, for Chrissake, I do know.’

‘You knew for a day. You knew for a week. Then someone more interesting comes along and I have to go along with that. I have to wait while you make your plans and then I do what you want me to do. Isn’t that right?’

‘No…no… It’s not right.’

‘You do what you want to do and I’m just supposed to fit in, right?’

‘No, no!’

‘I’m the wife who has to stay home till the master returns.’


‘My writing is not worth shit.’


‘All you want is a body to be there when it suits you.’


Ruth saw the sweat break out on his brow, but she couldn’t stop now.

‘Well, I’ll tell you. You ain’t as hot as you think you are.’

‘Quit, will you?’ His head swung angrily.

‘Don’t want to hear the truth, huh?’

‘I said quit.’

‘I tell you I could walk out that door right now and find a dozen guys who’d give me a better time!’

‘I said quit!’

A cut glass ashtray flew towards Ruth’s head. She ducked and heard it smash against the wall and fall in pieces to the floor behind her.

She straightened up.

Martin stood staring helplessly. ‘Are you all right?’

This little role play, where Martin becomes Hemingway and Ruth adopts the role of his wife, Pauline, had real potential, but it comes too late in the novel to save it from all that has already happened, or to be anything more than an interesting scene. Something more magical, where Martin actually becomes Hemingway, possessed by the spirit still inhabiting the chair—that would have been a fun read. But Martin always remains Martin, and I’m not sure I ever feel like I should be pulling for him.

The ending is equally disappointing. Martin pulls off some colossal collapse of his nemesis’ plan, literally pulling down a communications tower meant to modernize the little town they all live in with a high-speed yacht adorned with Hemingway’s chair, and supposedly dies in some fiery crash with another boat. There’s that, and then a transition, and then we’re with Ruth a few days later, while she’s putting the finishing touches on her manuscript. She’s interrupted by the postman delivering a letter and, wouldn’t you know it, it’s Martin, writing to her under an assumed name from Cuba.

Prior to receiving this letter, though, Ruth is reflecting on how to sum up her paper.

She hated conclusions. They sat there like sirens, luring the scholar onto the rocks of pomposity and complacency. Now let’s have the solution, they seemed to say. Now tell us what it’s all about so we won’t have to read the whole book.

I can only assume that Palin feels the same way.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Which Committee Are You On?

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Here's a hypothetical for you. Let's say that you're an active volunteer in an association whose mission you care about. You serve on two committees for this association--one of which you chair. Because this association has dozens of committees, you find the meetings for both of your committees scheduled at the same time at an association conference. You're not alone. Conflicts like this are inevitable for an association as complex and vibrant as this one. But you can't be in two places at the same time.

Which committee meeting do you attend? The one you chair? Or the one you can have the greatest impact upon? What if that means you leave the committee you chair without a leader?

I recently witnessed the hypothetical happen, and the chair in question decided to attend the other meeting--the one of the committee he didn't chair.

He had a good reason, I think. The other committee was making bigger decisions than the one he chaired, and he wanted to make sure his voice--and the voice of the committee he did chair--was heard in those deliberations. He explained all of that to us in the five minutes he spent with us before going off to be with the other committee. You see, I was a member of the committee he chaired.

What happened next? We proceeded with our agenda, ably led by the association staff person the chair had left behind in his stead. We talked about important issues. We had differences of opinions. We took a hard look at the analytics of our situation and came to a consensus decision about what the committee and the association that empowered it should do. It felt right. It was time well spent.

At the lunch break our chair came back into our room and told us--without even asking what had transpired while he was away--that he had advocated for and the More Important Committee had approved a course of action opposite the one we had endorsed. Our committee would now be bound by that decision, he happily reported, and he asked us to spend the afternoon portion of our meeting strategizing on how to best accomplish it.

Then, he got up and left again.

Could this situation have been better handled? Probably. Should the chair have acted in a way that didn't alienate and anger his entire committee? Absolutely. But in the short-term window of a day-long set of committee meetings, he likely didn't see anything as important as simply driving towards the Right Answer and getting the troops to execute on it. I understand where he's coming from. We're all busy and the work has to get done.

Except I wasn't there to take direction. I was there to participate in a decision-making process with my peers. Things didn't necessarily have to go my way. I would've supported a decision I disagreed with, assuming a process I could support was followed. But this wasn't it. By exempting his committee from the decision process that affected it, the chair not only drove us, by default, to the Wrong Answer, he all but guaranteed that we wouldn't take its execution seriously.

Some committees make decisions and other committees get things done. That's a natural byproduct of any hierarchical organization. The challenge, I think, is less about the decisions that are to be made and more about determining which kind of committee you're best suited for serving on.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Secrets of Innovation

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This past week I attended the annual conference of one of my partner associations. Like the association I work for, they are a manufacturing-based trade association, whose members buy components from my members. The two industries are closely aligned, and they're facing many of the same issues we are.

One of the presentations they organized was a panel of the member CEOs, talking about challenges in their environment and some creative solutions that they have seen. Not surprisingly, the question of innovation came up.

One CEO talked about a partnership his company had forged with a local arts college. There were some skeptical scoffs from the audience. Art students? those scoffing seemed to say. What can a bunch of art students teach my professional engineers about innovation?

The CEO was very direct.

"Think about it," he said. "These are highly creative and ambitious people. They want to make a difference in the world. By inviting them into our product design process, we have given them an opportunity to do exactly that. And they have come up with business-changing ideas that the highly skilled engineers who work for us would never have thought of."

This really is one of the secrets of innovation, isn't it? Bring outside perspectives into your organization and allow them to identify new opportunities hidden by your internal culture and demographics. Even if your team is diverse--and engineering teams at manufacturing companies are about as monolithic as they come--there are things that people too close to a problem will never see. They all live within a the same paradigm, and it only allows certain approaches to certain problems. It's not good or bad. It's just the way things are.

We hear about this strategy all the time, and it makes total sense. But how many of us really do it? It was nice to see how one organization is actually doing it and the success it is driving for them.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I’d never heard of Philip Pullman or His Dark Materials until they started making a movie out of The Golden Compass a few years ago, and then all the hubbub started about how, although it was written as a book for children, it wasn’t the kind of book any self-respecting religious person would let their children read.

From an email archived on The Golden Compass entry on

There will be a new Children’s movie out in December called THE GOLDEN COMPASS. It is written by Phillip (sic) Pullman, a proud atheist who belongs to secular humanist societies. He hates C. S. Lewis’s Chronical’s (sic) of Narnia and has written a trilogy to show the other side. The movie had been dumbed down to fool kids and their parents in the hope that they will buy his trilogy where in the end the children kill God and everyone can do as they please. Nicole Kidman stars in the movie so it will probably be advertised a lot. This is just a friendly warning that you sure won’t hear on the regular TV.

With that kind of publicity, is it any wonder I wanted to read the book? Supposedly, the slam against God and the Catholic Church gets heavier and more transparent in the second and third books, and that may be, but in this first one, I’d have to say the claims that this volume will put your child’s faith in God in jeopardy are tenuous at best. Sure, the Magisterium is there, and it is equated with the Church (the Church of this mythical land we find ourselves in, in which people are connected to living animals spirits and in which bears talk and wear armor), and the main villain, Mrs. Coulter, is the head of something called The General Oblation Board which is somehow affiliated with it—but other than that, there isn’t much to start waving the sacrilegious stick at.

Much of the novel is confusing in fact—confusing in a good way, I think, because the reader is shown everything through the eyes of the young protagonist—eleven-year-old Lyra Belacqua—and Lyra is still very much a child and doesn’t understand much about what’s going on around her. As she tries to figure things out, so do we, and Pullman shows some skill in keeping us engaged and guessing. Indeed, it wasn’t until the very end of the novel where I felt firm in my conviction that Mrs. Coulter was, in fact, the villain and Lord Asriel wasn’t—rather than the reverse.

Lyra’s childlike thoughts and manner are refreshing in many ways, because they are largely honest and true to someone of her age. There are other fantasy novels featuring young heroes whose actions are anything but that of a child, but Lyra is one through and through.

Lyra turned her back and closed her eyes. But what Pantalaimon said was true. She had been feeling confined and cramped by this polite life, however luxurious it was. She would have given anything for a day with Roger and her Oxford ragamuffin friends, with a battle in the claybeds and a race along the canal. The one thing that kept her polite and attention to Mrs. Coulter was that tantalizing hope of going north. Perhaps they would meet Lord Asriel. Perhaps he and Mrs. Coulter would fall in love, and they would get married and adopt Lyra, and go and rescue Roger from the Gobblers.

These are typical thoughts she has throughout the novel. Childish thoughts. And I dog-eared this one pretty much at random. Little did I know at the time how prophetic this particular passage would be, for, as Lyra and the reader discovers much later, Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel were once married, and Lyra is, in fact, their daughter.

But at the same time I liked the way Pullman was presenting Lyra as a true child with a childlike view of the world, I was also uncertain if I was going to like Lyra herself. Indeed, for much of the first half of the novel, I would say that I did not. And especially when I came to the prophecy that surrounded her:

“The witches have talked about this child for centuries past,” said the counsel. “Because they live so close to the place where the veil between the worlds is thin, they hear immortal whispers from time to time, in the voices of those beings who pass between the worlds. And they have spoken of a child such as this, who has a great destiny that can only be fulfilled elsewhere—not in this world, but far beyond. Without this child, we shall all die. So the witches say. But she must fulfill this destiny in ignorance of what she is doing, because only in her ignorance can we be saved. Do you understand that, Farder Coram?”

“No,” said Farder Coram, “I’m unable to say that I do.”

“What it means is that she must be free to make mistakes. We must hope that she does not, but we can’t guide her. I am glad to have seen this child before I die.”

I thought, oh no, not another one of those. A destiny that must be fulfilled, but only by a person unaware of it. We’ve encountered that trope multiple times before, and I usually find it tedious and anticlimactic from a storytelling perspective. The protagonist would be much more interesting and dynamic, I think, if they knew the consequences of what they have been called to do—and they actively pursue it anyway. And more importantly, those ultimate and hidden consequences of their actions might be a lot more ultimate if they were a lot less hidden. At least we wouldn’t be let down when we finally find out what all the fuss has been about.

But in the context of Pullman’s supposed subtext—that of a child who, in her ignorance of religion has the freedom to act irrespective of its dictates and thereby neuters it—this typical trope takes on an atypically interesting spin. She must be free to make mistakes. In other words, there must be no consequences for acts in opposition to the dogmas of religion. Only in her ignorance can we be saved. A world where no one has been conditioned to follow dogma, everyone is free from its imprisoning effects.

+ + + + + + +

Maybe I should start another blog, this one only for passages in books that on the surface are about something related to the story, but underneath are the author saying something about writing.

With every second that went past, with every sentence she spoke, she felt a little strength flowing back. And now that she was doing something difficult and familiar and never quite predictable, namely lying, she felt a sort of mastery again, the same sense of complexity and control that the alethiometer gave her. She had to be careful not to say anything obviously impossible; she had to be vague in some places and invent plausible details in others; she had to be an artist, in short.

What should I call such passages? They are little like a boom microphone accidently hanging down into a shot during a movie, or the tip of a hidden handkerchief hanging out of the magician’s pocket. They are the building blocks out of which the complete illusion is made, and the reader is not supposed to notice them. But they seem to jump out at me. Always interested in the craft behind the art, I can’t help but think of the author with the pen pressed against the page, even during the most gripping of narratives. It keeps me from getting completely lost in the story, but it allows me to see things in ways others do not.