Posts Tagged ‘learning’

David Brent (”The Office”) on training

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

Well, after his much-commented-on stint hosting the Golden Globe Awards last Sunday, Ricky Gervais perhaps is not the best role model I could have chosen for today’s post. Yet, let us hearken back to a time when Ricky, in addition to being a “slightly chubby but very kind comedian,” made fun of himself at least as much as the people around him.

I fell in love with the original version of “The Office” years ago. Gervais’ character, David Brent, was all our bad management practices and insecurities in one package, which made for hilarious yet uncomfortable viewing by any manager.

One episode that made me cringe out of self-recognition was “Training.” In this one, David hires a trainer to teach the company about customer service but undermines him by jumping up at every opportunity to (try to) demonstrate that he knows more about customer service than anyone at the company–more, even, than the trainer. While watching this, I had flashbacks to all the times I had jumped up to interrupt a trainer during a class or to demonstrate how much I knew about the subject at hand.

This is a smart-person problem. It was important to me to show I knew a lot. Or, perhaps, a “I think I’m smart but not sure I’m smart enough, so I have to demonstrate my smartness” problem. Or, if you’re David Brent, it’s a “I think I’m brilliant but I’m actually quite dumb,” in which case you have a comedy show.

The lesson I took from this was to see how this behavior looked to others. While I was trying to impress people, they were more interested in learning about the topic at hand. (Some folks probably wished they could have told me to sit down and shut up.) Jumping up to show how much you know is a manifestation of the Hermione Granger syndrome, which I’ll discuss in a future post.

For now, check out David Brent (Ricky) and make sure you don’t do what he does:

Keith Richards – Hall of Fame hard-liver; also collaboration guru?

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

keith richardsI took a hiatus from business books this holiday. They are all starting to read the same to me. For instance, the narrative opening has become a cliche: “Bill Fredericks entered the CEO office for the first time since his surprise promotion and considered how he’d spend his first day in the long-coveted role. The WonderLam PR debacle was entering its third month….” etc. etc.

Anyway, I’m reading a very non-business book: Rolling Stone Keith Richards’ autobiography, “Life.” It’s a great read, as you might imagine. Richards is very candid with his views on his own behavior and that of his compatriots. There’s also amazing in-depth discussion of how to write songs and how to play guitar, Richards-style.

But for the purposes of this blog, Richards’ amazing skill at collaboration stands out. Besides playing with the same core group of musicians for more than 40 years (a collaboration feat that impresses all on its own), Richards also has worked with this list of artists:

Chuck Berry
Aretha Franklin
Gram Parsons
Wayne Shorter
Waddy Wachtel
Phil Spector
Ronnie Spector
George Jones
Jack White
Tom Waits
Muddy Waters
Etta James
Willie Nelson
Don Everly
Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare

See what I mean?

What did Richards have that made him reach out to so many, and be sought out as well?

Eye on the goal
Richards (at least as he sees it) is totally focused on music. He couldn’t have cared less about the business aspect of the band. From his teenage years, he absorbed records and others’ performances. He thought about music all the time; dreamed it, even.

With this singular focus (let’s put aside the years when music shared his attention with another mistress, heroin), ego and band politics were left aside. About the only conniving Richards admits to involved sneaking a great sax player whom MIck didn’t approve of back on the bandstand.

Being absorbed by music made Richards attractive to others who shared his passion. He might be in the biggest band in the world, but if you had an opinion to offer on, say, Buddy Holly’s singing technique, he would probably have a discussion with you.

Humility and willingness to learn
Richards never seems to feel he masters the guitar. He always has things to learn from others. And when he meets a set of musicians, rather than talk a lot, he seems to spend hours (days, even), playing music with them.

He’s also aware of his limitations. Here he discusses an unexpected call from songwriter Hoagy Carmichael:

He’d heard a version I’d done of the song “The Nearness of You,” which I’d given to our lawyer Peter Parcher. Peter liked my record and the piano playing and he’d sent it to Hoagy. My treatment of it is barrelhouse; it really flips the song on its back, deliberately so. I can’t play piano well and I was improvising to say the least, just sort of making do. And here’s Carmichael on the phone, and he says, “Hey, man, when I heard that version, shit, that’s the way I was hearing it when I was writing it.”… I couldn’t believe it when he rang and said he’d liked the way I’d done it.

And finally to humility, here is Richards’ on the Stones’ initial ambitions: “Our first aim as the Rolling Stones was to be the best rhythm and blues band in London, with regular gigs every week.”

Talent and willingness to teach
Despite his acknowledged limitations, Richards is obviously talented. Soon after he begins absorbing blues music, he is in a band. And soon that band is indeed the “best rhythm and blues band in London.” Then come the songs, and the records, and tours, etc. People wanted to collaborate with Richards because of what he had done. And unlike the comic fearful of getting his jokes stolen, he was happy to share what he knew. Waddy Wachtel writes this in one of “LIfe”’s many sections contributed by Richards collaborators:

I remember when I discovered this weird tuning–as it seemed to me then–that Keith had adopted. In the early ’70’s, I went to England [touring] with Linda Ronstadt. And we was led into Keith’s house in London and there’s this Strat sitting on a stand with five strings on it.And I’m like, “What happened to that thing? What’s wrong with that?” And he goes, “That’s my whole deal….The five-string! The five string open-G tuning.” …Growing up and playing guitar, you’re learning Stones songs to play in bars, but you know something’s wrong, you’re not playing them right…. So when he said that to me, I said, “Is that why I can’t do it right?”

Here’s Richards on collaboration:

After that I decided, fuck it, I want a band…. So I called in guys I’d always wanted to work with, and I knew the man to start with. You could almost say a collaboration had begun between me and [drummer] Steve Jordan even back in Paris during the making of Dirty Work. Steve encouraged me; he heard something in my voice that he thought could make records. If I had a melody I was working on, I’d get him to sing it. And I thrive on collaboration–I need a reaction to think anything I’ve done is any good. So back in New York we started to hang, and we wrote a lot of songs together. Then, with his buddy and collaborator Charley Drayton, mainly a bass player but also another superbly gifted drummer, we started to jam at Woody [Wachtel]’s house.

So if you want to be a better collaborator, rather than look in the business section for advice, you may want to borrow a few pages from a less-likely source, Keef.

Stories of innovation success can mislead

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

I posted on this cool promo for the new Steven Johnson book (”Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation“) the other day, but now I wanted to reflect on one of the points Steven makes in the video (and, of course, the book). That many stories of “Eureka” moments in innovation are actually fictional. He points to Tim Berners-Lee’s decade-long journey toward the development of the World Wide Web as one example.

In other words, the real story was not of a flash of insight leading to a breakthrough, but of a long, slow slog. Instead of being birthed out of a microwave oven, many innovations instead ferment and age like wine, and only after years and several false starts take their final, revolutionary form. (Interestingly, this post shows that a similar thing occurred with Gillette’s “razor and blade” business model.)

The lesson I’m drawing here is that, as stories age, they lose their factual basis and instead condense and become distilled into something that’s more aspirational. Meaning that old success stories retain and increase their ability to inspire, but perhaps are less able to guide our everyday actions. In innovation’s case, this means that these stories can actually mislead and inhibit real innovation, by making it appear that a false start or a failure is reason to stop.

Stories of mistakes or disasters, by contrast, seem to me to retain their teaching ability. Enron, 9/11, the Great Depression, etc., don’t seem to have lost their power to guide. What do you think?

Related posts:
A treasury of business mistake stories

Mistake Bank Video Podcast #7 – Sue Pera on opening a second store

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Sue Pera and her husband Al own the Cornerstone Coffeehouse in Camp Hill, PA (where I live). Sue was very gracious to sit down and talk about an important mistake they made while considering expansion and what they learned from it.

Download: Sue Pera Mistake Bank Podcast (4:36)

To find other podcasts in this series, please visit

If you are an entrepreneur or know an entrepreneur who should be interviewed for this podcast series, please email me at john (at) caddellinsightgroup (dot) com. Thank you!

Mistake Bank Podcast #5 – Monica Gould of Strategic Consulting Partners

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Mistake bank logo#5 in our series of interviews with successful entrepreneurs in which they talk about the mistakes that helped shape their careers. Our guest is Monica Gould, who founded her business, Strategic Consulting Partners, after a successful career at MCI, and has sustained it for more than 10 years.

Monica, like so many of the entrepreneurs I’ve talked to, is very candid and self-reflective, and willing to talk about mistakes, to teach others and to ensure they themselves learn from them. I was struck by Monica’s sense of humor when she discussed the cobbler’s kids dilemma – while she helped companies improve their planning she tended to neglect planning for her own business (something I’ve experienced myself). I’m sure you’ll enjoy the interview.

Monica Gould podcast (31:24)


0:30 How she got started
11:10 An early mistake…the “we can help you with anything” brand
13:30 Consequences of a consultant losing focus
15:15 A more recent mistake: how long to try to break into a new market?
17:10 “Time is your biggest commodity”
18:50 A difficult situation with a subcontractor
23:45 A final thought on planning…

(audio content copyright 2010 John Caddell)

If you are interested in contacting Monica , please visit her website.

Previous podcasts can be found here.

Randy Nelson of Pixar: Collaboration is like improv theater

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

I learned of this video of Randy Nelson, dean of Pixar University, from Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen blog. Garr points out many interesting facets of Randy’s presentation, but I was struck by the initial message in the talk, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot the past few days.

Randy says this (all in the first 1:30 of the video):

Two core principles of improv have always guided us. The first is: Accept every offer. If an improviser says to you, “It’s raining a lot in here today,” you don’t say, “Raining in here?” You say, “That’s why they gave us umbrellas.” It’s an offer. You don’t know where it’s going to go, but the guarantee you have: if you don’t accept that offer, it’s going nowhere. You’ve got a sure thing on the one hand: dead end. Or you have a possibility on the other.

The other principle is: make your partner look good. What a great thing. So you know on a team that anything anybody says to you, you’re going to get a chance to “plus” that, you’re going to get a chance to have that be on the table. And they’re going to try to make you look good, not make you look bad.

At Pixar, what we mean by “plussing” is this. You take a piece of work, you take something you’re working on collaboratively, and when it’s given to you, you don’t judge it. You don’t go, “Oooh, this is pretty good; this is what I’m going to do to make it better.” Or, “This isn’t so good, this is what I’m going to do to fix it.” You say: “Here is where I’m starting. What can I do with this? …How do I accept the offer and make my partner look good?”

This made me think of how I learned to collaborate, starting in engineering school and continuing as a programmer and software designer. Collaboration in that environment meant, largely, fighting over ideas. This is how we should design a data structure. We should design a home screen this way. It was a combination of thinking and persuasion. Whoever had a good idea and could persuade the others in the group of its merits, would win the argument.

In my mind, these weren’t destructive arguments. They were, in fact, thrilling. You won some, you lost some, and the results were often really cool.

But when I moved into management this method didn’t work so well. It doesn’t help quiet people contribute to ideas. It’s a peer method and doesn’t work well in a hierarchy. It can divide people. It can be intimidating.

So I’ve been thinking about how to apply the improv model to more situations. When someone comes to me with an idea, how can I, rather than dismissing it initially (which I am prone to do), “accept the offer”? And how can I use my capabilities, not to critique the idea, but instead to make my partner look good?

From the Mistake Bank: “The Power of Positive Failure”

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Mistake bank logoThere is enough of a chorus of ideas (such as this one from Nancy White referencing Chris Corrigan who points to Alexander Kjerulf) around learning from mistakes and failures that I feel we may be on the cusp of an actual movement here. Most recently, David Simms posted “The Power of Positive Failure” on the HBR Conversation blog.

Simms recounts an experience hosting a panel in which he asked the speakers to relate stories of failures they suffered through. He was amazed at how willing the panelists were to discuss their mistakes, and how much they had learned as a result. He also encourages readers to be more willing to share their own mistakes. I heartily agree.

By the way, when reading “The Power of Positive Failure,” be sure to read the comments. There are some great mistake stories there. And if you want to read/hear/see more mistake stories, visit The Mistake Bank’s temporary home (, which will bring up a set of posts from my work in gathering and learning from mistake stories. (You’ll find plenty of my own stories in there, believe me.)

Related Posts:
A Mistake Bank story from Don McFadden – due diligence in real estate

People who admit mistakes bring honor to themselves; so do those who forgive

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

I’m still a bit in awe of the sequence of events that took place in Major League Baseball two weeks ago. Armando Galarraga, a journeyman pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, retired the first 26 batters in a row, coming within one out of the twenty-first perfect game in the 125+ year history of Major League Baseball. The next batter hit a slow ground ball to the first baseman, who threw to Galarraga covering first, the ball appearing to arrive before the batter’s foot reached the base.

Except the umpire, Jim Joyce, emphatically called the runner safe. No perfect game. Innumerable replays that night and the next day confirmed that the runner, in fact, should have been called out. Galarraga was robbed, and he had every right to be incensed. His shot at immortality had been taken away by a bad call. What a crazy turn of events.

Something even more amazing happened the next day. Joyce (named in a poll of baseball players as the best umpire in the game) admitted his mistake and apologized for it. Galarraga, for his part, graciously accepted Joyce’s apology with the delightful observation that “nobody’s perfect.”

How much easier would it have been for Joyce to insist that he saw what he saw? How understandable would it be that Galarraga hold a grudge rather than forgive the person whose mistake cost him his name in the record books? Yet it is to these two men’s everlasting credit that they took the difficult path, the thoughtful path, and as such they taught us much more than perfection could have.

[For a selection of other Mistake Bank-related posts, click here.]

Mistake Bank Podcast #1 – John Bliss, founder of Bliss PR

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Mistake bank logoWelcome to the first in a series of podcasts in which we explore learning from mistakes with successful entrepreneurs. First up, John Bliss, founder of Bliss PR, discusses starting out working for the family business, then going out on his own, and what he learned along the way.

Download the John Bliss podcast


0:45 A brief history of Bliss PR
4:35 When you’re starting out, you’ll take any business you have
6:55 A mistake – sharing equity with a business partner
10:00 Another mistake – losing focus
12:20 A few hiring mistakes
15:30 Going downmarket in bad times
17:15 Learning from mistakes my dad made
19:40 “It’s a ‘we’ business”

(Thanks to John, and also to Elizabeth Sosnow for connecting us.)

(audio content copyright 2010 John Caddell)

Impediments to adopting a culture of experimentation

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Dan Ariely’s monthly column is one of my favorite changes in the Harvard Business Review redesign.

In the April issue, he muses over “Why Businesses Don’t Experiment.” Naturally (perhaps I should say “Predictably“), he looks at behavioral reasons–companies seeking to avoid creating discriminatory situations (i.e., being unfair), or preference for action over insight leading to reliance on expert opinion–”Do this.”

There’s probably some pretty rational fear at work, too: the fear of making a career-limiting mistake. Relying on others helps to distance us from situations that don’t turn out right.

I experienced one more reason. I was in a large meeting with a client in which they were discussing whether certain actions by their staff were impacting revenue.

It was a plausible hypothesis, but it was a volatile moment in the industry & there could have been many factors contributing to the revenue loss.

Plus, even if the staff actions were the cause, what impact would changes make? What side effects would ensue?

It seemed to me a situation ripe for an experimental approach. But it was not to be. Action was needed–the shortfalls amounted to millions of dollars. “Come up with a plan by next week & start rolling it out.”

So, another impediment to experimentation: time pressure, real or perceived. We can’t wait for the results of an experiment; we need to act.

Since that experience, I’ve been thinking about what I can do to make a better case to my clients for experimentation. One requirement, I think, is to detect problems earlier, to buy a little time to put a mechanism in place to measure the effectiveness & side effects of a change.

Are there other steps to take to make experimenting easier?

Related posts:
On the HBR redesign
Dangerous job: change agent
To make progress in complex environments, experiment