The Initiative Generation

On top of Max Patch

Leadership is a product of personal initiative.  

It is a decision, a thought process, an act of the will, and an expression of identity and personality.

However, for initiative to constitute leadership, it also demands that it produce change, a change that matters, a change that makes a difference, a change that advances toward a goal.

The context for change is almost always some group of people socially connected around an idea that matters to them.

This is a basic understanding of what leadership is becoming in the 21st century. It is different than in the past because it is not based on wealth, social class, educational credentials, national origin, religious preference, geographic location or organizational title, position or rank.  

This new sort of leadership is based on personal initiative, social connection and the desire to make a difference. As a result, it is a kind of leadership that anyone can do.

Therefore, I think it is safe to say that, 

Passive followership is over; Personal initiative for impact is in. 

The implications of this shift are significant. If you are the senior executive leader of an organization, it means that the game of recruiting talent is changing.

This is an ongoing conversation that I'm having with Gretchen Zucker, Executive Director of Ashoka's Youth Venture. Recently, she gave a presentation on Talent for the 21st Century. She, graciously, shared her presentation with me for this blog post.

Gretchen points out that

"8 million jobs have been lost since 2008 in the US; nonetheless, employers are still having difficulty filling jobs with the right talent." 

She quotes Robert Litan of the Kauffman Foundation.

Between 1980 and 2005, virtually all net new jobs created in the U.S.were created by firms that were 5 years old or less. That is about 40 million jobs.

Who is creating these new businesses and the jobs that follow?

People who take initiative, are socially connected, and have a clear purpose that drives their desires to make a difference.  The difference though is in the numbers.

While there may be a long history of small business in the US, entrepreneurism did not become the world changing movement that it is until about 30 years ago. 

This came clearly to mind recently as I sat across a work table in the office of a web designer, colleague and friend who is in his mid-20s. As he took a call and left the room for a moment, the difference hit me that when I was his age in the late 1970s, I did not have a single friend or acquaintance, in my age group, who had started their own business. I know entrepreneurs existed, but I didn't know any. Sitting in my friend's office, I realized that his circle of friends were creating a new culture of entrepreneurism in our community.  

According to Paul Reynolds, entrepreneurship scholar and creator of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor,

"by the time they reach their retirement years, half of all working men in the United States probably have a period of self-employment of one or more years; one in four may have engaged in self-employment for six or more years. Participating in a new business creation is a common activity among U.S. workers over the course of their careers."*

My own path to entrepreneurship began in the mid-1980's with the reading of Peter Drucker's Innovation and Entrepreneurship. My contact with people who had started their own businesses was very small. Not so today.

What this indicates to me is that there is a growing class of initiators whose leadership is changing not only the landscape of business, but of communities and nations worldwide.  

This is the point that Gretchen Zucker presents.

Gretchen's organization, Youth Venture is part of Ashoka, created by Bill Drayton, who coined the term social entrepreneur.  Ashoka and Youth Venture invest in people who are changemakers.  

Ashoka and Youth Venture are shaping an Everyone A Changemaker™ society: every individual will take initiative, develop solutions to social needs and drive positive impact.Every part of society will benefit from having more changemakers, from a company to a school to an entire country.

Ashoka and YV help ensure the success of any entity, region or field by finding the best new ideas, by cultivating the changemaker talent to act on those ideas, and by designing new ways to allow major change to happen.

Ashoka and Youth Venture are helping to nurture the people I describe above. Currently Ashoka is supporting 2,500 Changemakers in 60 countries. So you can see that as this trend continues, it not only changes the world within the proximity of each person who is a changemaker, but it also sets a standard by which their peers begin to understand themselves.  

This standard is appealing because it isn't based on someone else's idea about who they are, but their own. It is out of their passion and commitment that these Changemakers venture forward to change the world within their reach.

This is the world that is coming to schools, congregations, scout troops,  and businesses everywhere.  This is a societal change that is being led by children and young people. This is a grassroots, entrepreneurial movement that begins at an age young enough to care for the needs of the world that they can identify, even at six or eight years old.

Recently I asked Gretchen Zucker to respond to two questions.

What is the single greatest misperception that businesses have about the current generation of young people as employees?

Businesses need to realize that the current generation of young employees (Millennials) is very different from the last generation (GenX) or the generation before that (Baby Boomers).  Times have changed dramatically and Millennials reflect that accelerating change in a new information era.  Millennials are very purpose-driven, tech and information savvy, globally aware, highly engaged (volunteer at twice the rate as their parents), and struggling to come out from under the very broad wings of their parents.

The best thing a manager can do to maximize the productivity of young employees is to encourage and enable them to be changemakers.  They are craving this!  Don’t be threatened.  They will amaze you with their creativity, drive and ability to mobilize teams to get things done.  

I've seen this trend grow over the past twenty years. A tipping point is approaching that will mark a shift that is of historic proportions. This point will be when a critical mass of people worldwide decides that they are going to take personal initiative to make a difference, and do so within a social context of shared responsibility and commitment.  When they do, they will no longer look to institutions to take care of them, as in the past. They will join together to take care of each other and their communities. 

I asked Gretchen, 

"Where do businesses go to find people like Ashoka’s Changemakers?"

Any employer (businesses included) needs to look upstream to figure out how to get far more changemaker talent (entrepreneurial problem-solvers with strong team, leadership and empathy skills), as the proportion of our society who are changemakers today is only 2-3 percent, making the “war for talent” as fierce as it’s ever been.  By enabling and supporting dramatically more people – in particular at a young, formative age – become changemakers through actually experiencing taking initiative to address a social need and leading change. 

Once a young person experiences the power of entrepreneurship, teamwork, empathy and leadership, he/she will forever carry the mindset and skill set with him/her in all aspects of life.  As change accelerates and employers must stay ahead of that change, the single greatest factor of success will be the proportion of their community (staff, stakeholders) who are changemakers.  

So, you can see how monumental is this shift for organizations.

No more passive followers who care little about their company. No more disgruntled employees who only care about how well the company compensates them for the sacrifice of personal time and the personal inconvenience they must go through to be away from the things they do care about. Strangely, it means that owners and managers will have to respond to a higher form of expectation for how their organizations function.

The cause of poor morale in the workplace isn't the external realities that affect the business. Rather, the internal ones. Morale is not some mysterious human social phenomenon, but rather an outcome of organizational design and management. It is an indicator of uncertainty, and produces a passive aggressive followership which is antithetical to the genuine leadership of personal initiative. The talented and self-motivated will leave or force change.

Regardless, organizational leaders have a choice to make. To resist the emergence of a generation of leadership initiators and watch their organizations decline, or to embrace them as a beneficial movement by accommodating their energy, ideas and influence to create new opportunities.

What, then, must a business person do to create an environment that is most conducive to attracting the young men and women that Ashoka and Youth Venture support?

First, envision the possible.

See it in this illustration from Gretchen Zucker.

What if this was your typical employee?

"I saw a problem with our operations and so I got our team together to devise a solution, which we’re now working on implementing with the involvement of other colleagues. I just wanted to make sure with you that I’m moving in the right direction. Is this okay?"

Second, invest in people.

Read my post Return on Initiative: ROI for the 21st Century. You can take a regressive cost/benefit approach to the development of people. It isn't a zero-sum game. Instead, it is a game of survival. Every business' survival is dependent upon creating an environment that accommodates and nurtures the kind of social entrepreneurial initiative that Ashoka and Youth Venture are developing in people worldwide.

This shift changes the talent recruitment game from a race to hire the best credentialed person to the one who has demonstrated that they are a Changemaker.  

Third, understand what motivates people to take initiative to make a difference that matters. 

No one asks people to initiate. It comes from an inner desire to make the world a better place. Ancient philosopher Aristotle saw this motivation as a function of the purpose of every individual. Something inside points to something outside that connects the two together and creates what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia which is happiness or human flourishing.

In simple terms, this desire for happiness, that is a kind of completeness, can be seen in three goals that I observe in people.  These goals are active reflections of their inner purpose. This is what people want from their life and work.

Life that is Personally Meaningful

Relationships that are Socially Fulfilling

Work that Makes a Difference that Matters

The children and young people that come to RandomKid** have these goals, as do those who work with Youth Venture. The people with whom you work, play golf, and share the subway have these goals. Each person's expression of them is unique. Yet, we are the same at a very fundamental level.

We look for social and organizational settings where these goals may be pursued. This is why children and young people are coming to RandomKid.

RandomKid's mission is to provide staff and services to youth, of all backgrounds and abilities, for the development, management and accomplishment of their goals to help others.

We educate, mobilize, unify and empower youth to directly impact local and global needs. By helping kids to become innovative and successful world problem-solvers, we are securing a better fate for our world now, and into the future. We don’t ask you to be a part of us; we become a part of you (emphasis mine).

In this sense, RandomKid provides an organizational structure for these young leaders to take initiative by creating projects that make a difference that matters to them. As Anne Ginther, RandomKid Co-Founder recently commented,

"What is most important to remember is that our mission is to help KIDS help others. It’s about empowering youth to make a difference. It’s about building the change-makers of tomorrow."

Dana Leman, Co-Founder and Executive Vice President tells me that they have learned that kids want ownership, fun and measurable impact from their projects.

There is a parallelism between what I observe in people and what RandomKid has identified in their project leaders.

Personally Meaningful = Ownership

Socially Fulfilling = Fun

Make a Difference that Matters = Measurable Impact

There is no dividing line between the child and the adult in this regard. Their goals are one and the same, just expressed differently.

This is the environment that initiators and Changemakers want. This is not the business environment of the 20th century. It is of the 21st century. 

Dana Leman commented to me recently about what she sees in the kids who take on a RandomKid project. 

Today's kids are not about trying to fit their ideas into standard business models. They are trying to develop business models that fit their ideas. They think about process as an afterthought and tend to engage in a more organic and responsive approach to today's emerging markets.

This is why so many young people in their 20s and 30s are starting their own businesses. Because they don't see themselves fitting in the institutional setting of the last century. And what organizational leaders must understand is that their competition for talent is not within their industry, but rather between the business structures of the past and the future. Either accomodate or become irrelevant is the reality that we face.

I started this post with the following manifesto.

Leadership is a product of personal initiative. 

It is a decision, a thought process, an act of the will, and an expression of identity and personality.

However, for initiative to constitute leadership, it also demands that it produce change, a change that matters, a change that makes a difference, a change the advances toward a goal.

The context for change is almost always some group of people socially connected around an idea that matters to them.

This is the future of leadership. And its future can be seen in the 10 year olds, the 14 year olds, the 18 year olds and the twenty and thirty somethings who are taking initiative to follow their passion to make a difference in the world.

Sixteen year old RandomKid Co-Founder and CEO Talia Leman speaks of her organization's mission as 

Leveraging the power of kids worldwide to drive an economy of positive change.

This is the purpose they share with Ashoka's Changemakers and Youth Venturers. This is the 21st century talent pool that stands apart from the rest. 

If you want these young people to work for you, then you must become like them. You must become an agent of change by encouraging and equipping the people in your business to take initiative to create an environment that can make the difference that matters. 

This may seem to be one of many options for the course of organizations and businesses. I'm convinced that this is the future that is fast approaching.  It isn't an option.  

When Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom in their book The Starfish and the Spider write about "leaderless" organizations, they are advocating for a leader-filled organization.

In a traditional sense, it could be said that organizations like Ashoka, Youth Venture and RandomKid are developing the next generation of organizational leaders.  In reality, these kids are already leading random organizations of social connection that are making a difference in local communities across the globe. The future is now, not tomorrow or next year.

This new future may seem filled with ambiguity and doubt. The reality is that as you accommodate your organizations to the ingenuity and 21st century leadership skills of these young people, a level of impact that your organization has never known will emerge. I'm convince that our best years are ahead of us, and they are going to be fun.  Because the children who are leading us today would not have it any other way. 

The Initiative Generation is here. Welcome them with openness, support their initiatives, and celebrate the difference they are making now.

*Wikipedia: Entrepreneurship-

** Disclaimer: I am the Board Chair of RandomKid.

The Picture of the Future in a Box - Update

Update: Ross Dawson writes about the importance of 3D printing in his post - How 3D printing will transform the retail industry: the opportunities.

This post is a continuation of the ideas presented in The End and The Beginning. In this one, I want to focus on three culture shifts that impact what leadership means in the 21st century.

A picture of the future in a box

Let me begin with this picture. 3dsystems-RapMan-Students-6

Here is a student using a three-dimensional printer. The blue object in the middle of the picture is being printed. This is a kit that individuals can buy for around $1,300.

All you need is a basic CAD program to begin to create prototypes of your ideas. 

I recently saw this model, RapMan 3.1, and the BFB-300 3D printer demonstrated at Hatchfest in Asheville. Rajeev Kulkarni, Vice President of Global Engineering for 3D Systems spoke on the uses of 3D printing.  His presentation described a extremely wide spectrum of application for this technology. The most impressive use of 3D printing is to create human organs from the cells of the recipient. See Antony Atala's TED2011 presentation to grasp the magnitude of this innovation in medicine.

This picture of innovative technology points to the social change that is occurring because of the advance of technology. Besides lowering the cost of prototyping and manufacturing new products, people can now take their ideas from conception to market in a shorter period of time.  Kulkarni spoke about what used to take months to produce that now can be done in a matter hours or days.

Three Shifts

As I listened to Rajeev Kulkarni's Hatch presentation, I realized that in these printers I saw three significant social shifts. When the cost of manufacturing and production time are reduced, and the technology becomes affordable for individual use, then we are moving through a transition period from one era to the next.   The shifts that I see taking place are:

1. From consumers to creators / producers

2. From mass market to mass customization

3. From a mass culture to a local culture

 Let me describe each.

1. From consumers to creators / producers

With the use of basic design software and the RapMan 3d printer, any individual can become a producer of products for sale. The materials that can be used in the printing process are extensive. So, no longer will people have to depend on the marketplace to provide the products that he or she needs. With some ingenuity and business sense, they can make a shift from being a consumer of products to being the creator and producer of them.

Of course, six billion people will not automatically shift from being consumers to creators / producers. And every producer needs consumers to buy her product. Yet, it does not take many people embracing this shift in culture to dramatically impact it. The picture above is of an school girl in England using the RapMan printer.

Imagine every school in your school district having a 3d printer to complete a learning process of idea creation to product completion. Imagine the change of mind that comes to the students in that school when they can create, and not just consume.  Imagine a generation of men and women who think of themselves as creators and producers, as leaders, rather than just consumers of other peoples' creative output. 

One of the first realizations I had about 21st century leadership was that it was about personal initiative, not about roles. Leadership begins with personal initiative. Tools like these 3D printers place into the hands of people the opportunity to initiate, to create, and to produce products and solutions that can make a difference. 

2. From mass market to mass customization

The nature of product development cycles used to be months, even years, necessary to bring a product to market. As a result, it required that product to have as wide an appeal and as long a shelf life as possible. With the advent of technologies, like 3D printers, this is changing. Now in a matter of a few hours, a specialize part can be designed and produced for a customer.

There are a couple implications for this shift.

First, it changes how a company relates to the marketplace. In a one-size fits all world, the marketplace is the lowest common denominator. In a mass customized world, the individual is the market. Marketing to individuals is different than to a mass culture. This is the insight that Chris Anderson wrote about in his book The Long Tail.

Second, it makes the relationship between manufacturer and consumer more important. I've learned this as a consultant. I cannot approach any project as if there is a formula that applies to every other organization in their industry. I have to build a relationship of interest, inquiry and adaptive response to meet not only their expectations, but their needs. I enter into their organizational setting with a set of tools, not unlike a 3D printer, though I don't have one, and use my tools to address the needs that they have.

In a mass customized world, relationships matter, and that is a key to managing the shifts that I'm identifying here.

3. From mass culture to local culture

Prior to the 20th century, life for most people from the beginning of time was experienced in small towns. I remember my grandfather telling me near the end of his long life that the most significant invention in his life time was the radio. When asked why, he said, "Because it showed us what life was like in other places."

The 20th century was a century lived on a global scale, with World Wars and multi-national corporations, and, with institutions that were designed for a mass culture. It was a perspective where one size fits all, and that all people are to be treated a like. Individuality was rebellious and conventionality was the norm.

Those days are slipping away as innovations, like 3D Systems printers, make it possible to create a business that serves customers globally from an office in a small town with an internet connection.  It is the twin developments of innovation for individual productivity and the failure of large organizations to function in a one-size fits all world.

As a result, the meaning of global and local is changing. It is less about a mass market culture of sameness, and more about a culture of relationship where I can serve you, regardless of where you or I live. We can be connected. We can communicate, collaborate and coordinate our projects from wherever we sit today.

It isn't just that we live in a time of the long tail, or that technological innovation provides a basis for mass customization or a better foundation for individual initiative. Each is true. At a deeper level, it means that any individual with a minimum investment can pursue their own sense of calling as a person, and do it in a social context of others who share their vision and commitment. This is an emerging reality that will seriously impact the nature of leadership and organizational design in the future.

One way of understanding this development is to see this as the ascendency of the local. I've written about it here, here and here.

The key to making a local orientation work is openness. For many people, local is just another word for provincial, or closed. However, if local is less physical place, and more a relational space, then we can begin to see that my local can include colleagues in Japan, Pakistan, England, Canada, and my neighbors nearby in Asheville.

In a local community, you share a concern for people, for families, for education systems, the business community and for those less fortunate. It is a concern for the whole person, not just for the transaction.

For example, I can share a concern that my friends in California have for the economic and social conditions of their small coastal town, and feel that as their community grows, that I contribute to their growth.

A local community orientation can function in any social or organizational structure. It is the heart of team work. It brings personal initiative, shared responsibility, and common goals and values together.

Leading Through These Shifts

The implications of these shifts for organizational leaders is fairly simple. It means that instead of being organizational process managers, we must become culture creators. The culture that forms from our leadership provides an open environment for individual initiative, relationship building, and shared responsibility.

The local in this sense is like the ancient Greek polis as described by Victor Davis Hanson in his fascinating book, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization. He writes in the introduction,

The early Greek polis has often been called a nexus for exchange, consumption, or acquisition, but it is better to define it as an "agro-service center." Surplus food was brought in from the countryside to be consumed or traded in a forum that concurrently advanced the material, political, social, and cultural agenda of its agrarian members. The buildings and circult walls of a city-state were a testament to the accumulated bounty of generations, its democratic membership a formal acknowledgment of the unique triad of small landowner, infantry soldier, and voting citizen. The "other" Greeks, therefore, were not the dispossessed but the possessors of power and influence. Nor is their story a popular account of slaves, the poor, foreigners, and the numerous other "outsiders" of the ancient Greek city-state. The real Greeks are the farmers and infantrymen, the men and women outside the city, who were the insiders of Greek life and culture.

The rise of independent farmers who owned and worked without encumbrance their small plots at the end of the Greek Dark Ages was an entirely new phenomenon in history. This rougly homogeneous agrarian class was previously unseen in Greece, or anywhere else in Europe and the surrounding Mediterranean area. Their efforts to create a great community of agrarian equals resulted, I believe, in the system of independent but interconnected Greek city-states (poleis) which characterized Western cutlure.

The shifts indentified in this post, to me, point to a similar opportunity that the early Greek farmers had. Through their collaborative relationship of shared responsibility, together they created the Greek polis that remains as the model for what cities and communities are in the West.

The ascendency of the local will come as a result of these shifts. And with it a new conception of leadership as more personal, more collaborative, more focused on impact, will emerge to provide it descriptive power that inspires innovation.

7 Virtues of the 21st Century Organization

7VIRTUES image

My current Weekly Leader series is on the 7 Virtues of the 21st Century Organization. Check here, here and here

The 7 Virtues are a system of values that can be used to improve the functioning of an organization.

7 Virtues 21stOrg

In this post, I look at the 7 Virtues through the lens of the Circle of Impact Leadership Guides. The Circle of Impact is built around two sets of ideas. The first is that all leaders must address themselves to the Three Dimensions of Leadership: Ideas, Relationships and Structure. The key is to align the three so that they work together. The way this alignment is achieved is by being absolutely clear about the Four Connecting Ideas: Values, Purpose, Vision, and Impact. The key here is that every facet of the organization is focused on Impact, which is defined as change or a difference that matters.

Impact as change or the difference that matters is a very general definition. This means that each organization, and each division within it must define for their own purposes what impact means. As a function of leadership, this requires each person within the organization to be able to state the impact that they seek to create by their work within the system. This is how leadership becomes a shared responsibility, and not simply a positional one.

Circle of Impact- simple

The 7 Virtues

 1. Collaboratively-led:

This idea encompasses the other six virtues into a singular perspective that defines what it means to be collaborative. It means that a collaborative leader will focus on aligning the three dimensions and the four connecting ideas so that the people who are a part of the social and organization structures may have relationships that enable them to fulfill their shared vision for impact. This is what a collaborative leader does.

2. Decentralized, local control:

This function of the structure of the organization, created by policy governance and design, establishes a system of communication and accountability, built around collaboration.

3. Long tail internal operational structures:

This is a function of the alignment of structure with relationships. This means that the people who are bound to one another by a clear purpose and set of values have the freedom and may take the initiative to organize how they work together.

4. Purpose-driven organic adaptability:

This is also a function of the alignment of structure and relationships. In this context, the group or team adapts freely and with great agility to changing circumstances in order to keep their purpose foremost in their relationships.

5. Relational-asset based:

It may seem that this is a function of the relationships, and at one level it is, but the importance to treating the group or company's network of relationships as a relational asset is that these connections bring value that does not exist when the people of an organization are viewed as human resources. Relational resources are the assets to come from having a large, diverse, and widely dispersed network of relationships that feed information, insight, talent and business to the organization. From a structural point of view this is a fourth classification of resources, along side the financial, material, and human. The higher level of collaboration that takes place through these relational assets, the great value they bring to the company. These assets are what are commonly understood as social capital.

6. Values that are operational:

This a function of the alignment of the Ideas and Relationships dimensions with the Structural. Values, which inform an organization's purpose, is the core strength of a business. It is the only thing that is unchangeable. An organization's purpose can change as circumstances change. The structure can change to remained aligned with a vision that is constantly adapting to the current context of business. But the values of a company remain constant, though not necessarily acknowledged or practiced. This virtue, therefore, focuses on applying the company's values operationally. This done by asking the question how are our values represented in this decision or this policy? The greater alignment between values and practice, the greater the integrity, confidence and impact from the collaborative work of the people of the company.

7. Ownership culture of giving:

This virtue is a function of the whole community of the company.  It is the responsibility of the company's leadership to foster a culture of giving. The aim is to encourage people create a culture of giving through their own initiative and expression of gratitude. This is the kind of culture that is represented in the Five Actions of Gratitude (Say Thanks Every Day).

The complaint that I've heard over the years about a more relationally oriented business structure is that these are soft skills, not the hard skills of finance. True they aren't the same, but they are also not contradictory either. Create a culture of the 7 Virtues, and you'll see not only a transformed workforce, but a transformed business environment. If you do it sooner than later, you'll be ahead of the curve, and be recognized for leading rather than following.

Quick Takes: Animated numbers may not be the whole story.

This TED presentation by Hans Rosling shows the power of visual images to present information.
Watch it. Its 20 minutes long.  You'll wish it were longer.

I have a question about what he is showing.  If you have read The Black Swan, you'll know that Nassim Taleb challenges the value of Gaussian bell curves as accurate representations of certain kinds of data. Based on what I understand of his critique, the problem is the assumption that averaging data is meaningful.  The problem with it, according to Taleb, is that bell curves don't account for radical difference. 

If you remember, about 6.5 minutes into the presentation, he begins to talk about the worlds wealth.  Interesting topic of discussion.  His bell curve is set up to visualize the population of the world ranging from income of $1 per day to  $100 per day.  It would appear that this is a classic bell curve decision.

Taleb writes about the value of Powerlaw curves that Chris Anderson popularized in The Long Tail. So, what I want to know is what if he extended his graph to include those individuals who make $1000 and $1,000,000 per day.  What I believe we would see is a tall head of those who earn between $1 and$100 per day, and a long tail of those whose annual income is between 7 and 9 or even 10 figures.

Rosling's point is that there is no longer a difference between the global have's and have nots.  However, I'd suggest that today, there is still a gap, and that gap is growing.  I don't have those numbers, so my assumption is mostly anecdotal.

Here is why I think Taleb is on to some very important insight.  This isn't about numbers but more a philosophical outlook that affects us personally and socially.

The Gaussian bell curve is about finding the average in a data set. Powerlaws are looking for extremes.  The extremes of large numbers and the extremes of small ones. If this makes any sense, it will lead us to understand that the underlying assumption of the bell curve is that society is governed by what is average.  Here's Taleb addressing this issue.

The traditional Guassian way of looking at the world begins by focusing on the ordinary , and then deals with exceptions or so-called outliers as ancillaries.  But there is a second way, which takes the exceptional as a starting point and treats the ordinary as subordinate.

Taleb's point concerns probabilities and those rare events that catch people unawares. He believes that bell curve thinking excludes the possibility of these rare events for the sake of making what we know more certain.

Note once again the following principle: the rarer the event, the higher the error in our estimation of its probability - even when using the Gaussian ... the Gaussian bell curve sucks randomness out of life - which is why it is popular.  We like it because it allows for certainties! How? Through averaging ...

I interpret this to mean that we are conditioned to look at life from the vantage point of the average.  We look at people as to how they fit into some average norm or convention, rather than looking at each person as one with unique gifts, talents, personality and experience.  The former way was a conventional way of treating people when the work they performed did not require creative thought or interaction with others. 

As the world has become more complex, the development of people to perform at a higher level has made it necessary to look at talent recruitment, training and retention as a key strategic endeavor of corporations in the 21st century.  As a result, people development takes on a much more significant role in modern organizations.

This is what I saw twenty years ago, but didn't have the perspective to understand what I saw. It goes to the notion that a company needs to be a "community of leaders" (hence the name of my business, Community of Leadership) which means that each person has a responsibility to take personal initiative to act to forward the work of the organization. It means that the structure of the organization be such that people are free to be creative and to take initiative.

So, what I find in Rosling's animation is a clever distraction. We think we have seen the way the world really is when it really is quite different. There are extremes on both ends of the bell curve that are not factored into Rosling's animation.  How many times during school were our grades averaged by taking out the lowest and highest?  In essence, squeeze out the variability and you have something that is easily quantified and, something safe and secure, predictable and certain.

I'm with Taleb that life is far more random that we give it credit. If we see its randomness, then we see the extremes, and see the potential impact that those extremes can have on us.

What are you to do with these rambling thoughts?

First, read Taleb.  I have been slowly reading him all summer.  His perspective is validating and clarifying ideas that I've had for thirty years. This is not some shallow 10 points to success book. It takes time to think through a perspective that is so at odds with conventional wisdom.  And if it helps, read him, take notes, and think about how you can speak about what you see there.  When you do, share it with someone. If you have no one, send it to me, I'll post it.

Second, identify those talents that are uniquely yours, and begin to development them.  My guess is that connected to that talent is a passion for something that will be the guide to the talent.

Third, take the people who work with and for you, and begin to talk with them about how their work and contributions are a form of leadership.  If you need a tool to help you discuss this, then download my Leading in Times of Transition diagrams, and use the Circle of Impact chart (page 3) as a guide.  Simply put, leaders initiate in the dimensions of Ideas, Relationships and Organizational Structures.

Bottom line. Question numbers. Because someone has made a decision to limit their scope. That decision is based on assumptions. Test assumptions. Think for yourself. Help your people do the same. Look for the extremes, for at the extreme are opportunities that those committed to mediocrity will never find.

A peek inside the Long Tail of the songwriting world

Christine Kane is a singer/songwriter from here in Asheville.  She is one of the saviest, wisest people that I know. Read her discussion about music and piracy.

This is a picture of how the Long Tail will work for those who understand where the future of the business is.  Here are three things she says that I think are important to notice.

1. I think pirating is here to stay. I think copying music and books is inevitable. I think some of it brings in more fans. And I think some of it perpetuates more entitlement and de-valuing of music.  I think that most people aren’t aware of the cost of making a music CD. I think that my dancer friend wouldn’t like it at all if people weren’t paying to get into his company’s shows and insisting that dance performances be free. I also think that artists who are learning how to thrive within this “free” mindset are going to do fabulously.   (Note: I write every post in this blog for free.  And I still love it.)

2. I think independent musicians are more likely to get direct benefits from pirating and copying because the indirect profits don’t get filtered through a corporation or a record label. If someone buys a ticket, or buys CD’s, indies don’t have to wait until someone else takes out all the percentages first. We are also more grateful for small victories. And gratitude inevitably brings on more small victories. I’ve noticed that bigger companies need bigger victories, and they feel gratitude less often. This creates fewer big victories.


5. I think that there’s a spiritual component at work here. I think that the new market is about personal responsibility. I think it’s about value. I think it’s about intent. And I think it’s about personal expansion versus personal contraction. And I think these things apply to both the purchaser (or pirate) and creator. It’s a waste of my time to judge people for how they choose to approach their entertainment purchases. So, I’ll just say for myself: I don’t use Limewire. I love iTunes. I rarely buy CD’s anymore. I don’t pirate software. And I sometimes send checks to people whose work I love. None of this is because I’m “being a good person” or feeling guilty. It’s actually a little bit selfish. I like the expansion. I like feeling good. I like contributing. These things make me wealthy.

If Christine comes to a club near you, make sure you go hear her. She's smart, funny and a person of great integrity. And that isn't something you can pirate.

Don't tell me you can't do it!

I hate waste.  In particular, I hate the waste of people's talent.  If they'd just get up and start something, they'd discover all sorts of cool things about life. 

Here's a great story that Dan Pink has on his blog today about a woman who did just that.  Pink tells the tale:

Seven years ago, Diane St. Clair didn't know boo about making butter. But she wanted to learn so she taught herself the trade via the Internet and some books. Soon she cadged a "small-scale pasteurizer and got a license to go into production." And with one Jersey cow, she went into business. She called her operation, based in rural Orwell, Vermont -- wait for it -- Animal Farm. One day, she sent her butter to Thomas Keller, an all-star chef. He proclaimed it the best butter he'd ever tasted -- and ordered it for all his swank restaurants, as did many other fancy joints.

Today, St. Clair's one-woman operation has six cows and continues to produce butter for the best restaurants in the country. Now she's contemplating starting a butter of the month club that will offer subscribers a pound of butter a month for ten months for a subscription price of $750. That's $75 a pound! As they say, margins like that are like buttah.

Initiative.  Diane St. Clair took initiative to learn something, and then built a business from it. Initiative.  That is all it takes to start. Personal Initiative.

This is a story fit for both Mavericks at Work and The Long Tail.  Mavericks because she took an idea and built a business from that idea.  Long Tail because she has created a niche business from one cow and some pasteurizing equipment.

To me this one is just another example of a person who doesn't listen to the naysayers and goes and tries something. 

Listen, I don't know everyone who reads this blog, but I do know that all it takes is an idea, some personal initiative and commitment to see it through.  Sure there is hard work, but life's richness comes from giving your very best to what you love.  Follow Diane St. Clair's lead and go start something.  And then tell everyone your story.

UPDATE: As I watched the supplementary materials in the Miracle DVD, the footage of the meeting of Kurt Russell and the filmmakers with Herb Brooks prior to filming, I kept hearing Brooks say things relevant to this post.  Here are two.

"You have to make sacrifices for the unknown."
The unknown for most of us is what we can achieve if we start something.  This goes to a meme that I've been thinking about lately about how ideas get translated into action.  For example, how did Diane St. Clair move from an interest in butter along all those steps to the creation of the Butter of the Month Club? 

If success is unknown, then how can we calculate the level of sacrifice needed.  Is there a line we draw that says, beyond this I will not go?  I think it has more to do with how willing we are to deviate from our original conception of the plan. How willing are we to change in order to achieve our goals?

When I heard Herb Brooks say this, I immediately thought of Lewis & Clark two hundred years ago.  They had a mission and a goal. The mission to find a commercial water route across the country.  Their goal was to reach the Pacific coast.  When they left St. Louis in 1704, some of their route was known because of trappers and traders who worked the Missouri up to present day North Dakota. But after the winter of 1705, they were off the map. They were in the unknown, and day after day, they kept moving forward.  Everyday was filled with hardship.  Sacrifices?  I'm not sure they would have thought so.  They were in beautiful country on a great adventure.  But they daily faced the unknown with resourceful optimism.

The second thing that Herb Brooks said that I insight was his understanding of the development of greatness in his team.  He spoke about how you can't force greatness on them.  Instead you (1.) believe in them, set (2.) high standards, and (3.) pull the greatness out of them. This goes back to the first sentence of this posting.

Most of never experience the fulfillment of the potential that we have.  As Linda mentioned in her comment below, it sometimes that another person to bring it out.  That is what Herb Brooks did with his hockey team. 

Lurking within every human being is some hidden greatness.  For most of us, we need other people to draw it out of us.  I'd like to know about the circle of friends and family that gave Diane St. Clair the encouragement to pursue her dream

Real Life Leadership: 'Long Tail' shows how small businesses can exploit niches through Internet

Here's my Real Life Leadership column (Asheville Citizen-Times) on Chris Anderson's The Long Tail - 'Long Tail' shows how small businesses can exploit niches through Internet.

This is my fourth posting on the Long Tail.  Obviously, I think it is an idea worth considering and a book worth reading.  The value of this book I find is that Anderson has captured a picture of the future that is not only understandable, but realistic for the average business owner.  The challenge is not to understand the idea of The Long Tail.  The challenge is to do something about it. 

The challenge is to change.  What if you had to change your entire product line so that it could all by sold over the Internet?  Could you do it?  This is a question that strikes fear in many leaders.  I see, feel it, hear it in their silence.

So, what do you do about The Long Tail?  If nothing more, you need to take a long look at your business to determine whether taking advantage of the move to The Long Tail makes sense.  Understand that it is not just about specialization.  It is about utilizing the cost savings of online commerce to serve those discrete markets.  The lower the cost the small the niche you can serve.  If it makes sense, then you have identified a path to the future of your business.

Conquering Elitism with The Long Tail

Chris Anderson posts a response to the Long Tail by Peter Moore, Microsoft Xbox head.

Here are Seven Rules Of Long Tail Game Development:

  1. Beyond The Boys In Their Bedrooms.  Appeal to a much wider audience.
  2. Don’t Pass The Buck On Rising Development Costs.  We need to find ways to reduce costs and restructure our revenue models.
  3. Rebel Without A Platform:  Bring Aspiring Developers Into The Fold. For too long we’ve expected the developers of the future to claw their way up to us … we have to start coming to them and proactively develop a farm team of future stars.
  4. It’s A YouTube World:  Embrace Community Created Content. We’re control freaks when it comes to how games are delivered to consumers.  We need more spaces where garage designers can get noticed.
  5. Set Us Free. We should look at delivering new IP in new ways that recognize how powerful a concept shaping your own gaming experience is.
  6. We’re Too Cool For School:  Make Ourselves More Approachable.  Games are more powerful, but less approachable.  We need to make more games for more people.  Expand demographics, online gameplay, strong family settings. 
  7. Lower The Total Cost Of Ownership With Choice. Consumer should have choices, starting at entry level, purchases should be upgradable, don’t lock consumers in.

Actually none of this is earth-shaking if you have read The Long Tail. 

Two things actually jumped out at me.

First is more's characterization of the head of the Long Tail as elitism.  Interesting thought that which appeals to the masses is elitist.  Maybe that is why hits are fewer than every before.

Second is #3 - Rebel Without A Platform:  Bring Aspiring Developers Into The Fold.

This is an excellent insight.  What you should take away from this is that you should always be in the recruiting business.  Regularly, I have a conversation with a friend or client lamenting how difficult it is to hire good people.  The problem is that they aren't recruiting.  They are just hiring.  Big difference.

So, if you are going to make in the Long Tail world, then you are going to be competing for talent.  Better start learning how to recruit them, or your competitors will.

Where the conversation is going

One of the blogs that I read with great fascination is Chris Anderson's The Long Tail.  I can't say I always understand his perspective, or even agree, but I am always stimulated by his innovative take on things. His posting - Standing out in a commodity crowd - is very interesting.  Here is the portion that caught my attention.

It's just that I'd rather choose my own editor to select the articles of highest importance to me (including those the mainstream media choose not to cover at all, or just not well). In this case that "editor" is a network of bloggers, not whomever decides what makes it to the front page of the newspaper. This works so well that I suspect I'm actually reading more articles from mainstream media, and from a broader range of it, than ever before. It's just all via blogs, which microchunk and remix the information in ways that make it more useful to me.

He speaks of pre-filtering and post-filtering .  Blogs serve as a post-filtering that gets him to the precise material that he will most interested in reading. And since he is reading 150 blogs a day - quite a commitment - he is getting not just one editor's perspective, but 150.  He writes,

What all these blogs that have earned their way to my feed list are doing is adding value to commodity information. The ones I'm reading do this in at least one of three main ways:    
    1. Add value with a unique perspective or analysis.    
    2. Add value with unique information.    
    3. Add value by providing a unique filter/lens on content available elsewhere.

This is an important insight.  It is a tangible representation that a Cluetrain conversation is not just an idea, but is now functioning.   

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The Long Tail means Leadership patience.

One of the most provocative ideas to come along in along time is Chris Anderson's The Long Tail.  Chris writes about this idea that there exist all sorts of niches that are waiting to be filled by those of who provide products and services.  Read his blog carefully so you really come to understand what he is exploring.

In a couple of recent postings for instance, here and here,  he uses the 80/20 rule to look at the difference between large retailers and niche marketers.  He sheds insight on a shopping phenomenon that i had notice, but didn't know what to make of it.  The best way to describe this is to describe my experience. 

In our family, we rent DVD's just like most family's. We go to Blockbuster for most of the movies we rent. We don't have cable or satellite, so we don't have access to all the movie channels, whether current or oldies.  But, increasingly, Blockbuster doesn't carry what we want to watch.  So, Blockbuster gets less and less of our business.  At some point, I realized that we would need to buy the films that we wanted to watch.  A grocery store need my home has a video rental shop in the store.  We are not members of it.  But what is interesting is that they are stocking older films for sale.  Many of these films would never darken the door of a Blockbuster. The Long Tail has come to my grocery store, and i go to that store to pick up milk because I'll also check their DVD sale rank.  I've found some gems too.

According to Anderson, large retailers use hits to attract customers to buy more profitible products.  Yeah, you may buy the $15 hit, plus a $9.95 oldie.  You won't make the trip to buy the oldie, but once you are there, you are hooked.

All this suggests to me that The Long Tail not only exists, but has existed hidden from view view.  The key for leaders is to be patient.  With insight, intuition and careful research, the Long Tail of niche success just may come to you.  It requires patience, persistence and a vision for the long term.  The key is to identify the niche, and then engage it.