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About the Node Not Taken

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Steady There, Young Philosopher

My hardworking, entrepreneurial colleague surprised me in conversation the other day:

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like had I stayed in the corporate world—what would I be doing now?

My friend was in one of the periodic slumps that happen to anyone building a business of their own. Those slumps squeeze out long-suppressed questions. These are the questions that precipitate momentary crises of faith for those constructing wings as they plummet.

No. Really. Is there an actual "Afton State Park"?

No. Really. Is there an actual “Afton State Park”?

Young philosophers like to ponder the “What ifs” of life:

  • What if I had dated that person rather than this person?
  • What if I had taken that job rather than this job?
  • What if I had studied engineering rather than philosophy? (One certain answer: the world would have to cope with a very bad engineer.)
  • What if had dived 12 inches to the left and missed that rock in the lake?

One problem with our casual “What ifs” is that they often assume a straight line from the point of decision. You go this way. You go that way. Two roads diverging in a yellow wood.

But what if our lives are composed of nodes that become roads? What if each decision is followed by another so that our paths are constantly changing in real-time?

Another problem with casual “What ifs” is they forget the tiny but forceful pinpricks of relationship and conversation and motivation that accompany every choice. Thousands of tiny insights and histories and dreams contribute to each action as well as each subsequent action.

Personally, I cannot help but wonder if the nodes that become roads all lead to the place/people we were meant to be in the first place. Wait—don’t call me a determinist yet. Stick with me: what I mean is that whether we stayed in the corporation or went on our own or dropped everything to join the circus, would we end up as the kind of people we were meant to be?

This is not a perfect thought: we build things into our lives, good and bad, by daily habit. We grow, or not, because of those habits and subsequent opportunities. Admittedly, the determinist take on choice has holes.

But I’m reminded of that inveterate letter writer who wrote his friends about walking in the “good works” begun in them.

Today I’m looking for nodes and roads.

And I hope to step in a good work along the way.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Don’t Bother Me. I’m on Fire.

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Too Busy: 4 Takes

  • My contact is too busy to talk about collaboration: “Too many deliverables, scheduled too tightly.”
  • Another colleague laments the lack of time to think ahead about the broader picture. She chides the constant race to get stuff done.
  • A friend observing the inner-workings of a logistics department 2000 miles from where he was trained could identify key process components missing. The very components that created the immediate chaos the team waded through each day.Gears-3-10162014

We earn our keep by being busy. None of us want the boss to wander by and say, “Fire up that keyboard/drill press/classroom/spreadsheet and get to work.”

Busy is always good.

There are no exceptions.

And yet:

  1. We lament “busy” but secretly get a buzz from opening the adrenalin spigot.
  2. Busy looks productive. But looks can deceive. We easily deceive ourselves with busyness.
  3. When taken out of action (for instance, when downsized/right-sized/laid-off/fired), we suddenly have time to ask:
    • “Where am I?” and
    • “What (the heck) am I doing?” and maybe
    • “What was I thinking?”
  4. No one likes the off-balance, adrenalin-free stance of waiting, watching, knocking and waiting. Are we genetically predisposed to seek action? After all, aren’t verbs the action-heroes in our favorite writing?

It’s hard work to look at the bigger picture and make difficult choices about direction, use of resources, usefulness. And yet those are the very questions that help us move forward. As the wheel of seasons grind toward winter in Minnesota, we might take a page from the farmer’s playbook and let snowy fields lie.

Even on purpose: the fallow field may allow us productive time to consider what it means to be productive.

Versus just busy.


Dumb sketch credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

October 16, 2014 at 10:06 am

Beware the Information Hoarders in Your Office

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Collaboration opens as the sharing economy pushes back into your organization

Old-School Corporate Climbers held information and doled it out on a need-to-know basis. Knowing secrets was their key to moving up and sometimes they purposely withheld information so you might fail/they might succeed.

Maybe you know someone like this.


But as we watch the sharing economy slip free of social media venues and push back into organizations (simultaneously raising the expectation of being heard), I expect we’ll see another kind of corporate operative: the sharer. Maybe I’ll call that person the Sharing-Economy Newbie. In this new world of sharing information, the Sharing-Economy Newbie shares information freely and in a way that allows others to collaborate. The power the surrounds them will not be command-and-control power, it will be the power that invites participation.

Then again, human nature being what it is, there will always be information hoarders. Old-School Corporate Climbers will always find their way. But if we intentionally build cultures that reward information sharing and collaboration, the organization, its mission, and humanity are the big winners.

Maybe there are some who prefer a command-and-control culture of being told what to do at every turn, but there will be fewer and fewer every year.


Dumb sketch credit: Kirk Livingston

Your Office Needs More “Yes, and…” Men and Women

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 How to Grow Collaborators 1-2-3

  1. Share your first thoughts as if they were dumb sketches.
  2. Wait for—look for—and welcome reactions.
  3. Then say “Yes, and ….”
  4. Rinse & repeat.
Clear a space for your team.

Clear a space for your team.

You model commitment to collaboration by sharing your first thoughts. This dumb sketch approach to life makes you vulnerable and open to criticism. And there will be criticism. But vulnerability + time creates serious ballast around the notion of getting full engagement from all those around.

Your “Yes, and…” is the other shoe that drops to indicate you are also taking your colleagues seriously. It doesn’t matter whether your colleagues are bosses or employees, “Yes, and…” works up and down the corporate food chain. “Yes, and…” is your go-to reaction to ideas. People will gradually come to understand you think the world needs more ideas with legs and feet, ideas that accomplish stuff.

As kids we taunted each other with how sticks and stones break bones but words, well…you know. But it turns out words have a more complicated existence. In many respects, words have far more power than we ever guessed. And in this growing of collaborators, our words can make stuff happen out in the world (a “speech-act,” one might say). It only takes one committed collaborant (I think I just made up a word or re-purposed a French word) to begin to clear a safe space for collaboration. That space will invite collaborators, who become a nucleus to change a team, a group, an organization—and more.

How will you encourage collaboration today?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

September 17, 2014 at 9:38 am

How LinkedIn Helps Before You Are Between Jobs

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Generate The Thing Between

LinkedIn is a powerful tool for connection. But lots of people, once they land the job, put connection on the back burner. Some take it off the stove entirely—and that is a mistake, especially in this economy. I know this because many friends and colleagues are on radio silence most of the time. Until rumors of layoff float by. Then it’s connections galore.

Don’t let connections go dormant.

Don’t let connections go dormant.

Connection is something that happens long before you have a need or want to generate a sale. In fact, connection is not about the need or the sale, it is something entirely different. And we make LinkedIn frenemies when we mistake connection for a sale.

For those who understand the importance of connections outside immediate work and building relationships widely, there is a great joy in getting to know people and simply seeing what might happen. It’s not even an introvert/extrovert thing. It is a possibility thing. Maybe it is a thing for dreamers, but I think not. It is for anyone who starts to wonder what is possible outside the structure that encases their days.

This openness to others—this beckoning to others, this waving them close—is the early move toward collaboration. It is the ordinary conversation that starts to generate new things between you, seemingly by magic. It is the beginning of finding common ground that eventually leads to “Wait—what could we do together?”

Curiously, openness to others has a way of working backward into our present job so that we start to see new ways of working, collaborating and connecting.

When teaching college students about professional writing, I try to help them understand that the best jobs are the ones not advertised. The best jobs open and shut before ever posted on a web page or printed as a classified ad. Those jobs are available only to connections. Those jobs are almost incidental to the connection: friends see what you do, how fun you are to work with. Their synapses fire and they say to themselves, “She might be perfect for this need we have.”

Maintaining and growing connection is not for a someday need or someday sale. It is a piece of being human and carries a glory all its own.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Doing Versus Planning To Do

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Stay close to the work



Man is after all a finite being in capacities and powers of doing actual work. But when it comes to planning, one mind can in a few hours think out enough work to keep a thousand men employed for years.


McCullough, David. The Great Bridge (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 381. Quoted in Berkun, Scott. The Year Without Pants (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 67.



Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

September 2, 2014 at 9:18 am

Could Your Organization Grow Your Spirit?

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LEED-like certification for human-spirit-sustainable workplaces

LEED certification is a rating system that recognizes a building’s sustainability. LEED or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, rates a new building project using five different categories:

  1. Site location
  2. Water conservation
  3. Energy efficiency
  4. Materials
  5. Indoor air quality

Businesses and organizations with the highest ratings display them as a sort of badge of honor for the public to see.

What if there were some system to measure and rate the culture within a company or organization? Since we worry about bullying at school and we’re starting to recognize bullies in the office and toxic corporate cultures, does it make sense to start thinking about organizations that sustain people rather than beat them?


For instance, what if any organization was judged by these four categories:

  1. Bias toward collaboration
  2. Employee engagement indicators
  3. Mix of top-down messaging with true conversation
  4. Ratio of CEO-pay to rank-and-file pay

Seem ridiculous?

It would be difficult to measure many of these, especially since most of the categories seem so subjective. And yet, would it be impossible to measure? Would it be worthwhile to measure? Are we already moving in that direction?

In Minneapolis/St. Paul—like any set of cities—insider talk has long identified those cut-throat corporate and institutional cultures that routinely toss human capital to the side. Insider talk also identifies those bosses, managers and C-suite people without empathy and/or ethical moorings. New employees are generally forewarned when they sign up.

Of course, business is still about earning a living for the people involved even as the organization serves some human need. So don’t think I’m championing some communistic collective. Profits will and must be made to help society move forward.

But as we move toward fuller employment, workers will become more choosy about where they spend their days. And those cultures that have a less sustainable ethos will not be the winners.

I’m not convinced I’ve identified the right categories to measure. What categories would you include?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston


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