Is it business or is it personal?

This week I am in the process of writing a number of proposals and issuing contracts to be reviewed in what appears to be a set-up for a very busy 3rd quarter. What is interesting from a work perspective is that the majority of this busy-ness is coming from new and unexpected sources. My traditional clients, who have been fairly quiet this year, represent a smaller portion of the workload than at this time last year. So what is driving this sudden boom? Apparently personal referrals from folks I would describe as friends.

I recently sat down for a day of training on the Cartus model for cross cultural training for relocating expatriates. I will be representing Cartus in South China (a part of the new business parade) and had a chance to go over their material with super-star cross cultural trainer Dana Breitenstein. Dana made an interesting metaphor that I had heard before from Chris Barclay (who also cites Dana as source material) that compares our western (especially US) cultural model to the Asian model is like comparing an orange and a coconut. Using this metaphor Dana points out that in western culture we find it easy to compartmentalize our lives into different segments, like portions of an orange, a model that is often used in things like western time management. The coconut of course has a tough outer layer to crack through and inside everything runs together.

Orange slices and coconut juice...

I find this model somewhat challenging. Coming from an Italian-American family background (another potential hybrid orange/ coconut culture) I found the business model in Italy fascinating with the emphasis on small family run businesses that operate in an ongoing guild culture. Work is so integrated into the family mindset that there is an Italian expression that roughly translates into “The first generation builds, the second generation thrives, and the third generation wastes.” An interesting way to think of a business cycle and that most small businesses are family run for about three generations before they tank. The Italian mindset seems to have blurred the size of the orange chunks, but there seems to be a clear division in social roles and responsibilities. So maybe it is a coconut flavored orange hybrid?

Working as a largely independent contractor (building a small business that helps other people be independent contractors) I have to wonder how much of my life operates from an orange perspective or coconut perspective. In the past couple of years my ability to make money has largely been tied to my ability to create and leverage positive word of mouth. I recently went through the process of being vetted to work with the corporate education arm of Duke University and found the process to be an interesting study in how we divide up our personal and private lives.

As I collected referral letters and asked various past clients to keep an eye out for a letter from inquiring administrators I began to look at how I classified these people. By and large I have sat down and had dinner and talked about family with virtually all of them. In some cases I have met their family and they have met mine. The fact that I work with my wife somewhat accelerates this process. While I drew great reviews none of these letters and referrals made reference to these human connections, a fact I accepted as part of the business world. In other words a neat orange slice known as my professional background and professional relationships.

When Michael tells Sonny it's strictly business we assume it's the orange model...

What surprises me is that at the same time I was going through the very American process of being vetted based on referrals I was also being promoted by a friend internally at another company. I didn’t ask to be promoted internally but on his own steam my friend asked for an outline to my cross-cultural program, took it to their management institute, and proceeded to tell them that I was next best thing since sliced bread in someone else’s kitchen. I now have a busy calendar of work with them in the coming months. I am pretty sure he didn’t sell me based on the merits of our friendship but rather on the quality of my work from past projects. Which asks the question, “at what point do we begin to translate our coconut qualities into orange slice context?”

What this makes me wonder then is “When I begin to blend the nicely compartmentalized sections of my life like work, family, and friends is it because I am doing business in a coconut world or is the world of small business inherently more coconut like?” The reality for me at this point is that a coconut world is better in the start up phase (again from my point of view other people may experience something else), but is there a point where it becomes a liability? I would argue that the entrepreneurial model espoused by web 2.0 thinkers is that the new business world is about inherently blending those lines. Working in your passion, creating a loyal tribe, focusing on the 20,000 people needed to grow a highly personalized brand versus marketing to everyone and hoping to be the next big thing. By being accessible all the time and making us the brand we are beginning to erase the idea of our work persona and our private persona being overly different. It will be interesting to see where this trend takes us in the coming years.

Any ideas of this trend? Sound off in the comments…


The Impact of Training on Dogma

Last week we hosted Dr. Roger Greenaway ( to help deliver a program on reviewing skills and a starter for learning transfer here in Shenzhen. This is the first time Roger has been in Canton (unless you count Hong Kong) so it was a real treat to have him visit. Roger’s methodology has had a big impact on how I view experiential training and much to my surprise the way I was indoctrinated into that methodology is not exactly how he would frame it himself. There are some roots to this that go back about ten years, but this is something I only learned last week.

Buddy Christ

Similar to the source material but not really

In short Roger delivered training to IWNC and later delivered training for PWL when I was there. What’s really interesting though is that Roger’s workshop with PWL in 2001 had more impact than the training I actually joined there in 2004. The story goes something like this… In 2001 Roger decided to experiment with “Clean Language” during his workshop with what was at the time the core facilitators. In short clean language has zero content, it basically reflects back everything that the listener says as a question. So if you say “I had a crappy day today because Mr. X was a jerk.” I would say “What did he do to make you feel/ choose to feel that way.” By scrubbing content it leaves the interpretation up to the listener or in this case training participants. For whatever reason this part of Roger’s workshop really stuck, for years even after being trained by Roger my debriefing was largely reflective or a mirror of this “clean language” format taught three years before hand. A lot of the lessons from both 2001 and 2004 stuck in the organization but this one became sticky and rubbed off from a group of trainees who left the company before I started working there and stayed to some degree after I left.

Good training and learning events should be sticky, they should rub off on the participants and rub off on other people they come in contact with afterwards. The ideas should linger inside an organization even after the initial learners have left. In this sense the training in 2001 was so sticky it took me ten years later (remember I wasn’t in the training) to become consciously aware of how I still thought of debriefing (at least partially) as an exercise in clean language. Even being fully aware of the impact of this style of training there are also some deep rooted behavioral conditioning that I became aware of and actually consciously adopted when I became aware of it.

In recent years I have, thanks to the solid effort of Michael Nelson at ALTEC, been working on my sense of drama and spectacle in training. That said I try to make the drama about the event and less focused on me, I realize the reason for this comes from the model of facilitation that had been sticky enough to reach across from Europe and 30 years time to affect how I view learning. In this model of facilitation the emphasis is on the learner taking central stage and being highly involved in doing something during the process of learning. The trainer or educator fills a minimal roll to reflect action back onto the learner. This flies in the face of a lot training in China which is often about the educator and being lectured to. Even the “Western education” model here actively adopts terms like “Entertrainer” and “Edutainer” to put the emphasis up front and on the trainer. Yes the quotation marks indicate that I think this kind of training is less substantial and has less impact. Very likely this belief stems from the Dogma I absorbed and still to some degree adhere to.

David Brent Models Excellent Entertraining Behaviors

Training, as it was modeled to me, followed the four basic requirements laid out by Kolb for experiential learning. Ironically at the time nobody ever told me that was what I was absorbing, experiential learning with highly dis-associative facilitation is basically incapable of modelling theory and purely emphasizes the experience and deduction. It wasn’t until I started designing my own TTT and adding a touch of theory to explain how experiential learning works that I realized it was what I had been doing all along. Interestingly I felt a bit cheated when I figured that there was a theory tied to the dogma I had rather unknowingly internalized for the better part of a decade.

The learning point for me from all this has been about the importance of planning ahead to make learning sticky in your organization. Training that sticks stays with the trainee and that is great but to make it really worthwhile plan to make sure that the ideas and behaviors stay around long after the training is done. It is probably a bonus if what turns out to be sticky is what you really want to rub off on your team and future team members though…

If you would like to see some of the pictures from Roger’s workshop here in Shenzhen go to

Underpants Gnomes Ahead!

A few years ago I got to catch up with a friend of mine from high school who served in the initial invasion of Iraq as an Army Ranger. He told me that the term for the invasion as dubbed by the rangers he served with was Operation Underpants Gnomes. For those of you who didn’t watch South Park in the late 90’s you might have missed this particular cultural nugget. To summarize the boys from South Park meet a group on entrepreneurial gnomes with a simple business equation 1. Collect Underpants 2. ? 3. Profit/We all get rich.

What the rangers in the Iraq invasion were saying was that step 1 = Invade Iraq, step 2 = ?, step 3 = Freedom in the Middle East. Clearly 8 years later we are still in the “?” phase that the rangers had identified on the ground in very short order. From my experience though Underpants Gnomes Thinking is a danger that falls into a lot of our lives ranging from business decisions to personal matters. I see no shortage of people with a clear step 1 of “let’s set up production in China” leading to step 3 “then we get rich.” Not a lot of step thinking happens until they get on the ground and have to actually implement step 1.

I work in a highly labour intensive field and it is real tendency to watch companies in my industry look for a silver bullet. Or in underpants Gnome thinking a really good step 1. Luckily we don’t see many people trying to actually steal underwear, but we do get a lot of “If we can get one great idea,” or one great event, or be the first to be licensed to distribute such and such product. I see a lot of people believe that a strong e-mail database, a good flier, and good idea equal a must win marketing strategy. Eg instant sales through e-mail or web hits to the homepage. They miss the middle step of making phone calls and knocking on doors and spreading word of mouth. I’ve been thinking about this as I wrap up a marketing drive for an open workshop next week. I think I might have been succumbing a bit to Underpants Gnome thinking. The result is that the past couple of weeks I have been sucked into a lot of last minute hard sales and negotiations I should have already done more than a month or two ago.

Does this look like anyone you work with?

It’s worth sitting down with your team to analyze what constitutes a well formed step 2 and what qualifies as part of step 1. Ask yourself bluntly do you have a step 2 that constitutes a plan on the ground that will save stress and headaches later or our you just sending in your troops hoping for best results with sheer numbers? As the underpants Gnomes can attest having a great step 1 can only get you so far.