Articles by Steve

You are currently browsing Steve’s articles.


I met someone the other day. When I arrived the first thing they did was look at their watch and ask “what happened to you? You’re never late.” I was about 5 minutes late…which I never am.

Since that meeting I’ve been thinking about timeliness and scheduling, or more accurately, lack thereof. As a global traveler this is a very convoluted topic as “being on time” has widely different meanings in different cultures.

I was raised to be a bit early since as Vince Lombardi, the famous coach of the Green Bay Packers football team used to say, “on time is late, early is on time.” He had the belief that if practice started at 9 that meant you were ready to go, not just arriving. As the head coach he had a great luxury that most of us don’t have, he could penalize the late player in ways that got their attention and led to a change in behavior.

My upbringing also included being led to think of being late as being rude. The late person leaves whoever they’re meeting hanging around wasting time chatting while they wait for the wayward meeting member. Often there also seems to be a  power play involved: I’m more important than you so it’s fine for you to hang around waiting for me to arrive.

In many places I still act this way. On time is late, early is on time.

But, I just returned from a trip to Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and Ghana. Half the meetings weren’t finalized in advance as the schedule was “call when you get to Africa and we’ll see you.” Even most of the meetings with a set time came with a bit of flexibility depending on how it all worked out. Meeting with people ranging from government Ministers to small business people was arranged this way.

This makes American business people, and me, crazy. Spend a lot of money, block out a lot of time, fly for hours and hours, and hope that the meetings are finalized and all works out. Usually it does, sometimes not. It’s the risk you take.

Everyone jokes about meeting on Africa time. It’s such a different attitude about time that it takes some getting used to. If you want to do business in Africa you better calm down and accept that such is the way things work. Throw out those American ideas of punctuality and learn to slow down and relax.

Timeliness is cultural. In some cultures coming on time is the rude time to arrive. Showing up an hour or so late turns out to be on time.

If everyone comes from the same culture, no problem. All understand when 5 o’clock means 5 o’clock and when it means 6 or 7. But what about when people come from different cultures or have to work with those from different cultures. All kinds of bad things can happen from the misunderstanding that results.

It takes all of us to be always aware of cultural norms and how people bring these norms with them when they land in a different place. Sometimes the norms modify rapidly and before you know it they disappear as the person fully integrates into the new culture. Most of the time some of the norms modify but others hang around forever. It’s not a matter of consciously breaking the rules it’s the person unconsciously following deep set behaviors.

If you are the one traveling to new places, you become the offender. Keep it in mind, you too have your deeply held behaviors, behaviors you mostly aren’t conscious of. As a business person who wants to succeed it’s up to you to think this through and work to do what you can to act in appropriate ways wherever you find yourself.

Then there is the completely different idea of timeliness I once encountered on Air Botswana. The people at the hotel told me to make sure I got to the airport and through security at least and hour before the flight departure time. “Why?” I asked. “Because when they think everyone has arrived they will take off” was the answer.






Smells Fishy

I fly a lot. I fly on a variety of airlines and in all kinds of airplanes as I go to places as diverse as Tokyo and remote cities in Africa. This means I get to often experience the annoyance of getting through the airport, dealing with the airline counters, standing around squashed into the hoard waiting to board, and then…the airplane for hours and hours. It is not fun.

The reward is that I get to visit places around the world, often places that few travelers see. I get to meet amazingly interesting people in wildly differing circumstances. It’s fun after I get there. Until I have to fly home.

Yesterday I picked up a copy of the Wall Street Journal. At the bottom of the front page there was an article about air travel that caught my eye. It’s title? No Nose Dives: Airlines Hope A Scent Brings Relaxation, Bookings.

Airlines as a group have become expert at providing the most miserable conditions (especially if you are over 4 feet tall with a waist of more than 22 inches) for ever increasing prices while irritating you tremendously as they add one after the other extra fees on top of the base fare. I’ve noticed they’re ignoring the rapidly falling fuel prices but were quick to add “fuel surcharges” when the price went up. Some airlines still have these!

In the interests of improving the customer experience…stop laughing…it seems that they have decided to scent the cabins. This is so important that they either already have or in the process of creating their very own scents.

For some reason they think that this will relax you, create brand awareness, and encourage you to fly them more often. To quote Mike Henny, Delta Director of Customer Experience (they must be kidding), Delta wants its customers to be “as comfortable on board as possible, and have a positive association with their experience on Delta.” (surely kidding again)

Perhaps they should have Henny talk to the sadists who design the seats instead of adding scents and causing migraines for the many who are allergic to or even just annoyed by scents.

Customer Experience: the experience that you have as a customer. How do most companies go about improving Customer Experience? They listen to the complaints and watch the comments on social media. They research how make things better for their customers, how to remove or change the things that make them crazy…like baggage charges, change fees, and most importantly – getting squashed into a seat designed for an 8 year old. The ask their customers what they can improve, and they try and improve it.

Airlines have an advantage over other companies. Their customers are stuck. They have managed to create an oligopoly that decreases customer choice so have no particular need to listen to their customers. Unless you are someone who flies first class…and pays for the seat.

They’ve managed to segment their market into those who are stuck and those who are willing to pay anything to be unstuck. If you pay, you get a bed and fancy food. If not, you get a too tiny uncomfortable seat and crappy food.

To make those without feel just as relaxed and happy as those with, some airlines now let everyone share the scent. Customer Experience at its finest, unless you go into anaphylactic shock.





Do Nothing

For many the hardest thing to do – is nothing. Nothing, not a thing. For many it seems like you’re shirking your responsibility if the action you take is no action.

As Warren Buffett says, “the trick is, when there’s nothing to do, do nothing.” He is one of the few who has followed this advice as unlike him, so many are paid for action rather than results. So many forget that not doing anything is just as much a decision and an action as running around frenetically doing this and that without any thought to the value of the activity and how it will be better than just – doing nothing.

We have a bias to action, a bias towards movement. Movement for its own sake seems so much more productive that taking a rest and allowing things to play out of their own accord.

Managers feed this frenzy of useless, and even counterproductive, activity. How often have you rewarded someone or been rewarded for sitting calmly at your desk staring out the window thinking about the best response to something you’re watching over? How often have you told someone to just do something, anything, rather than wait to see what happens?

I’m not talking about doing nothing just to do nothing. We call that taking a nap. I’m talking about thinking things through and deciding that nothing is the right response, which it is more often than we realize. The problem is that to others doing nothing seems like you abdicated your responsibility to do something. They don’t realize that you’ve made a reasoned decision and your action is no action.

Since seeing Buffett’s comment quoted above, I’ve re-evaluated my propensity to act rather than do nothing. In my case it seems that it’s just so easy to act and so hard to sit on my hands. Yet as I’ve observed myself and tried to include doing nothing in my thought process I find that more often that you would imagine, nothing is the best choice. Nothing is not only the best choice but the one needing no resources at all to do it well. All is takes is self control and a willingness to explain that doing nothing has led to the best solution at the lowest cost.

Even better, doing nothing about some things has given me more time and energy to deal with those things that require real effort. I’m actually getting more done with better results by doing nothing more often. Take Warren Buffett’s advice, be tough and do nothing more often.


I spent the beginning of the year in Africa: Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana. I was there to co-lead a team advising the CEO of a very large public/private partnership agricultural program. We never stopped moving for 11 days during which we visited a collection of government ministers in Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire as well as the most recent past president of Ghana. Beyond that we were out in the field talking with small holder farmers as well as others in the agricultural infrastructure world.

Mostly we stayed in very decrepit hotels in poor areas with a nice hotel thrown in here and there. It’s the dry season so in addition to the heat we were in midst of unending dust so thick that you couldn’t get the taste out of your mouth. I’ve brought quite a bit of it back with me stuck to clothes and shoes.

As usual, I worked hard to pay attention not only to what we were told but also to everything else, to not only listen to the stories but to gather the feeling of the places, the energy, the story behind and underneath the story. Three countries, dozens of people of all kinds, long times in buses and vans on dirt roads, long conversations about things well beyond agricultural, and a visual panoply that stretched the mind.

Reflecting on all this a few things jelled in my mind. The most powerful one is the customer service exhibited by everyone. In the most downmarket hotel of the trip in a very poor area (where when my toilet broke they gave me a bucket to use for the day until it was fixed), the owner was spectacular. He was so helpful and accommodating that we put up with the rooms and general conditions without complaining. All his staff exhibited the same friendliness and helpfullness, often in spite of no language in common with us.

We found the same service everywhere we went. Mostly we were dealing with people lacking in education and training as we think of it in the business world. And yet, they exhibited skill with customers as good as any you’ll see anywhere. Certainly not the most sophisticated service but definitely at the top of the wanting to be helpful list.

I compare this to a very fancy hotel I was in a few months ago where when telling the front desk that I had just been stuck in an elevator and they needed to do something I was told “all our elevators are working” and then they went back to what they were doing.

The other thing that struck me is how in spite of what we would consider dire circumstances of deep poverty with limited opportunity, there is an energy and a hopefulness that they will find a way to improve their situation. Not everyone  of course, but many. The small holder farmers are excited about learning new ways to improve their yields and add a few new crops. They grab any opportunity and take full advantage of any help offered.

I never once heard “we can’t do that” or “it’s not how we do it here.” Instead they asked “what else can you tell us?”

As I ruminated on these two things I got wondering how this could be. Those with so little so good at customer service and so engaged in learning new things while so many I run into in the developed world are so lacking in these things.

It’s really hard to be poor. You work much harder and often much longer hours than those with good jobs and a nice middle class life. You appreciate everything much more and learn what to do to connect with people as connecting with people is the path to improving your situation. You learn how to show yourself to your best and take advantage of help offered. You watch carefully for new ideas. And you learn to do these things always.

Those with a much more well off life somehow often don’t seem to appreciate these things even thought they bring just as much to those with as to those without. I wound up thinking how odd it is that the path to better customer service and a more energetic and engaged workforce might be getting your people to think more like those without than like those with.


James Martin is an interesting fellow. He grew up in Plymouth Meeting Pennsylvania, a short drive from Birchrunville where I live. Another connection to me is that he started out with a business degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (I hold a Wharton MBA) and then went off to work in finance for General Electric for 6 or 7 years.  Then we went our separate ways as he became a Jesuit priest…and I didn’t.

Martin is a prolific writer, a wildly entertaining and humorous speaker, and quite the thinker on a variety of issues that have great bearing on improving your management skills. Recently I had the good fortune to hear him interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR.

Much of what he talked about had major implications for better management and improved business results. I was particularly struck by a story he shared about Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Jesuits. The story was all about the power of meeting people where they are. Where they are not meaning physically where they are but mentally where they are.

Most powerfully, it was about you meeting them where they are, not you expecting them to meet you where you are. Martin spoke eloquently and humorously about the power of being willing to listen to others, understand their situation and thinking, and modify your words and actions to connect with them…where they are.

Communication only happens when all the parties are willing to meet the others where they are. All the parties need to be willing to walk in the other person’s shoes, to understand how they got where they are, how it shaped their current beliefs and actions, and what this means for connecting with them and communicating effectively.

We all are where we are, a situation build from a confluence of all that went before, all we experienced. What comes next is built on this base. Great care needs to be taken to respect this history and use it as the basis for what is to come. Great care needs to be taken to start where they are and create a path forward the builds on rather than dismisses or ignores this history. Their history not yours.

All too often those in charge forget that it is their responsibility to meet their people where they are and guide them forward. It takes lots of listening, lots of understanding, lots of being willing to accept that others have different backgrounds, different experiences, different education, different abilities and skills. Different, not better or worse.

It’s up to you to meet them where they are and use the mutual understanding this generates to draw the path forward in ways that build on their history and lead them forward in ways that they can see and understand. In ways that connect with them fully, draw them in, excite them, and lead them to be fully engaged in the journey rather than dragged kicking and screaming down a path they don’t understand, that makes no sense to them, that ignores their history.

Listen to Ignatius of Loyola, and James Martin, meet them where they are.




Year end led to quite a few commentators, pundits, and random other people taking a look at how poorly others…never themselves it seems…were in their predictions for year end business matters. How far off were they about the price of oil, the ending stock index values, the value of this or that company, the success of one or another product, service, or even entire company. It seems that the year ended with large numbers of results that were nowhere near what was expected when the year began.

Everyone commenting has a plethora of reasons for why results are so far off from predictions. Mostly they focus on random things that happened that no one predicted. It turns out in their estimation it had nothing to do with poor planning, poor execution, more successful competitors, or a variety of things that they could have included in their original thinking about what was to come. It was due to random elements rather than lousy thinking.

Werner Heisenberg, one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics, captured the reality of what happened quite well. “In the strict formulation of the law of causality – if we know the present we can calculate the future – it is not the conclusion that is wrong but the premise.”

We find ourselves once again in the time of predictions for the coming year. Again we face a year of all kinds of random events that will impact the predictions in ways unforeseen. In spite of seeing how poorly their acting on the calculations about the future turned out…actually not always poorly since sometimes big mistakes do lead to unpredicted positive results…many will still act on these new predictions without looking at the basic assumptions they sit on.

It’s not just the assumptions themselves that need to be evaluated. Being prepared for what might come also means considering that once your assumptions are set they still can be wrong – really, really wrong. How would it have changed your thinking, and planning, if at the beginning of 2014 you had taken a serious look at the implications for your business of oil at US$50 a barrel? Would you have been ready to rapidly take advantage as soon as you saw the precipitous drop in price begin? Would you have been prepared with plans to cut quickly and so preserve cash or perhaps ramp up rapidly to take advantage of extra consumer spending ability.

As you enter the new year, be warned. As Heisenberg said, it’s the premise not the conclusion that should concern you.

As we end one year and enter the next…take a deep breath. Relax, reflect, and rejuvenate. Take a clarity break, enjoy the holidays, contemplate the year to come.

Start 2015 with a clear vision, the resolve to accomplish it, and the clarity and strength to communicate it clearly and follow the path that turns vision into reality.

But mostly, as we enter the new year….

Pay Attention • Add Value • Have Fun





The world oil price is crashing. Supply has increased dramatically at the same time as people have learned to use less. For many consumers of oil in any of its forms this has been a nice windfall as the year ends. For others, including those countries and companies dependent on high oil prices, it has been a disaster.

The economic and political result of this has global implications.

Watching this happen over the last few months has been an interesting experience. So many were so secure in their predictions of high and even higher oil prices combined with continuing high usage that they were totally unprepared for the rapid fall. So many were so sure of the world necessity for buying their oil that it never occurred to them that they could be replaced by other sources. So many tried to stop the future from coming in a failed attempt to maintain their position of wealth and power.

The same thing has been happening in other industries and with other belief systems. It amazes me how this can be in spite of everyone noticing the world changing event called the internet that has burst upon us all. They seem to think this was an anomaly, a one time event that interrupted their calm and predictable world, never to happen again.

And yet, we all know that these days the one thing predictable is change. And more change at a rapid pace. And then an even more rapid pace. And still, so many go forward ignoring this in their thinking about the future, in their planning, in their predicting what is to come and how it will affect them and their business.

Effective leadership requires taking the blinders off and thinking about the worst things that can happen…and how you will respond and take advantage of them. What if the prices collapse in your industry. What will you do? What if a terrorist detroys your place of business. What will you do? What if a totally disruptive technology takes over your industry. What will you do?

Not only will this get you thinking and planning for how you will respond and survive the event, it also gets you thinking about how to improve your business as you work to address possible disasters that might be just over the horizon. You’ll find out some things about your industry, your business, your people that you never realized and maybe come up with some new and disruptive ideas of your own.

Get ahead of the unknown coming at you. Become the distruptor rather than the disrupted. Be prepared for whatever might come. Get ready to flourish while many fall by the wayside.

Local Vision

The last Benari missive, Global Vision, was just what it sounds like, some thoughts on focusing globally and on Yohei Sasakawa who has done so and thus improved the world. Today I find myself thinking about the impact of focusing locally and how important it is to not forget that improving the world needs to include helping each person as an individual.

This morning I was part of a two person panel with Bob Madonna at a meeting of The MidAtlantic Consultants Network. The title of the event was Are You Comfortable Referring Others and Why? Bob and I wound up trading stories and ideas about meeting people, developing relationships, referrals, breakfast, and airports. We threw in some networking horrors and bad experiences as a counterpoint to the success stories. It has become a podcast so listen here and enjoy our stories.

I spent some time discussing my random nature, rapid movement, and how this impacts the way I connect with people and the records I keep. Bob chimed in with a few stories of his own of a similar way of acting. We disabused the audience of the need to be structured and rigid and assume you needed to follow a strict process to be successful at developing and maintaining great business relationships.

At the end someone came up to me and shared how happy he was that he had decided to come to hear the program. He then proceeded to tell me how I had changed his life.

It seems he is like me in many ways and has been making himself uncomfortable by forcing himself to abide by some rigid networking methodologies he heard were what you had to do to be successful. Since being uncomfortable isn’t the best way to make others feel comfortable and interested in connecting with you, he was having limited success.

During the program he hadn’t heard a word from either of us about structure other than a few thoughts about writing some things down so you remember them. Instead he heard about how to act like a normal person interested in whoever you meet and be comfortable and natural in your interactions with others. No special sauce, just an honest interest in learning about whoever you’re talking to while not pushing yourself and your needs into their face.

He was excited that he could be himself and be successful, probably more successful at establishing relationships good for business purposes. I was so pleased that I had agreed to speak to this small, local organization where I could have such an impact on someone in such a short time.

Local focus where you can help people one at time. Local focus where you can interact in personal ways that reach people deeply and leave them better off than they were before you met. Local focus as a counterpoint to global vision. Helping the world improve one by one on your way to having a large effect as each person you touch goes off to touch others in a better way leaving those they touch better off than they were before.

Whatever your resources you have the ability to make a difference. Sometimes I notice those in positions of power and authority get so focused on the global that they forget the individual. It takes thinking about both to have the biggest impact. One without the other is weaker than both together. The best leaders know how to share and implement the global vision in a way that touches each person individually. Just like successful networking it all starts by thinking first of them and allowing their success to drive you forward. When all are driving forward together…think what that will do for your organization.

Steve Smolinsky, left, and Bob Madonna, discussing effective business networking at the December 8, 2014 MACN meeting.

Global Vision

Oddly, after writing the last missive about my stress from the technology upgrades and migrations that are going on in my life, Old Brain…New Tricks, I encountered an even more stressful situation on my trip to Tokyo a few days ago. So as to not bore those of you who peruse my personal blog notes on my travels and my random thoughts along the journey, I won’t repeat the story here but suggest you take a look at US Airways Cancelled Me!

Luckily I did manage to get to Tokyo where I am participating in the Global Alumni Meeting of the United Nations – Nippon Foundation of Japan Fellowship Program. This Fellowship Program is dedicated to creating a community of world leaders working to improve the conditions of the world ocean while fairly and peacefully addressing the myriad issues surrounding ocean use and policy. I have the great honor and fun of leading part of the event.

We’re celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the program. Almost the entire alumni of the program have managed to get here from over 50 countries. It is an inspiring group showing how with a positive global vision a leadership group from countries often at great odds with each other can come together in comity and produce results that integrate nations and people for the common good of all.

The Nippon Foundation is a wonderful organization. It is dedicated to the mission of social innovation to achieve a global society where all support each other to reduce the burdens and challenges they face. Talk about a huge global vision.

These days the Chairman is Yohei Sasakawa, son of the founder and first Chairman Ryoichi Sasakawa. The vision created by Ryoichi Sasakawa and now carried forward by Yohei Sasakawa has improved the lives and conditions for not just large numbers of people but also for the nations of the entire world. Think about the imagination and strength of conviction it took to dream so big and then create an institution dedicated to fulfilling this vision, a vision that will take an unknown number of years, decades, perhaps centuries to come to completion.

I have had the great honor and pleasure of spending time talking with Yohei Sasakawa. What stands out most in speaking with him is his deep belief in the vision of creating a better world for all.

We talk about vision in the business world all the time. Rarely do I run into business leaders who have created a vision of great breath and reach. Even rarer are those who have so internalized this vision that it truly guides all they do and sets a path for years to come.

There’s an interesting thing about vision. Businesses tend to achieve the vision that guides them. Have a small vision and achieve small things. Have a big vision and achieve big things. This doesn’t mean that you always achieve all you hope for but it does mean that the bigger you dream the more you are likely to achieve.

The bigger the dream and the more you live it, the more it captures the imagination of those whose help you need to reach it. Channel Yohei Sasakawa. Dream big. Paint a picture that causes people to catch their breath when they think about it. Live it, breath it, share it widely.

Who knows, you too might wind up creating something that improves the entire world. Now there’s a vision to inspire your people.


Nippon FoundationYohei SasakawaYohei Sasakawa


Due to the ongoing attempt to move all my technology into the cloud and integrate it fully with my various social media activities, I have been quite stressed over the last couple of weeks. This is happening at the same time as work proceeds on getting my soon to be video channel read to launch. More stress. Much of what the various people working on these activities are doing is well beyond my area of competence…or even understanding. Yet more stress. For reasons beyond me, I agreed to get all this moving a few weeks before I will spend a week in Tokyo for the United Nations – hopefully with email and access to various documents and such working so I can keep all my activities going and my clients happy. Need I say, immense stress?

All this stress has me thinking about old brains learning new tricks and the impact it is having on me.

I have the great good fortune to have an exceptional person helping me drive all this forward: Laura Walton, Founder of Talk Show Connections. She combines exceptional technical knowledge and ability with amazing expertise in ensuring executives with no video experience star in great videos for marketing and other purposes. And she figured out that treating me like a three year old in the process is exactly right.

In spite of Laura’s support and the extensive time she and the others have put into my project, with so many moving parts – as you certainly expect – it is taking awhile to get everything updated and integrated while various video and channel creation activities are going on and I am continuing to think, create, and re-design in the midst of it all so am causing changes and delays. Thus my stress.

I’ve realized that the stress comes from several different places. One is what I think of as the normal business stress created by working to get a complex system performing perfectly. I’ve been dealing with this as I normally do so it doesn’t worry me much. Another stress comes from participating in a business activity where I know little about how it works and have to totally depend on the experts. Again, this is what most of my consulting with senior executives entails so I have learned to ignore the stress created by not knowing and trust those who know for the technical details.

Then there’s that other stress, the one that comes from realizing that I have to learn a collection of new skills that fall far outside the kind of things that lie in my comfort zone. I am not very technological both by background and by inclination. Now I find myself being coached and educated about all kinds of nitty gritty details about my systems and social media that often make no sense to me. Me, Mr Big Picture now turned into Mr Tiny Detail.

It is stressful.

As part of my personal therapy to overcome my stress, I decided to write about this instead of the usual leadership or management issues you usually see here. Thank you for helping with this. Perhaps you’ll read a few words helpful to you in decreasing your stress.

The mere activity of thinking it through and turning it into a reasoned (hopefully) overview of what is going on has the amazing ability to defuse the stress significantly. Not totally, as knowing leads to lessening but not erasure.

Lessening leads to the ability to more calmly consider the situation and focus on the end result and how absolutely wonderful it is going to be instead of focusing on the aggravation of the journey. The mind needs to retreat from the focus on the difficulty and the fear of the unknown that the stress feeds on so it can rationally consider the situation and evaluate the value…which is immense in this case.

Once able to think more clearly and understand the underpinnings of the stress and irrationality of giving in to it, the physical discomfort it causes jumps out. The mind and the body feed each other. It’s either a destructive loop or a virtuous loop. The choice is yours.

So mind moved towards calmness and body tenseness identified, I took a very, very long walk through the woods, up and down the hills, around the countryside of Birchrunville. A clarity break. The mind soars, the body relaxes, the stress dissapates.

I return energized and enthusiastic about what is to come. It’s hard to remember what created all the angst that led to this story.

Rejuvention is a wonderful thing. A better future awaits.


Ernesto Sirollo is an amazing man. For decades he has roamed the world helping budding entrepreneurs find the resources they need to launch successful businesses. Mostly he operates in remote locations working with local people who never thought of themselves as entrepreneurs. He helps rural farmers in Africa improve their farms so they can produce enough to both feed their families and sell and so improve their farms further…and their lives, helps craftsmen turn a personal love and expertise into a thriving business, helps fisherman figure out how to get a premium price for their catch.

He’s figured out how to help regular people take what they know and use their own resources to turn it into something better that leads to increased production, better sales and marketing, and thus, increased income and all that leads to for those in marginal economic situations.

Some years ago he wrote a book, Ripples from the Zambezi:Passion, Entrepreneurship, and the Rebirth of Local Economies. This book describes his experiences in Africa. In a recent article by Sally Helgesen in Strategy + Business, The Entrepreneurship Coach, she shares some of Sirollis’s ideas and his three essential messages about economic development.

“First, all effective development ideas need to come from local people rather than ‘experts,’ no matter how well-meaning or informed these experts might be. Second, most efforts to motivate people are fruitless; rather, those trying to help local enterprise must wait until entrepreneurs ask for help, then connect them with the resources they need. And third, entrepreneurs should never be encouraged to act in isolation on their dreams, because doing so will increase their chances of failure and cause them to question their own capacities.”

Forget the experts and ask the local people, those who know most about what they want and need. Forget about trying to motivate those who aren’t interested and focus your efforts on helping those who want help. People don’t succeed on their own but need to build a team around themselves.

As I read these three simple ideas for building successful entrepreneurs, it struck me: these are the same mistakes so often made in the business world. Bring in experts to give you the solution…without involving those who know most about what’s going on and what they need, waste lots of effort on motivating everyone rather than building a crew of people who are looking for and welcoming support. Praise and reward an individual for something which required a team to do.

This leads to a very simple idea: listen. Forget all the consultants, just listen to your people. They know what they need. They know what is working well, and what isn’t. They know when they need help. And by listening and addressing what you hear and then supporting and enabling them to get the advice and tools they need to succeed, they will. No outside motivation required.

Much wisdom remains hidden and unspoken for a simple reason. You never asked.


Last missive, Open or Closed, accidentally used Election Day in the United States as a lead in to what I really wanted to write about: the impact of doubt versus certainly. If you haven’t read it or don’t remember it, go back and read Open or Closed before reading further.

Here we are, exactly a week since the election. I find myself again starting off with thoughts about the election. By now the entire world knows that all the pollsters and pundits should be out looking for work. A zillion polls and pseudo intellectual discourses on exactly what was going to happen and why…and none of them were close to the final results. Even on the eve of the election, forecasts for the very next day were embarrassingly inaccurate.

Pollsters have been refining their methodology for years. They have the latest technology slicing and dicing the electorate every way imaginable. There are reams of statistics from past elections to aid them in building their predictive models. They have the best political minds (or so those minds claim) to add a last bit of seasoning to the mix.

And still they were embarrassingly inaccurate.

I’ve heard a number of the pollsters explaining why they were wrong. I suppose they are trying to convince future customers it wasn’t their fault the electorate did what they wanted instead of what was predicted. I wonder if they understand that now that the election is over pretty much no one cares what they say in their defense.

They blew it.

Predicting the future is difficult no matter how much current and historic data you have to feed into your algorithms. Who predicted these were coming: Ebola? The rise of IS in the Middle East? Google or Facebook?

Once they began to develop traction, the difficulty of predicting lessened, lessened but did not disappear or even approach certainty. The whims of the universe are always out there, sometimes with huge effect, sometimes with small effect. Always with some effect.

Yet I run into executives who seem to think their predictions of the future are certain. They act on their predictions without regard for countervailing facts or noticing that as they move forward the world around them in changing. Changing rapidly.

I see projections by people who haven’t bothered to put some worst case/best case parameters around them. Something happens and they are totally unprepared. Totally unprepared is just as bad if business suddenly takes off as if it falls off a cliff. No one knows what to do in either case.

Reminds me of something I read recently: Open or Closed. Doubt leads to conversation, questioning, the search for more and better information, and most importantly, keeping your eyes open and your brain thinking…and preparing for whatever may come. Certainty now, certainty leads to waking up finding your world has changed and you aren’t sure what to do.





Open or Closed!

It happens to be Election Day in the United States the day this goes out. I would be remiss in my civic duty if I therefore didn’t start by reminding you that your vote does count. And…if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain about what happens. Saying they are all the same is really a sign of Confident Ignorance on your part. Confident Ignorance as saying they are all the same really means you haven’t spent any time thinking about the candidates and discovering what they really believe and have done, but have bought into the mass of punditry based on personal bias or economic gain.

I always find it interesting that the majority of Americans live in the center of the political spectrum. As a country we’re moderate people who really would like to see competent elected officials working together to come up with solutions that we all can accept. Not too much this way or too much that way.

Then there are the rabid partisans who occupy the ends of the political spectrum. The take no prisoner crowd. The compromise is losing crowd. The my way or the highway crowd.

There turn out to be many less of these rabid partisans than most people believe. They just scream the loudest and suck up all the oxygen in the debate. And their methods are destructive rather than constructive. The rest of us suffer the consequences.

Who votes? The rabid. Who sits home? The rest of us.

Make a difference. Get out and vote. Even if you feel it’s the lessor of two evils, at least you’ve moved us away from the worst that can happen. And these days, every little bit helps.


You can’t see this, but I just sat and looked at what just flowed without pause into this missive. It really isn’t what I was thinking about when I sat down to write. And yet, it turns out to be a great introduction to what I actually wanted to share.

Cliff Story, he of Story’s Garage, is quite the Philosopher Mechanic. When I take my SAAB to visit his little cinder block garage sitting in the woods surrounded by dead SAABs, we’ve gotten into spending a bit of time figuring out how to make the world a better place.

A few days ago he shared this with me: “Doubt is a conversation; certainty is a closed door,” Bill Maher. Yes, it was in response to my last missive, Beware the Confident Ignorant.

As you expect, this led to our discussing how in the business world so many problems come from those convinced of rightness of their ideas in spite of everything, even much evidence to the contrary. When you run into someone coming from a position of certainty, there is no conversation for how can you discuss something with someone convinced they have the final answer?

Doubt now, doubt is a wonderful thing. Doubt opens up the opportunity for thoughtful discourse. Doubt leads to the opportunity for sharing of ideas, for looking for new and different information, for a coming together of people to build a common understanding.

Doubt often leads to growth while certainly often is a dead end.

Beware certainty, in business or politicians. Beware those who are so set in their beliefs that they are unwilling to hear other viewpoints. Beware those who in their arrogance have closed their minds to the ideas and interests of others.

Josh Billings once said, “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

These days political discourse, media, the internet, and millions of private conversations fall into the last part of that quote. People are acting on things they know for sure but which just ain’t true. Even worse, many are in positions where their acting on things that are incorrect leads to bad results not only for them but also for the rest of us. And, yes, this is happening in your organization.

At Cornell University psychologists David Dunning, Stav Atir, and Emily Rosenzweig spend a lot of time researching the phenomenon of why those with the least knowledge are often the most confident in their ideas about things they know nothing about. It turns out that incompetent people…those with the least knowledge and expertise about a subject…cannot recognize how incompetent they are.

This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect as it was first documented in research David Dunning and Justin Kruger published in 1999 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. When you think about it, it makes sense. After all, as Dunning says “for poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack.”

While this winds up being an ongoing joke in the Lie Witness News segment of the late night show Jimmie Kimmel Live, the effect on your organization is no laughing matter. Poor performers exhibiting the Dunning-Kruger Effect will have absolute confidence in the totally wrong decisions they make. It will never occur to them to get advice or second opinions before making decisions that can lead to disastrous results.

My guess is as you read this most of you are recalling things that people in your organization have done that to you, with greater knowledge in the area, were inconceivable. Those of you with children who have just gotten their drivers licenses live if fear of this every day. The brand new driver is totally secure in their complete ability to drive while you hope they survive accident free long enough to actually gain the expertise to be a competent driver.

How can we recognize our own ignorance? How can we address the problem in others? It’s not easy.

First off, practice saying “I don’t know.” These seem to be among the hardest words for most people to say. Not only does saying these words lead to gathering ideas from others, some of whom might just have the necessary knowledge, but it also leads others to understand that it’s okay not to know everything. No one does.

Test everything. Think about how your idea might be incorrect. Think about what else you might do. Think about how your idea can lead to failure. Consider the down side of you decisions. Keep your internal devil’s advocate sitting on your shoulder.

Ask other people their thoughts on the subject. They might have just as many misconceptions as you but the process of discussion can clear up lots of things. At the very least, it might lead to the decision to go find an actual expert in the topic and get their opinion before acting on misconception rather than accurate information.

Be aware that we all suffer from Dunning-Kruger Effect to some degree. It’s hard not to. We all have beliefs not based in fact that come from our families, culture, religion, poor education, screaming talking heads, self defined internet experts, and lots of other places.

Fight back. End the Dunning-Kruger Effect.


Read the article by David Dunning that got me thinking about this: We Are All Confident Idiots.


« Older entries § Newer entries »