Finding a Unifying Theme: Step 1 – Eliminate Superstition

On or around March 1st will mark my last day with Nortel after over 12 years. How is that for a push to find what you really want to be doing?

So, time again to answer the question, what will be my Unifying Theme?

For the attentive reader, you will recall that the title of this blog came from the book Freakonomicsby Levitt & Dubner. When in discussions with their publisher, they were confronted by the apparent fact that their manuscript didn’t contain a ‘Unifying Theme’, which –in their publisher’s estimation– was essential to a successful book. Because Levitt & Dubner could not immediately articulate what their theme was, they capitulated to the publishers and addressed the lack of a unifying theme right at the start of Freakonomics.

Around the same time I read Freakonomics, I was trying to figure out a title for my blog. What was I about? What was I going to write about? Would my blogging lead me on a path to discover where my true motivations and passions lie? Or would I –as I suspected– continue to find a diverse range of topics interesting –and blog-worthy– but never find any one area compelling enough to focus a large percentage of my time? At least as a consolation: if a book as successful as Freakonomics can succeed without a Unifying Theme, it must not be all that important!

You can imagine how crushed I was to learn, in Levitt & Dubnert’s sequel Super Freakonomics, that they had discovered that their first book actually did have a unifying theme. They decided it was: ‘people respond to incentives (although not necessarity in ways that are predictable of manifest)‘. In hind sight, I am really glad they didn’t lead with that!  The ‘no unifying theme’ preamble was much more mysterious and compelling!

Rats!!  Now they have gone and found their ‘Unifying Theme’, what about me?! Should I become an (micro-)economist?? And do micro-economists feel inferior to macro-economists?  But I digress…

Back to the topic at hand: what do Unifying Themes have to do with superstition?

Superstition has several definitions, but I am concentrating on actions based on “a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like.” (

While you may think of things like ghosts, Friday the 13th, etc. I am thinking of more every-day examples:

  • Belief that if you just had more money, you would be happier.
  • The behaviours that got you where you are, will get you where you want to go.
  • Your income says something about how valuable a person you are.
  • You can work for the same company your whole career.*
  • Other people can give you the affirmation you need to make you life worthwhile.
  • People are only motivated by money.
  • Retirement will make it all worth it.

Its pretty easy to understand where superstitions come from: when you discover two things that often correlate, but don’t spend the time or energy to discover if they are causal. Just imagine the successful executive who has many good attributes, but also regularly yells or belittles her employees.  It would be fair for her to assume that her personality is what got her success, but is all of it really contributing to her success? If she stopped yelling at employees would the success go away? Might her performance actually improve?*** You don’t want to be like the pigeon that keeps dancing in a circle expecting food, just because the researcher once trained it that food would appear.

To find the ‘Unifying Theme(s)’ for your life, I think the first place to start is by removing your superstitions and gaining a better understanding of what really makes you happy. Test those assumptions in life that have kept you from doing the things that you want to do. Get your friends, family, co-workers to reflect back to you what they see as your motivations and passions. Better yet, invest some time and money in a good mental health practitioner** who can illustrate your superstitions and motivations. Various tools can help you find out your preferences, one of my favourites is from Gallup Research: StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths

Enough from me. Any advice from my audience on your approach to finding your ‘Unifying Theme’? Success stories are particularly welcome!

* Not one I ever had. I can’t believe how long I lasted at Nortel. There is probably a whole other blog post on that one.

** Finding one of these is hard, but very valuable.

*** There is a good book specifically addressing this topic: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful


TEDx Ottawa: A Resounding S.U.C.C.E.S.s!!

TED conferences are mind-blowing, but expensive and far away.  Sp when I heard about the TEDx concept (locally organized TED events) I was excited to hear that an event was being organized in Ottawa!  But how was a local event going to compare to TED conferences which regularly attract the worlds top thinkers?

The same weekend, I was trying to complete my presentation on a very compelling book that my wife bought for me: Made to Stick. This timing was very fortunate for my presentation because TEDx provided so many great examples about how to make ideas ‘Sticky’. I thought I would use the S.U.C.C.E.S.s acronym used by the book to illustrate some of my key take-aways from TEDx Ottawa:

S – Simple: Keep your message core and compact to increase the chance that people remember the one most important thing you want them to act on.

If someone really succeeded in getting their message across, I shouldn’t have to look at my notes! And one great example of this was Bob Ledrew who’s key message was to “Sing your song.”, which was all about remembering what things you were passionate about in your youth, and making sure that you make time for them in adulthood.  His personal story about his rediscovery of his passion for music, and his ‘House’ concerts was very inspiring.

U – Unexpected: If you can break a person’s guessing machine you keep their interest and increase the chance that they will absorb your message.

For me the ‘unexpected’ story that stuck with me most from the day was Ray Zahab‘s story about how he entered a Yukon ultra-marathon, and the mental and physical battles he fought during the race to convince himself that he could finish it.  At the end of the race he then says “Nobody is more surprised than me that I finished this race.” and the race marshall responded: “You didn’t just finish, you won.”

Cindy Chastain and Kip Voytek surprised me by clarifying the difference between ‘cooperation vs. collaboration’, and how most ‘collaboration’ strategies actually are about cooperation.  This surprise caused me to furiously write down their proposed approach to collaboration, which I will use!  As a result, I have a lot more ‘pleasure in not knowing’.  😉

C – Concrete: Everyone will take in your message using their own filters and lenses, you must make your message concrete to ensure that your audience gets your message, regardless of their background.

Images and video are fantastic ways to make your message concrete and accessible to a wide audience.  Najeeb Mirza used a video shot in Afghanistan to illustrate how people around have more in common than you would think!  It made me laugh to see a bunch of turban doffing Afghani tribesmen talking about who had the best cell phone.

Williams Jans‘ message about how ‘Bad Roads Bring Good People’ was driven home by his many great photos and video showing how friendly and happy people can be at the fringes of the inhabited world, and showed the joys (and laughs) of learning new languages!

Finally, Mark Levison talked about how images are ‘Google for the mind’ and there doesn’t appear to be an upper limit to how many images the brain can process.  So many of Mark’s comments echoed the ‘Made to Stick’ concepts that I ended up giving him my copy of the book when I was surprised to find out he hadn’t read it!

C – Credible: To get people to believe your message, you need credibility.  The book has many suggestions on how to accomplish this, but I used some TEDx presenters to illustrate.

Tracey Clarke has credibility for many reasons.  First of all, she is the managing director of Bridgehead Coffee, a company who has beaten the mighty Starbucks at the own game (in Ottawa anyway). This should be credibility enough, but then teaches us more about the dynamics of coffee business than I thought possible in such a short presentation!  Her many stories, pictures and detail about Bridgehead’s stance on coffee supply made me proud to be a Bridgehead customer!

Robert Mittelman, a Kiva Fellow, leant a lot of credibility to Kiva’s microcredit initiatives by his experiences with the program abroad.  It was good to hear how this money was being used, and how the inspiration flows both ways: debtor to creditor, creditor to debtor.

E – Emotional: In order to get people to act on your message, you have to hit them in the heart with it; with emotion comes action.

Mark Blevis and his message of the importance of children’s books really hit me at an emotional level.  It made me realize how I really didn’t recognize the importance of these books in providing children context on how to interpret and interact with their world.  The reminder that this is actually a high art form of imparting messages in a compact way to people with a limited vocabulary.  So is this emotion making me act?  Absolutely.  Just one week after TEDx I am sure I have had at least 4-5 conversations about the significance of children’s books!

S – Story: If you tell your message as a story, there is no way that your audience can remain passive. The act of listening to a story (as opposed to just a bunch of facts) forces the listener to build the mental image of the story as it is told, which increases the chances of the listener remembering it.

Danny Brown‘s presentation was all about story telling, digital storytelling in particular.  He told of the new Star Wars series that lost the viewer because it forgot that telling a human story was the important part, and not all the technology that enables it (actually I think it WAS Jar Jar’s fault).  I really liked how he compared the Millenium Falcon to everybody’s beater first car!

Nothing illustrates the power of story like Jowi Taylor‘s Six String Nation ‘Voyageur’ guitar!!  Every piece of this guitar has a story, and is perfectly united to his message of ‘One Canada’.  There was certainly a lot of emotion in his stories as well, as there were several that brought a tear to my eye, and the passion of Jowi about telling these stories was clearly apparent!  The best part about this guitar is that, for all the stories that are built into this guitar already, the guitar itself is creating so many new stories that are being captured by Jowi.  All Canadians must hear the story of this guitar, and I am certainly doing my small part.

I don’t want to diminish any of the other presentations by their omission here!  I got at least one great nugget from each presentation, and many great discussions with the presenters in the interludes.  It was a fabulous event, exceptionally executed.  Even the box lunch was fabulous!  I hope all people that attend TEDx events around the world are as lucky as we are in Ottawa to have such a great experience!  An experience worthy of the ‘TED’ name!

Who Killed Nortel?

James Bagnall of the Ottawa Citizen has been covering Nortel for a long time, much longer than my time with the company.  It was with great interest that I heard from a co-worker that James was doing an 8-part series called “Who Killed Nortel?”.

Would it tell me things I didn’t know?  Would it point the finger at people I respected?  Would it conclude the collapse was due to bad luck, incompetence, or something more sinister?

Even knowing the series was on the Ottawa Citizen, I found it horribly hard to find the articles and then to navigate them (its improved a bit now that the series is complete).  To save you the same frustration, I collected them here:

I found the series very enlightening.  It points to leadership apathy, a board that lacked knowledge of the telecom industry, bad luck, incompetence, and -of course- the well known financial scandals as contributing causes.

Now that you have seen the ‘balanced view’, you may want to check out the ‘unbalanced’ view for a laugh: Nortel’s Downfall – The Mini-Series

Increasing My Position in AAPL, ‘Trying’ to Get Out of RIM

I watched news reports this morning that covered Apple’s annoucement that not only are they participating in their last MacWorld conference, but Steve Jobs’ will not be doing the usual keynote speech at the event.  While Apple claims that this is just the next step in a change of strategy that relies more on their Apple stores, and iTunes to reach out to customers, some of the press coverage decided to renew speculation that Jobs’ health is in trouble.

This, along with analyst downgrades to market perform from outperform (Oppenheimer) and the French government’s ruling that Apple has to allow other carriers in France to sell the iPhone, made for a bad day in Apple stock to the tune of -6.6%.

At first, I was pretty worried, but then I started thinking about the leadership position at Apple.  The market has a perception that Jobs is a ‘genius with a thousand hands’ type of leader, as evidenced by Apple’s decline after his original departure, and its resurgence after his return.  As a result the stock price is heavily influenced by rumours about his health since the expectation is if it fails, so will the company.

This may have been true when he originally left Apple, but I think there is evidence to show he has been able to grow good leaders under him since.  For example, he was the head of Pixar studios which was eventually sold to Disney for >$7 billion dollars, which has since continued to excel with such hits as the Incredibles and, most recently, WALL-E.  Clearly Jobs had set up a system which could continue to succeed in his absence.

No question that the stock will get hit hard if Jobs proves to be ill, but since Apple is unlikely to provide any more detail in the next few months, and I still expect Apple to positively surprise the market over this Christmas season, I am viewing today’s drop in the stock price, and a month-low in the US dollar as a buying opportunity.  I am increasing my position another 20% at $89.31.  For those keeping track, my average cost is now about $115.

In order to pick up more stock, I wanted to sell something else which had less up-side, since I was getting uncomfortable with how much I had in the market.  I am starting to lose faith in the ability of RIM to balk the downward trend in the economy.  Their new Storm was received cooly by reviewers, and appeared to be more of a reaction to Apple iPhone instead of something new and innovative.

Clearly a LOT of Blackberry purchases are driven by enterprise, and trimming costs on cell phones is one of the first things enterprises do when the economy turns sour.  While if I had infinite cash, I would go long on RIM, at the moment I just don’t think there is as much upside opportunity as with AAPL.

IF I can get out of RIM tomorrow that is…   This is what I was greeted with when I logged into my trading account to sell the RIM shares:

TSX Trading Halted All DayIt turns out, aside from 20 minutes at open, the TSX was closed ALL DAY.  Hopefully things will be resolved by market open tomorrow, but with RIM’s earnings coming out at the end of day tomorrow, the TSX’s technical glitches may end up costing me (or maybe saving me) money.  I’ll let you know how it goes…

TED: A Great Resource for New Ideas!

Want an opportunity to see videos by some of the biggest thinkers in the world for free?  My friend Catherine tipped me off to the website  “TED” stands for ‘Technology, Entertainment & Design’ which was the original scope of the conference when it started in 1984, but since has become much broader.

The concept of the talks is that each speaker is given 18 minutes to give the talk of their lives.  Here is a description of the conference from TED:

The TED Conference, held annually in Long Beach, is still the heart of TED. More than a thousand people now attend — indeed, the event sells out a year in advance — and the content has expanded to include science, business, the arts and the global issues facing our world. Over four days, 50 speakers each take an 18-minute slot, and there are many shorter pieces of content, including music, performance and comedy. There are no breakout groups. Everyone shares the same experience. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It works because all of knowledge is connected. Every so often it makes sense to emerge from the trenches we dig for a living, and ascend to a 30,000-foot view, where we see, to our astonishment, an intricately interconnected whole.

Here is a selection of some of my favourite videos so far:

Malcolm Gladwell on why you can’t just listen to your customers (or where chunky spaghetti sauce comes from):

Stephen Levitt on why crack dealers still live with their moms:

Tony Robbins on ‘Why We Do What We Do” (he actually steals an extra few minutes):

Martin Seligman on positive psychology:

Finally, Sir Ken Robinson asks “Do Schools Kills Creativity?”:

And there are 100’s of others! Enjoy!

Building a Brand Identity: Watch Your Language!

When you discuss with people the idea that a company should have a strong brand, you often get knowing nods and agreement that yes, this is very important for businesses, and people either laud or complain about their marketing departments for their success, or lack of success, in this area.

I think this is very indicative of the attitude of many companies (especially companies not involved in the consumer market) that ‘brand’ is marketing’s job.  I believe that this is fundamentally a language problem; a problem of what words you use to engage each employee in helping to build the brand identity and making it consistent throughout your company or division, not just the marketing department.

You would probably agree that a company that can produce products and services that are consistent with what the customers actually value, has a much better chance of success than one who is inconsistent, or even worse, has lost touch with its customers.

So how do you ensure that 1) there is consistency, and 2) you remain in touch with what your customers value?

In this article I want to try and tackle the consistency challenge, and propose it has a lot to do with the language you use outside of the marketing department.

Talk to most technical folks about ‘brand’ and I guarantee you will see some eyes gloss over, other eyes will avert, and some folks may even run for the door.  It isn’t a word that really resonates well outside the cubes of the marketing department; it is a very right-bained word.  So how do we translate it?

Brand Identity: A unique set of associations that the brand strategist aspires to create or maintain. These associations represent what the brand should stand for and imply a potential promise to customers. It is important to note that a brand identity refers to the strategic goal for a brand; while brand image is what currently resides in the minds of consumers.

Wow, even my eyes are glazing over!

What if we tried translating our ‘Brand Identity’ into the following words:

  • In the Research and Developmet lets call them our ‘Design Principles’
  • For customer support lets call them our ‘Principles of Customer Service’
  • Sales might call it their ‘Elevator Pitch’
  • Portfolio management would say it is our ‘Common Value Proposition’
  • Strategy and Architecture teams would call it our ‘Strategic Vision’
  • Product test or verification would define their ‘Priority Test Criteria’
  • When you get up to the executive ranks, you could talk about the company ‘Vision, Mission or Core Values’

This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list, as I am sure you can think of other areas, and other even better words to capture what the ‘brand identity’ is to each group above; in fact I encourage you to do so in the comments below (I am looking for ideas)!!

But, by using this more functionally-sensitive language, and defining what the brand identity means for each functional group, great strides can be made to create the alignment between the efforts of various parts of an organization, and what their customers experience.  This helps every employee understand  how they contribute to “the promise to customers”.

You might ask ‘who’s responsibility is this’ to drive this alignment?  I can offer you little help here.  I have heard some arguments that claim this kind of messaging must come from the very top of the organization.  But a more pragmatic side of me sees how this can be a very improbable suggestion, especially in companies where marketing is considered a tactical, not strategic function:

All I can offer is, If this post resonates strongly with you, it might just be yours!  🙂

Shad Valley: In Need of an Admissions Overhaul?

I attended Shad Valley in the summer of 1990 at the UBC campus. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I met some extraordinary people who I struggle to stay in contact with to this day. I was then hired by the ‘Canadian Centre for Creative Technology’ (CCCT) which is now called ‘Shad International’ for the remainder of the summer, and for subsequent years as their ‘ShadNet’ administrator; a pre-internet BBS/e-mail system based on CNCP’s Dialcom.

I got a feel for the inner workings of the program, and got to know well the very committed –but small– team, running things behind the scenes of this nation-wide multi-campus program.

Whilst running statistics on program participants (part of my job that summer) I got a feel for the sort of people that get into the program. I was blown away to find out how close to the bottom I was, in terms of marks of successful applicants. At the time, I was a mid-80’s average student amongst 90 average students.

By that time, the program had already been running 9 years, plenty of time for many of the students to have established their careers and be identified as some of the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ or budding entrepreneurs: two of the target audiences of the program (I thought). I was a bit surprised to find that wasn’t really the case. Now, the sample size was small, with the earliest programs only numbering in the 10’s of participants so I suppose you could explain that away.

So what is the link? Well, I spent a lot of time then thinking about how marks relate to success. There is no question some of the people that attended the program with me are fantastically successful, but they were also academically brilliant. While there are brilliant successful people, you do not need to be brilliant to be an entrepreneur or change the world?

A recent Macleans article entitled ‘Do Grades Really Matter?’ by Sarah Scott triggered this debate again in my mind. One example cited regarded 210 Hunter College Elementary School graduates, who had IQ’s higher than 99% of the population: “By middle-age they had become happy, prosperous, community-minded citizens. But they hadn’t aspired to achieve great things.”

From what I recalled about the Shad selection process at the time, many other factors were considered aside from marks, but the easiest way to cull the massive list of candidates was through the easy numerical analysis that comes from an already established rating system care of the high school or CEGEP marks. If they were trying to identify those people that appeared to be the most ‘entrepreneurial’, this wasn’t the way to do it.

In fact, even if the Shad Valley staff had done the best possible job to identify those people, the pool of applicants was already tainted. The schools that promoted the program to their students typically only promoted it to those students that were academically gifted. Basically, these are people that are clearly smart enough to work inside the system, instead of (necessarily) having the traits associated with some of the most successful people: “Creative thinkers, the kind who transform ho we see things, have characteristics such as curiosity, appetite for risk, and an open mind.”

Perhaps it is adversity itself which drives some people to become extraordinary successes. If you are academically gifted to the point that the ‘system’ is always giving you scholarships, opportunities and direction in your career, the requirements for you to think outside the box are pretty limited.

So I went to the Shad Valley web-site to review both their mission statement and the application they use to evaluate potential students. I was very positively surprised to see their much leaner application had a bit less emphasis on marks than I remember, and more on other things such as personal accomplishments, career goals [I think that one is hokey myself, but more on that in another blog -ed.], essays, reference letters, and opportunities for creative inputs.

Cool! They clearly have evolved! But wait, what is with the mission statement?! (I have bolded some items):

Shad Valley is a diverse extended community of leaders dedicated to the development of remarkable youth, helping them to recognize, harness, and strengthen their talents.

At Shad Valley, we surround high-potential youth with excellence, and stimulate their creativity. We nurture their initiative, skills, values, and desire to solve important problems, while challenging them to meet the highest standards of ethical conduct, social responsibility, and environmental sustainability.

The Shad Valley programs build on an academic foundation of mathematics, science, engineering, and entrepreneurship to develop intellectual excellence in our students. These are the tools they will use to excel and to innovate, during the programs and in their futures.

Intellectual excellence? How about entrepreneurs, leaders of tomorrow? Do I remember things that wrong from 1990? That is very possible, I have a garbage memory, which is part of why I write everything down (including blogging). Part of the reason for this post is to stimulate some debate amongst the Shad Alumni, faculty and administration on this topic, and find out if I am all wet on this!

There are some hints about what I remember, the comment about ‘stimulate creativity’, ‘nuture desire’, ‘innovate’, but the leadership part gets lost for sure.

Don’t get me wrong, such a program is worthwhile. Programs like those described above need to exist, and probably more of them. But how about we challenge ourselves a bit more to find the Sam Waltons, Bill Gateses and (preferable) Steve Jobses of the world?

Would a program that tries to identify those that may have a positive lasting impact on our society and economy not be more lucrative for both applicants and the sponsors? If the program attempted to identify leaders and nurture that skill at an early age, would that not be more attractive to corporate and government sponsors, who are in dire need of such people?

How about evaluating some of the other attributes associated with success: emotional intelligence, drive, social awareness, ability to network, influencing skills, etc.? Would that lead to an even more successful program?

Anyway, ‘nuff-said. What do you think?

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