Those Pesky Assumptions

Posted by Steve C on November 19, 2010 under The Blog | Be the First to Comment

Want to break free of the box. Start becoming more aware of and challenging the assumptions you are holding.

For years we have included outdoor team experiential activities in our leadership programs to help participants learn by doing. When developing a strategy to solve a perplexing problem, it is fascinating to watch how often they make assumptions that derail their efforts. Three of the most common types of assumptions are 1) adding constraints which do not exist, 2) making unfounded judgments about team member capabilities, and 3) refusing to attempt a given course of action because they are convinced (with no real supporting data) it will not work.

Do any of these sound familiar in the workplace? You probably would agree they are all alive and well.

Let me offer an idea for you to think about which can help you deal with this. When working with groups about strategic or other important decisions, I remind them that statements can fall into several categories – assumptions, opinions, facts, and recommendations to name a few. I encourage them to dig deep when they hear important statements, to become aware of which category the statement falls into. It is amazing how a well articulated opinion or assumption can sound like a fact! It is also amazing to see how quickly teams make progress when they cordially challenge each other to defend notions or assumptions with evidence.

Some assumptions are valid – with no programming background, it is probably a good bet that I am not the go-to guy on identifying and correcting bad code. However, many assumptions are not. So when you hear comments such as, “this cannot be done” or “the customer won’t like that,” make sure you verify the truth. Otherwise, your efforts will also get derailed as you eliminate possible solid solutions for no sound reasons.



Stop and Reflect

Posted by Steve C on August 13, 2010 under The Blog | Be the First to Comment

I was recently at a leadership conference which included a variety of keynote speakers, one of whom was the well-known author, Marshall Goldsmith. Marshall shared with us that he is a Buddhist and more specifically one who follows the philosophy or discipline (my words) of Be Happy Now. I am unfamiliar with Buddhism, but thought I understood Marshall to say, that the term Buddhist is not very telling by itself until you know which philosophy or school of thought (my words again) the individual is living. But I digress.

Inspiring speakers have a way of moving their audiences and when he offered up the advice of Be Happy Now, there were a number who were indeed inspired. After his talk I overheard several talking as if they had finally found the secret of life.

Now, my intuition tells me there is much more to a philosophy like this, than three simple words. I have no idea what this really means to Marshall, but my guess is he has spent years deeply reflecting on its true meaning and importance to him.

But it was quite interesting to see the reaction of many in the audience. It was as if, “this must be right because Marshall said it was. My problems are now gone and now I can get on with life.”

Here is the Nobox implication of my story. The box often says don’t question, especially profound statements made by experts. Be a sheep, say “baa” and lumber along with the flock. But leaders say, wait a minute, let me think about that. (Kind of like Marshall has been doing.) And they consider a variety of options and ultimately decide on what they believe is best, whether it is a life philosophy or engaging in a new process. They do not just mindlessly follow, as if in a hypnotic trance.

Don’t ever be afraid to stop and reflect. Don’t ever renege from making a courageous decision to break away from the pack when it is called for.

By the way if you are wondering if Marshall was trying to sell his philosophy or religion, you would be wrong. He was not. He was disclosing some fascinating and sometimes personal things about himself and his lessons learned over the years. Ironically, much of what I took from his talk was to think for yourself and work on your own issues. (He is a very successful coach, after all). My guess is he would appreciate those, who a few days later, are still pondering his words.


The Black Swan Box

Posted by Steve C on July 1, 2010 under The Blog | Be the First to Comment

When we wrote the book, There Is No Box, we referred to the proverbial box as that set of long-held assumptions and limitations, which stifled peoples’ thinking about what they were capable of, or what was possible. Real growth leaders learned to ignore it, and found ways to do the impossible almost everyday. But ignoring the box, no longer simply applies to organizational growth, it can also apply to events which have significant and unfortunate consequences.

There is a term that occasionally pops up these days, called the black swan. You can Google it for the exact definition, but my layman’s description is an event that has a virtually impossible chance of occurring, but if it does, the consequences can be catastrophic. Whether official examples or not, two that come to mind for me are 9/11 and the economic crisis. What are the chances that terrorists could commandeer planes and take down the twin towers and a chunk of the pentagon? And what are the chances that the mortgage default rate could suddenly erupt, at the same time more securities were being offered based on those worthless mortgages, and that several of the rock solid financial institutions would literally fail overnight? Get the picture? Experts would say the chances of everything falling into place for these events to occur was slim to none. But they did.

And now we are all aware of a 3rd example. It was considered virtually impossible for the oil platform in the gulf to explode and even if it did, even more impossible for much damage to occur to the coastline, given the power of the ocean to virtually consume the free-flow of oil. Well, we all now different now, don’t we.

Here is the message: Events that are simply not supposed to happen seem to be happening more and more everyday. You cannot remain stuck in the box of denial, ignoring the chances of catastrophes such as these ever being able to happen. The traditional box might say they won’t, but recent history tells us they will. One wonders if BP and partners were indeed stuck in that box, and simply could not comprehend that the mess occurring today could ever happen. Let’s just say, if they cut back on or overlooked anything that in some way contributed to the explosion and spill, that will turn out to be the most costly, cost-saving measure ever taken – ever!

The standards for diligence are soaring, and you must be very vigilant about your cost-cutting or efficiency efforts. What conventional wisdom says is enormously unlikely to lead to something disastrous, might in fact end up crippling you permanently, or at best for years to come. You might find it useful to ignore the box, re-open your eyes toward any black swans lurking in your organization, and begin thinking about and acting on them with a different sense of urgency.


The Risky Shot

Posted by Steve C on March 29, 2010 under The Blog | Be the First to Comment

It is March as I write this and the NCAA basketball tournament is now down to its “Final Four” teams. Every year there are remarkable stories and this year is no different, especially with all the upsets. This year there was actually a special shot that caught my attention, and generated a host of controversy. It occurred in the final minute of Northern Iowa’s upset of number one seeded Kansas.

Northern Iowa led by one point and in-bounded the ball. There was a little over 30 seconds left in the game. Conventional wisdom ordered Northern Iowa to keep the ball moving, burn a bunch of time off the clock, and force Kansas to foul them. Control the ball and the clock. That was the best strategy to win.

So what happened. Northern Iowa’s Ali Farokhmanesh got the ball on his side of the court and immediately took a daring shot from three-point range. Ali had a pretty hot hand all day and apparently decided why not. If he made it, the points would virtually ice the game. If he missed, it would not be a pretty picture. None of his team mates were under the basket to rebound the ball, meaning Kansas would get the ball and be in a great position to hit take the last shot to win the game. Fortunately Ali made the shot, and the Northern Iowa David slew the Kansas Goliath.

So here is what created the stir about this shot. Was he an idiot for not following conventional basketball strategy, or was he a genius for taking an open shot that he had great confidence he could make. Had he missed, the stories about Ali would have no doubt contained the word goat much more than hero.

let’s move beyond the basketball court and into the workplace. One of the key challenges for businesses today is Innovation, and innovation requires risk-taking. Conventional Wisdom argues for following well established procedures and staying safe. But success and staying safe are not always convenient bedfellows in today’s world. So leaders, are you grooming people who are confident enough to put their reputations on the line to win? Are you giving people the leeway to make some risky decisions, when they have proven capable to do so? Do you want people with the guts to “take the risky shot” of innovation? Are you strong enough to take the hit, if they miss?

I’ll let you decide if Ali was right or wrong. But remember this. You will not always be successful when aiming for innovation. Your people will miss and disappointment (and unfortunately second guessing, criticizing and blaming) will occur. Yet, there will be times when you do hit the jackpot after deliberately making a controversial, risky decision, assuming you have people willing to step up and make the attempt in the first place.

You must always do your homework and never fly off half-cocked, but sometimes you have to simply go for it, in order to end up on top. Good luck and hopefully you will hit more than you miss.


Be Cool

Posted by Steve C on January 5, 2010 under The Blog | Be the First to Comment

Steven Jobs was recently identified by HBR as the best performing CEO in the world. Since he returned to Apple in 1997, Apple’s market value has increased by $150 billion. You can read about some of the other metrics that earned him this notable accomplishment.

When people think about Apple, a number of descriptions may come to mind, but for me one of them has to be “cool.” They produce cool stuff. Their stores are cool. A lot of their “Apps” are cool. Who knows, maybe people themselves feel a bit more cool, just by doing business with the company. All of this has contributed to Apple’s sustained growth and financial performance.

I have always believed that cool sells. Of course there has to be value, but all things equal, cool products out sell comparable ones which are seen as plain or simply functional. And today there are a lot of cool products in the world – from eye and ear popping home theater systems to elegant and easy to use cork screws.

But can all products in some fashion be cool? Let’s see, have you ever heard of a cool CD offered by a bank? How about a cool homeowner’s insurance policy? Maybe there are. However, whether it is a box of staples or a financial instrument, it will be very difficult for some products to ever make it on the cool train.

So here is the question you might find interesting to kick around a bit. Regardless of product, what can you do to raise your cool factor? (Don’t immediately start justifying why being cool is not appropriate for you or your business – just go with it.) What might Mr. Jobs or those quirky people from Apple do if they were in your business? And never forget that just because a product may never be cool, service and relationships certainly can be. And those two areas might be the most fertile opportunities for your pursuit of coolness. Don’t let your definition of cool be limited to magical technology or slick packaging. Cool can be a lot of different things.

In 2010, we challenge you to liberate your brains with some no box thinking about cool possibilities. The world economy could use a boost from creative and innovative ideas, and doing something cool is always personally rewarding as well. And who knows, one day even a trip to the dentist office, the bank, a big-box discounter or yes, even the department of motor vehicles might turn into a thrilling, hip experience.

Best Wishes,


Space Tourism Update

Posted by Steve C on December 9, 2009 under The Blog | Be the First to Comment

OK, check this out. – from

On a cold and windy night at the Mojave Air and Space Port, the VSS Enterprise was unveiled to the public tonight. Attached to its mother ship, the vehicle better known as SpaceShipTwo is expected to be the first commercial spacecraft when it enters service with Virgin Galactic.

SpaceShipTwo was built by Scaled Composites under the guidance of legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan. Rutan didn’t specify when flight testing for SpaceShipTwo would begin, though it is expected to start early next year.

Sub-orbital passenger flights could start as early as 2011 from Virgin Galactic’s space port in New Mexico which is currently under construction. Tickets for the early adopters are $200,000 for a training program culminating with the ride into space. Both Rutan and Virgin Galactic founder, Sir Richard Branson have repeatedly said they expect the prices to drop rapidly similar to many new technologies, including the early days of air travel.

In our book, we featured the nobox innovator, Burt Rutan, and his bold vision of “Space Tourism.” We have been keeping an eye on his progress and one day this adventure may become common place and affordable for the Gen X’ers and younger. Achieving his feat will not be a cakewalk, but it has clearly moved beyond the realm of far-fetched fantasy into near-term reality.

Amazing what can happen when you cast off the shackles of the box.


Addressing Underage Drinking

Posted by Steve C on November 9, 2009 under The Blog | Be the First to Comment

After writing a book about letting go of tired ways of thinking in order to find or create answers in new and different ways, I have come across a lot of examples. It is very enjoyable to discover these entertaining, even inspiring stories. But what I love most is having my own point of view rattled by novel, perhaps even crazy sounding ideas.

I came upon one of those ideas which I would have laughed off a few weeks ago. Now it has me quite intrigued. It has prompted me to think about an important issue in a very unusual, perhaps even unsettling way. Read on and see what you think.

My 16-year old daughter recently completed a research paper on underage drinking. (When teenagers and drinking are in the same sentence, it is usually not a good thing!) In a nutshell, she wrote about a previously conceived idea supporting a kind of drinking “permit” for those who are 18 – 20. Modeled after driver’s education, the young adults would go through some kind of training program to better understand the responsibilities and risks of drinking. Then perhaps they would be provided some kind of smart ID card, which would have to be scanned in order for them to purchase drinks. There would be restrictions, to ensure they could not abuse the privilege.

She included a number of research findings about the causes and consequences of binge drinking, DUI’s and other problems associated with underage drinking, in order to make a reasonable case. I am not here to review the validity or her research or make the point that you should agree with the position about which she wrote. Because the bottom line is, who knows if it would work? And it is that very question – “who knows” – that IS the point! It is the question which all growth leaders must ultimately confront and answer. And as leaders, they know that finding that answer is never risk free.

Can you imagine how outrageous this idea might seem? Let’s see, drinking education classes. Does that include hands on practice? “Mom, Dad – I am taking this class and for homework, I have to drink 3 beers and a couple of tequila shooters.” Boy, this would surely be one of the most popular courses at high school and college, at least for the kids. And you can already envision the tidal wave of protest from parents, barking that people would have to be out of their minds to offer or condone such an idiotic program.

But what if it worked? What if it did greatly reduce binge drinking at college? What if the mystique of drinking was eliminated, so young adults learned early on to drink more responsibly? What if drinking and driving accidents with 18 – 20 year olds dropped substantially? Hmm, perhaps this should give us pause after all.

I personally am glad there are education programs to better equip kids to drive a car. Driving is no laughing matter. People die when things go wrong. The same is true for drinking. Would a drinking education program help? Who knows? But what we do know is that attempting nothing different will absolutely never provide solutions to the known problems.

Although I have to learn more before choosing sides, my eyes are now opened to a new way of looking at the issue. And fresh eyes are a starting point for many great innovations.

Fortunately, I still have a couple of years before my daughter turns 18 and I have to worry about the impact of this idea on her – and me. (How’s that for hiding in the box!)


The Spin Box

Posted by Steve C on September 25, 2009 under The Blog | Be the First to Comment

On my first trip overseas some twenty years ago, I faced a dilemma at the Frankfurt airport. I was connecting from Berlin on the way to the UK, and my luggage did not show up on the carousel. I had to retrieve it from the Berlin flight and then re-check it for the UK leg. What a bad time for my bags to get lost – in a massive airport where a different language was spoken. Needless to say, I was a bit unsettled.

As I walked over to the customer service desk of the German airline on which I had arrived, I was trying to recall how to say “my luggage is lost” in German. I knew the phrase was something like, “mein gepack ist verloren,” but what would happen when the agent started asking me more questions about it “auf Deutsch.”

But something remarkable happened. She took my passport and before I uttered one word, she said to me, “how may I help you” in flawless English. I was comforted and relieved to hear my language spoken.

Although there are many languages around the world, I have learned that there is a single language of leadership – and that language is called the Truth. It is not spin, deception or cloaked truth, it is the pure and simple truth (which I believe Oscar Wilde once said is seldom pure or simple). This language seems to be forgotten more and more these days, and it is causing confusion, uncertainty, even anger.

Here is a recent example. In Ohio, voters will be able to vote on a casino issue in the upcoming election. Like all issues, this has its supporters and opponents. The Cincinnati Enquirer recently published side by side pleas from each side as a means of clarifying the issues. The opponents stated in black and white – passage of this issue will prevent churches from offering Monte Carlo nights or other related fund raisers. They also clearly stated that the casinos would be exempt from paying state income taxes on cash transactions. The supporters, in black and white, said just the opposite.

My questions as a voter – what is the truth? Passage either will or will not make church functions illegal, or will require a tax on all income or not. What is the truth?

Personally, I am sick of all the manipulative, deceiving messages put forth by so called public leaders today. You only need to hear the words health care and you get the point.

There seems to be a communications box today that preaches the only way of influencing others, is to do whatever you can to get your point across in the way you want it heard. So, if you leave important points out, remove meaningful context, or simply spin the message in remarkable, yet deceiving ways, no problem! Well, it is a problem and everyone knows it. Who designed that rulebook? And why do so many people subscribe to it?

So leaders, you must be willing to break free from the spin box and tell the truth. Although Jack Nicholson’s character Colonel Jessep might believe that “you can’t handle the truth,” the best leaders believe you can. And speaking the truth is the only way the real problems can ever be solved in the best way for the common good.


Getting Drop Outs Back To School

Posted by Steve C on August 14, 2009 under The Blog | Be the First to Comment

Just came across a program that had a little of that No Box spirit to it.

What do think it would feel like to be 21 years old and in high school? Sounds like a prescription for some serious ribbing, if not public humiliation. So check this out. The Gateway to Success program is a partnership of Cincinnati’s Great Oaks Institute of Technology and Career Development and other colleges around the Cincinnati area. Here is the premise. There are kids that drop out of high school, and a few years later want to come back and get their diplomas after all. Since it is very difficult for the schools to assimilate the older kids, as well as potentially embarrassing for the returning students, simply re-enrolling in a high school is not a good solution.

So through Gateway to Success, classes are offered at the local college campuses, in the college environment, with other students of comparable ages. So now, if the older kids are asked if they are in school and where they are going, they can say Cincinnati State, or UC (University of Cincinnati) or one of the other partner schools. Kids can complete their high school work in a much more conducive, empowering environment.

There are real hurdles in the decision to go back for a high school diploma. The stress of school itself and ongoing financial challenges for a young adult are just two of them. But that giant emotional barrier – the risk of humiliation – is now eliminated, thus making it easier for drops outs to drop back in, which most would agree is a very good thing.

Bravo to all the organizations involved in this endeavor. And bravo to the kids for taking that big step forward in their lives.


Flying From the Box

Posted by Steve C on August 3, 2009 under The Blog | Be the First to Comment

Here is another one of those, “you won’t believe this” kind of stories. Ever heard of Jessica Cox. Her story has been making the rounds during the past few months. Jessica is a pilot. So are lots of other people. Here is the punch line. How many of those other pilots have no arms?

That’s right Jessica, who was born without arms, is the only pilot licensed to fly using only her feet. But what the heck. I guess once you have learned to do things such as put in contact lenses or play the piano with your feet, what’s the big deal about flying? I am sure her flight instructor knew immediately she was up for the task, when she drove herself to her lessons.

There is no need to retell her entire story here. You can Google her or check out a YouTube video about her at

But I think you will agree, she certainly has that No Box mindset and spirit. There is probably an endless number of reasons why her flying achievement would be considered impossible, including my favorites, “no one has ever done that before,” or “it simply cannot be done by someone like her.” But she obviously refused to let anyone or anything box her in, including a couple of missing limbs. And now she is flying high.

So Jessica, you go girl and thank you for being a role model. And for those of you reading this, I encourage you to re-look at some of your favorite excuses as to what is holding you back from something great. Hopefully, her accomplishment will inspire all of us to break free from the box and go for our dreams in dramatic new ways, rather than just trying to conjure up some better excuses!