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Language against which the mind cannot defend

Last week I was privileged to be present when David Whyte addressed a group of leaders at Intel. Kudos to my colleague Lisa Marshall and to Intel's Business Client Engineering Division 'Mindful Engineering' series for making it happen

From the poet came the gift of this phrase; "Language against which the mind cannot defend"

It was a rich 90 minutes. It's remarkable to be with a poet who keeps himself connected and contributing to the corporate, technological world - an extraordinary human being.

He pointed out that such language is always based in vulnerability. And it comes, not from the strategic mind – the mind focused on what action might be best – but from a deep quiet. From the place most of us prefer to avoid: the one embraces our inevitable vulnerability. The example he gave was a question: a parent, having spoken somewhat thoughtlessly to a teenager, punished with shunting, reaches her with genuine humility, "Charlotte, what is one thing you'd like me to do less of, and one you'd like me to do more of'?” He was rewarded with uncrossed arms and a look in the eye. Something we in business must learn to do.

I believe with all my heart that only those who fully embrace the roots of commerce in vulnerability will make it through the current economic upheaval. In the Industrial Age, [short – perhaps 10 generations of the thousands in human history] business folk were happily tranquilized to believe that commerce could be secretive, and that one party could avoid vulnerability at the expense of the other. That dream is in its death gasps, at the effect of the Information Age.

Some good thinkers are onto the deep challenge this is for enterprises:

    “CEOs today are certainly enlightened enough to understand the new world. They know they are more vulnerable than ever. In quiet moments, they say, “I don't have the answers. This is pretty hard.” That's why I'm optimistic. I think this is the right time to rethink and change how business is done.”
      Source: Strategy & Business Thought Leader Interview with Dov Seidman

‘Having the answers' isn't likely; it's the questions that move us forward. My current favorite from deep quiet works very well to put an organization on track - it's the foundation for Core Promise:

What do people rely on you for, and what do you want them to rely on you for?

What will you do no matter what?
Try it – the mind cannot defend against the question.

Marketing is dead; long live business

Love Your Customers?

Many of us have been reflecting deeply about what might re-power the economy as well as boost our own and our customers’ businesses. There’s certainly no shortage of clamoring, but little feels trustworthy.

Browsing the new Strategy & Business Fall issue, I was struck by a couple of points:

  • The winners in the digital economy are those closest to customers
  • The companies that win at innovation are not those that invest more dollars in R&D; the winners are those who align strategy & culture to innovation.
  • (Of course the latter requires the former, as Prahalad and Krishnan aptly demonstrated.)

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose?  As a Business Anthropologist, intending no disrespect for an excellent business magazine and the journeyman research it reports, my first response was, “Duh.”  But how many businesses have employed Prahalad’s formulae?  Do we know what’s missing?

Though everything seems to be changing, in fact many of the dynamics of commerce remain constant.  People do business with those they trust. And who is that? Those who demonstrate understanding of their ways and regard for their concerns.

My esteemed teacher, Humberto Maturana, articulated what he called the biology of love: “The other is a legitimate other in coordination with me” (the other’s concerns are equally legitimate to my own.)   Commerce is a form of coordination – a form of relating – that engages all of our brains’ emotional wiring.  And thus, as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., I invite you to articulate your love for your customers.

What I love about my customers is their ongoing passion for learning and stepping up to add more and more value.  If you are among them, please accept my gratitude for being on this learning journey with me, and for your commitment to looking after your employees, customers, and communities.

Think love is not important in business? That couldn’t be what’s missing? I invite you to begin this holiday season by letting your customers know what you love about them. See if that doesn’t open ways to get closer to them, to better understand their concerns, and to deepen trust.

Try holding their concerns as equal to your own.  When you realize that will require shifts in strategy and culture - no matter what size your business or division - you’ll know you’re on the right track.

got golden handcuffs?

Last week the cover of the Economist headlined BE AFRAID, Occupy Wall Street grew by giant steps around the US (in Portland, OR, where I live, the mayor and police joined ‘the 99%’,) and the balance of power shifted yet again in Syria.

David Berreby’s excellent article in Strategy & Business argues that we modern humans are actually well-adapted to live in this kind of a world.  It’s a fresh and well-researched view of what it means to be fit for the Information Age reality, what puts us at our best, and our natural urge for freedom.  One CEO

… put an end to all the complaints in one swoop, when he switched the teams from salaries and work rules to a hunter ethos: a team gets 26 percent of the company's take from a client. How and when it works is up to the team. Productivity has almost doubled…

Freedom and responsibility are the very best golden handcuffs there are…

I happened also to review this TED talk by Harvard researcher Dan Gilbert, arguing that,  no matter what happens, we’re psychologically adapted to be happy about it.  (Predictions to the contrary, a lottery winner and a new paraplegic are equally happy one year after the event…)   Most of us our are short on friends who are happy about the Euro crisis and the financial industry in general, nor are they likely to happy about it in a year’s time, but there’s some good pondering here.  Gilbert’s research shows pretty clearly that we’re strongly inclined to make it all OK.  And yesterday a BBC health news article goes further into how the brain ‘rejects negative thoughts.

I am inclined to agree. The weak ties that enable innovation, as Richard Ogle demonstrated in Smart World, are key to forging new ways to thrive in our fast-changing reality.  Berreby argues that they come naturally

Perhaps the information economy, that purely human creation, reproduces our ancestral environment, replacing literal landscapes and foraging with a virtual version.

changes promote autonomy, flexibility and "weak ties" and that the "changes associated with post-industrial systems" are "more compatible with humans' biological nature than those occurring in earlier ones.

You probably believe that the ability to learn is the sine qua non in business.  And maybe you’re on to your own and others' desire for freedom and autonomy as the ultimate golden handcuffs.  Certainly some leaders have learned to put them to good use.

So we like to learn, we’re good at change - but we have a tendency to tell ourselves that things are better than they are.

How much trouble are we really in?
And how might we know? What combination of models and thinkers might help us see beyond our biases and blindness?

Got any ideas?

my kinda guy

We recently lost one of our great thinkers, C.K. Prahalad.

“To me, the problems of greatest interest are things that you cannot explain with the current prevailing theory.”

I often wish I could ask him about items that flash on my screen, eg Is the US Bankrupt and Nobody Knows? Are the Feds finally facing the reality of the ‘recession’?

This recent article from Strategy & Business is a treat: a highly accessible and altogether inspiring peek at C.K.’s genius. While he tended to write about large systems, everything he says is as relevant to micro-business and non-profits as giant multinationals. I invite you to take a moment, step back from whatever you’re working on, and let C.K.’s thinking have its way with your molecules.

“What is the essence of entrepreneurship?...Having aspirations greater than your resources.”

Sound like a good fit to your current reality?

Management thinking prior to his writing looks medieval. Remember how organizations appeared before the concept of core competence? When resources were purely financial? Or strategy took place in a fixed world? In their groundbreaking 1994 book, Competing for the Future, he and Gary Hamel

“argued for strategy as a stretch: by definition, creating a misfit between your resources and your aspirations… If you want to create entrepreneurial drive in a large company, you have to create aspirations that lie outside your resource base…”

“Gary and I said strategy is about creating new competitive space. This foreshadowed ideas like strategic architecture, shaping your future, expeditionary marketing, and so on.”

Having addressed those small matters, in The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, C.K. went head-on with what seemed impossible: profitably serving the [then] 2.5 billion people living on less than $2/day. I’ve often wondered about the source of that thinking; it’s revealed in the excellent S&B interview by Art Kleiner. When asked how he came up with such different ideas,

“…both are about the movement of ordinary people into new relationships with power.”

“I started as an industrial engineer, but all along I’ve been struggling with the same question: What makes societies work?”

“Conventional strategy didn’t even consider individuals. When a company looked at its resources, it considered its financial situation: could it afford another employee or not, for example, rather than what kind of new employee must it bring aboard.”

“But when you look at an organization’s core competencies as its most valuable resources, you can begin to think of learning, creating strategy, and innovation as parts of a single long journey. The journey is iterative, interactive, and full of small steps. Nobody gets a big aha one day. Instead, there is searching; there are missteps, experiments, and doubt.”

Perhaps a nice dose of C.K. will put you in shape to redesign how you're putting your resources to work?

Are You Worth It? How to Guarantee that Clients Value Your Work Even When Times Are Tough

[Here's an article from October 21, 2008 by guest author, Molly Gordon. The topic, getting clients when times are tough, is more pertinent than ever. Enjoy.]

Why do some businesses survive in tough economic times while others fail?

One explanation is that people keep buying necessities, like groceries, but not luxuries, like diamond rings or massage. But that isn't necessarily the case.

While grocery stores undoubtably have a priority claim on our pocketbooks, it's not just our stomachs that determine what we buy.

Simply put, we pay for what we value, and value is a collaboration with your just-right clients.

What Is Value?

Value is the difference between the cost of something and the benefit it confers.

The cost of groceries gets measured against the value of nourishment, and the grocer makes a sale.

The key to continuing to get business when the economy slows down is to demonstrate that the value of your work is greater than the cost.

And the best way to do that is to let your clients demonstrate it for themselves.

How a Client Establishes Value

It's easy enough to understand that the buyer or client establishes the value of putting food on the table. But what if you're a massage therapist or an image consultant?

While it's true that people can't eat a massage or wardrobe consultation, both of these "non-essentials" have deep seated value for the just-right client.

My friend Tom has back pain that used to interfere with his work, Now regular therapeutic massage keeps him flexible, fit, and productive. For Tom, massage is not a luxury, it's job security.

When Linda could afford shopping as a past-time, she thought hiring an image consultant was a frivolous indulgence. Now that she needs to dress professionally on a budget, she's realizing how much money she's wasted on bad choices. Working with a wardrobe consultant has become a necessity.

You see, clients know something you don't. They know the real reason they pay for products and services like yours.

But they don't always know that they know it. And you don't always know how they think about it.

It's your job to connect the dots so they can hire you.

You can learn how to do that in Five Keys to Conversations About Value below.

How DO you get clients without being pushy or sleazy?

You know how valuable your work is. But getting that message across to prospective clients so you get hired is another thing. That's what you'll learn in the 7-week course, The Goldilocks Strategy for Getting Clients That Fit Just-Right.

Early bird discount expires February 19. ============================================================

Five Keys to Conversations About Value

It's one thing to understand the concept of value as a collaboration. It's another thing to have the conversation that gets things going. Somehow, when we sit down to talk, a fog bank seems to move in.

These five keys will help you navigate through the fog.

1. Let go of the result.
2. Be willing to be surprised.
3. Ask questions.
4. Listen.
5. Check your conclusions with the client.

Let Go of the Result

The first and most important key to having conversations abut value is to let go of the result.

A conversation about value is not a sales pitch in disguise. The goal is not to make a sale, but to reveal the value of your work so that the client can make an informed decision about buying.

Every client that walks away from this conversation feeling heard and understood but without buying remains a prospective client and referral source.

Every client you convince to buy who doesn't benefit from the investment becomes a mill stone. (Besides, do you really want to talk people into buying when the right clients will ask if you'll work with them?)

Be Surprise-able

If you were crystal clear about the value your work provides clients from their point of view, you wouldn't need to read this article.

Since you aren't crystal clear, open your mind. Drop your preconceptions about value. Let the client surprise you. (And you can surprise them by really listening. But I'm getting ahead of myself.)

Ask Questions

Your job in the conversation about value is to ask questions, not to answer them.

Imagine that you are helping a friend make an important decision. Instead of giving advice, ask questions that help your friend, in this case, a prospective client, articulate what's most important to them.

- What do they want to achieve?

- Why is that important?

- What's in the way of achieving that?

- What can they build on?

- If they could have any kind of help they wanted, what would that look like?


If you aren't asking a question, your mouth should be closed. And if you don't know what to ask, silence can be okay, too. I guarantee that when you stay silent longer than it's comfortable, your client will start talking. And the best part is that what they say will be coming from them, not from you.

Check Your Conclusions with the Client

Periodically stop and review what you've heard with the client. This gives them a chance to clarify or elaborate. It will show you where you may have imposed your thinking on theirs. And it will suggest new questions to ask.

That's it. No selling. No pressure. Just an open mind, interested inquiry, and careful listening.

Value Is a Collaboration

When it comes right down to it, the value of your work emerges from a collaboration between you and your just-right clients. What's more, this collaboration begins long before you are hired.

Start asking questions and listening to the people you'd love to work with. Watch the value emerge. And watch your client list grow.

Join the conversation by posting a comment here:

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