Organizational Behavior

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The Proximity Paradox

The Proximity Paradox

How to Create Distance from Business as Usual and Do Something Truly Innovative
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A graphic designer is invited to paint a mural on the side of an old building in a rough end of town. She collaborates with a group of artists to turn four storeys of tired brick into a contemporary work of art. When the mural is complete, the neighborhood throws a party to celebrate the first of what they hope will be many rejuvenations to the area. The graphic designer’s boss reads about the mural in the news and asks her, “Why can’t you create something like that around here?”


We’ve seen things like this happen again and again for more than ten years. As advertising agency people, we have the opportunity to work with a lot of creative types. We’re not just talking about designers and artists; we’re talking about people with the ability to solve old problems in new, imaginative ways. Advertising agencies and marketing departments attract thousands of these types. Yet it’s rare to see a creative person unleash his or her full potential at work.


We call this effect the Proximity Paradox, and that’s what this book is all about. Proximity is the effect that shackles creativity, dilutes innovation, steers brave people down safe roads, and pushes leading-edge companies to the back of the pack. It’s what was blocking your view when a competitor blindsided you. It’s what eventually wore down your bold, inventive younger self, and it’s what is still wearing you down today.


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Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It
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    It was a warm Monday in late June, just before rush hour. Ann and David Wherley boarded the first car of Metro Train 112, bound for Washington, DC, on their way home from an orientation for hospital volunteers. A young woman gave up her seat near the front of the car, and the Wherleys sat together, inseparable as they had been since high school. David, sixty-two, had retired recently, and the couple was looking forward to their fortieth wedding anniversary and a trip to Europe.
    David had been a decorated fighter pilot and Air Force officer. In fact, during the 9/ 11 attacks, he was the general who scrambled fighter jets over Washington and ordered pilots to use their discretion to shoot down any passenger plane that threatened the city. But even as a commanding general, he refused to be chauffeured around. He loved taking the Metro.
    At 4:58 p.m., a screech interrupted the rhythmic click-clack of the wheels as the driver slammed on the emergency brake. Then came a cacophony of broken glass, bending metal, and screams as Train 112 slammed into something: a train inexplicably stopped on the tracks. The impact drove a thirteen-foot-thick wall of debris—a mass of crushed seats, ceiling panels, and metal posts—into Train 112 and killed David, Ann, and seven others.
    Such a collision should have been impossible. The entire Washington Metro system, made up of over one hundred miles of track, was wired to detect and control trains. When trains got too close to each other, they would automatically slow down. But that day, as Train 112 rounded a curve, another train sat stopped on the tracks ahead—present in the real world, but somehow invisible to the track sensors. Train 112 automatically accelerated; after all, the sensors showed that the track was clear. By the time the driver saw the stopped train and hit the emergency brake, the collision was inevitable.
     As rescue workers pulled injured riders from the wreckage, Metro engineers got to work. They needed to make sure that other passengers weren’t at risk. And to do that, they had to solve a mystery: How does a train twice the length of a football field just disappear?

Alarming failures like the crash of Train 112 happen all the time.
Take a look at this list of headlines, all from a single week:
It might sound like an exceptionally bad week, but there was nothing special about it. Hardly a week goes by without a handful of meltdowns. One week it’s an industrial accident, another it’s a bankruptcy, and another it’s an awful medical error. Even small issues can wreak great havoc. In recent years, for example, several airlines have grounded their entire fleets of planes because of glitches in their technology systems, stranding passengers for days. These problems may make us angry, but they don’t surprise us anymore. To be alive in the twenty-first century is to rely on countless complex systems that profoundly affect our lives—from the electrical grid and water treatment plants to transportation systems and communication networks to healthcare and the law. But sometimes our systems fail us.
    These failures—and even large-scale meltdowns like BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the global financial crisis—seem to stem from very different problems. But their underlying causes turn out to be surprisingly similar. These events have a shared DNA, one that researchers are just beginning to understand. That shared DNA means that failures in one industry can provide lessons for people in other fields: dentists can learn from pilots, and marketing teams from SWAT teams. Understanding the deep causes of failure in high-stakes, exotic domains like deepwater drilling and high-altitude mountaineering can teach us lessons about failure in our more ordinary systems, too. It turns out that everyday meltdowns—failed projects, bad hiring decisions, and even disastrous dinner parties—have a lot in common with oil spills and mountaineering accidents. Fortunately, over the past few decades, researchers around the world have found solutions that can transform how we make decisions, build our teams, design our systems, and prevent the kinds of meltdowns that have become all too common.
    This book has two parts. The first explores why our systems fail. It reveals that the same reasons lie behind what appear to be very different events: a social media disaster at Starbucks, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, a meltdown on Wall Street, and a strange scandal in small-town post offices in the United Kingdom. Part One also explores the paradox of progress: as our systems have become more capable, they have also become more complex and less forgiving, creating an environment where small mistakes can turn into massive failures. Systems that were once innocuous can now accidentally kill people, bankrupt companies, and jail the innocent. And Part One shows that the changes that made our systems vulnerable to accidental failures also provide fertile ground for intentional wrongdoing, like hacking and fraud.
    The second part—the bulk of the book—looks at solutions that we can all use. It shows how people can learn from small errors to find out where bigger threats are brewing, how a receptionist saved a life by speaking up to her boss, and how a training program that pilots initially dismissed as “charm school” became one of the reasons flying is safer than ever. It examines why diversity helps us avoid big mistakes and what Everest climbers and Boeing engineers can teach us about the power of simplicity. We’ll learn how film crews and ER teams manage surprises—and how their approach could have saved the mismanaged Facebook IPO and Target’s failed Canadian expansion. And we’ll revisit the puzzle of the disappearing Metro train and see how close engineers were to averting that tragedy.

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The Greenhouse Approach

The Greenhouse Approach

Cultivating Intrapreneurship in Companies and Organizations
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Planting the Seeds of Rebellion

“There’s a rebel lying deep in my soul.” — Clint Eastwood

In order to have true innovation — to really break through and todisrupt and see things in a radically different light — rules must be broken.

My guess is right now you might be inclined to toss this book defiantly across the room in disbelief. “We need to break rules? What kind of crazy advice is that? It will be chaos!”

Remember what we said about rules. It’s basically the same with first principles versus assumptions: we need both, but we need much more of one and much less of the other. What I want to do in this chapter is urge you to rethink the way you and your company do things; I want you to challenge your own assumptions. I want you to be your own rebel; I want you to be your own disruptor.

Of course, if you are like most people, your first response will be resistance. A simple fact is that we tend to be okay with the status quo. And we will accommodate the status quo as long as we can. When we were children at school there was always at least one kid who refused to behave. “You’re making it difficult for all the other children!” warned the teacher. Here’s the thing: for whatever reason, that kid saw the world differently. They also saw their own role in the world differently. They didn’t care about obeying the rules or complying with an agenda. Isn’t that why we call them “rebels”?

Here’s a question that underscores everything that we will be discussing, not only in this chapter but throughout The Greeenhouse Approach: When it comes to breaking rules, who wins and who loses? Another perspective on this question might be thinking about the difference between a rebellion and a mutiny. Here’s a hint: one can be led and directed, the other can’t.

It’s a simple commodity known (and readily available) to us all. We sprinkle it on foods to bring out their flavours. Some of us use salt to preserve foods, and many of us try not to eat too much of it.

For most people today, that’s where the salt connection ends.

But salt is symbolic to Indians. It is a symbol of freedom and independence.

Salt was once a highly valued substance. Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt rather than gold. (He wasn’t worth his salt.) The word “salary” comes from the Latin word for “salt.”

During the nineteenth century, India was under the British Raj (British Rule), and Indian nationals were severely oppressed. The primary objective of the Raj? To export cheap raw materials from India to England. To do this, the Raj imposed unfair laws on the native Indian population, many of whom were treated cruelly, imprisoned, and died of starvation.

To prevent salt smuggling and to collect customs on tobacco, sugar, and other commodities, the Raj constructed a four-thousand-kilometre wall basically down the centre of the county. Known as the “Inland Customs Line,” the wall was three metres high and four metres thick. It was constructed from materials like thorny bushes, stakes, and prickly plum branches and was designed to be impenetrable.

For the enslaved Indians, this wall was a visible and humiliating symbol of the oppression of the British Raj. It stood for ten years, until 1879, when it was decided it posed too great a barrier to travel and trade; maintenance costs, too, proved exorbitantly high.

The removal of the wall, however, failed to address the core problem of the oppression of India’s enormous population. Indians were prevented from collecting or selling salt, for instance, a staple in the Indian diet. The Salt Act of 1882 required Indians to buy salt only from the British (and, of course, the commodity was heavily taxed, preventing most citizens from being able to afford it). Okay. What does any of this have to do with business and innovation?

Gandhi: The Rebel of Passive Resistance Mahatma Gandhi was a great man. He was the leader of the independence movement that liberated India from British rule. Most astonishingly, he achieved this through nonviolent means, encouraging acts of mass civil disobedience.

One of the most famous examples of these was the Salt March.

In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi made a bold statement that would lead to the liberation of India. His Salt March saw him (and tens of thousands of followers) march 240 kilometres to the ocean. The goal was to simply pick up a handful of salt in defiance of the Salt Act.

Gandhi and sixty thousand others were arrested in this peaceful protest, but Gandhi was a force to be reckoned with. The mass civil disobedience led by Gandhi continued after his imprisonment and it continued until he and the viceroy of India were able to come to an agreement that would see Gandhi travel to London to be given a voice at a conference on the future of India. Gandhi was acknowledged by the British as a force it could neither ignore nor overwhelm. Gandhi’s strategy of peaceful resistance changed history, and he would become an inspiration for other human rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Their struggles are an incredibly powerful lesson in how commitment to first principles, and thinking differently about the power of the status quo can be liberating. An adversary is never so powerful as to be invincible — especially when the adversary is no farther away than our own assumptions or habits. The key is being a creative disruptor. Like Coco Chanel.

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8 Moments of Power in Coaching

8 Moments of Power in Coaching

How to Design and Deliver High-Performance Feedback to all Employees
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