Category Archives: Learning

Write It Down

A very small event occurred yesterday. On the surface, it usually doesn’t mean much, but I try to recognize them anyway. The pen I had been using to take notes on my activities and calls with, to jot down ideas with, and to work out solutions with, ran out of ink. As I said, on the surface, it didn’t mean much other than I had written down enough stuff that I had exhausted the ink cartridge in one of those disposable pens that I like to use. And as I said, it was a little thing, but I noticed it.

So, why am I writing about such a seemingly innocuous topic?

I learned long ago, back in college, in a time long before Personal Computers, that the quality of what I was able to learn, retain and utilize was directly related to what I wrote down. It was just me, but writing something helped me get it.

This of course was then the only way to capture information when taking notes in a lecture. This was a time before smart phones that enabled you to play Angry Birds video games in class while they recorded the entire lecture for you to peruse at some later time when you weren’t so focused on something else. It was a time when the professor’s words were ephemeral. They were spoken and then they were gone.

I found that intently listening was not good enough. If I physically wrote them down I not only captured them on paper, I captured them much better in my own mind. Revisiting the notes was always useful when it came time to study, but it was the initial writing down of the information that provided the most value.

When it came time for studying, I found that annotating those already written notes, in effect rewriting them, helped me prepare that much better. Somehow the act of writing helped me learn and retain information that much better.

When I told some of my friends about this study and retention technique, they looked at me like I was from another planet. I still used it anyway.

I thought about this idea, which is no mean feat for a then teenager. I wondered if the simple act of writing down concepts and notes as they pertain to lectures was such an aid to my learning and retention, would it also work with my academic reading load?

Till then I, like most of my student peers, just used a highlighter to highlight those passages in text books that I thought were important. I then tried taking notes on the textbook assignments I had instead of just the typical highlighting. It seemed to work as well. At least for me, it worked. I retained and was able to utilize the information far better than when I just read and highlighted it.

These realizations drove several changes in my behavior that still stay with me today. Whenever I need to learn and retain something I write it down. I learned that I no longer wanted lose-leaf binders and discrete sheets of paper. Paper would become ragged and eventually tear and fall out. I wanted permanently bound composition notebooks so the notes would always be there.

I didn’t want large, full sheet sized notebooks as they were prone to succumbing to the abuse that repeated access would cause, nor did I want the small note card sized ones as those did not allow for sufficient information per page. Hard cardboard or plastic covers were also desirable.

The simple act of my pen running out of ink got me to thinking about all of this learning, and retention and utilization of information. I wondered if it was just me or did others utilize this practice. I noticed that some of my now professional peers in the office also had notebooks, although many did not. As PCs have continued to proliferate, this notebook habit seems to be rarer and rarer.

I have tried to replace my notebooks with my PC. There are a couple of things holding me back. First, although I took typing in high school, I am still basically a “two-finger” typist. If I really get going, the number might expand to four, but never approaches the ultimate of using all ten fingers. The second is, that when I used the PC instead of the notebook, I didn’t retain the information nearly as well. It just didn’t work as well as writing it down for me.

I wondered if this was just me, or if others had found the same thing, so I Googled it. By the way, I continue to find it interesting how in this language a proper noun, the name of a company, can become a verb. Sort of like how having a “party” has now morphed into “partying”. I guess this is also the origin of “Xeroxing” as well.

Sorry. I digressed.

I searched “information retention from writing”. Holy smokes. A ton of stuff came up, supporting and detailing just what I have been talking about.

“A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop”

“Why Using Pen And Paper, Not Laptops, Boosts Memory: Writing Notes Helps Recall Concepts, Ability To Understand”

“Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension”

“Writing by hand strengthens the learning process. When typing on a keyboard, this process may be impaired.”

These are just some of the articles that came up on the first page, and they are predominantly from the last ten years or so. They also seem to deal with the difference in learning between typing and writing, although the last couple do deal with the cognitive and comprehension benefits of writing something down.

This was just the first page. Google said there was something on the order of one hundred and twenty-one million results to my search. Judging by the first hits, I am going to guess that the rest will be rather supportive of the position.

That position, as you might guess, is write it down.

Ah, but there are probably some out there that are at least thinking to themselves that this is all well and good, and after all this discussion about the value of writing things down, does he “write” down his blogs and then transcribe them on the computer? The answer is no. I do not. I actually compose at the computer.

I have thought about this as well.

The best description of the difference that I can come up with is that when I want to learn and retain information, I write it down. I am trying to take external information and internalize it. Writing it down is part of the process that helps me do this more efficiently.

On the other hand, when I am trying to take thoughts and information that are already internalized and express them, I find that the keyboard is actually a faster methodology. I can compose better at the keyboard.

It seems that at least in this cognitive approach technology has the benefit of improving the expression of the written word, but not so much the learning or retention of the information that it represents.

We all like to think of ourselves as somewhat unique. However, there are many things that we have in common. Understanding how we learn is something of a baseline that can also help us understand how we work, and more importantly how we can work better.

As business continues to increase in complexity and velocity, we have more and more information that we need to find ways to internalize that much faster. I think we need to understand that the tools that we employ, at least for me, are best utilized at helping in the expressing of our ideas. The taking of what we have and providing it to others.

On the other side of the same coin though, they are probably not so much good in the process of learning and utilizing of the ideas and information that others have provided via the same medium.

I think this is a point that needs to be remembered going forward. Computers and all the other forms of automation and intelligence that are out there, are better applied as capabilities that enable us to express the information that we have already internalized, but they are not nearly so good, or so helpful in aiding us in the understanding or internalizing of the information that they provide us.

If you really want to learn something, all the data and the research says that one of the best ways to do it is to write it down.

I think I’ll go get another disposable pen out of the pack now.

Finding Inspiration

I need to send out thanks to my friend Ulrich for the inspiration for this post. Uli is a friend that I met in Brazil on a trip sometime back. He had some really amazing electronic gizmos and gadgets that made me quite jealous. While we were talking about his electronics preferences the conversation shifted, as it often does to other topics. One of the topics we touched on was our reading preferences, and the types of books that we both drew inspiration from. I mentioned that I like to read, and prefer to read a broad range of literary genres and topics. Uli too likes to read but said he usually keeps his reading centered on business and management oriented books and materials. Those happen to be one of the specific genres that I for the most part avoid. It was interesting that we had such divergent approaches to the items that we read, and the information we applied to our business responsibilities.

As I have noted in the past, many of the items I have read seemed initially to be outside of a direct association with business and management. This isn’t by chance. I have read many management articles and books. However in doing so, from my own point of view, I started to notice many similarities to the tenets covered, and only slight variations in the applications of them. There were only so many ways to dress up the ideas of the need to be flexible, that things are going to change and how to deal with these inevitabilities.

That type of management book similarity has sent me off in a couple of different directions when it came to reading and applying what I read to business. One direction I went was into the past to see where many of these “new and improved – yet strangely similar” business strategies came from. I have covered this topic several times in the past. Remember, business, commerce, and strategy has been around almost as long as humans have been around. I have found that sometimes the best books about business are not actually about business. If I need true specific business management input or strategy I go to the four texts that I see as the basis for just about everything in business management and leadership that has been written since. They are:

The Art of War by Sun Tzu. This is a twenty five hundred year old text written by a pre-china general that never lost an engagement that is still used in military academies around the world, and in many business schools.
The Prince by Machiavelli. A sixteenth century political and strategic treatise by an Italian diplomat and political theorist.
The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. A text on focus, adaptation and martial arts by a seventeenth century Japanese swordsman.
The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracian. A book of maxims for dealing with the real world written by a seventeenth century Spanish monk.

These are not the books for everyone. These are just the primary books that I turn to when I need a jumping off point for inspiration on a specific business or related issue. I continue to reread them and usually pick up something new every time I do.

I recommended them to Uli. We will see if he reads them and agrees with my assessment of them, or if he continues to buy and read the latest derivative management strategy books that are on the market. I guess it doesn’t really matter as long as he is enjoying and finding value in what he is reading.

The other direction that I go is to read just about anything but management books. This covers the literary spectrum from magazine articles to Blogs to Science Fiction novels to Classic Literature. Much of it is not directly applicable to anything associated with business and leadership, but occasionally there are some interesting aspects that present themselves. Whenever I per chance happen to make one of these unexpected business leadership synaptic connections with something that I have read I try to capture it specifically and share it here. Hence the idea of inspiration as the topic for this piece.

Uli on the other hand noted that the source of business inspiration for him came from business oriented literature, be it articles or books. If this works for him, then great. There seems to be a never ending supply of new management and business oriented articles and books every day for him to read. If they provide inspiration to some of their readers then there must be some value in them.

Inspiration for me is a strange element. I have very seldom had it strike me metaphorically from the blue. I normally get it by recognizing analogies, connections and parallels to seemingly unrelated events and topics. I look for stories of success or leadership in seemingly unrelated fields and then wonder how it might be applicable to business. This approach has led me to better understand the leadership secrets of Captain Kirk from the Star Trek shows and movies, as well as how Jerry Seinfeld applied himself to his craft as a writer to such a successful extent. Along a non-literary line, it has also taught me how to deal with and negotiate with my soon to be fifteen year old son when it is time for him to mow the yard. Success can be achieved from many different directions.

The point here is to start recognizing what keys your specific moments of inspiration. What are you doing, what are you reading, who are you talking to when you have your best ideas? More importantly how do you recognize them when they occur and how do you capture them? There is something about those environments that triggered the creative process. A little self analysis and cognitive association will go a long way here.

I have never been able to innovate because I have read a book on how to innovate. I have read many other books on many other topics that I cannot do, even though I have read about them. I have read about time and space travel and even though I might like to try it I don’t think I can do it just because I have read a book about it. On the other hand, I did learn about physics and differential calculus from books, but I also had a reasonably highly skilled mentor / professor to help me there. Almost all the innovations that I have been involved in have come from trying to apply something new from outside the accepted business norm, to the business norm. That and a significant amount of stubbornness in refusing to listen while everyone else patiently explained to me why my new idea would never work.

It is a significant step going from knowing where you can hope to find inspiration to actually doing something with the inspiration you found.

I also think that part of the reason that I have been able to draw business inspiration from such a diverse literary catalog stems from the fact that I genuinely like to read. I enjoy books. That may be the key to finding inspiration, at least for me, and probably others. I seem to draw my inspiration from relating the things I like to do, like reading to the other things I enjoy in business. I would think that this might be the case for others as well. Conversely, I would guess if you dislike something enough it may be a source of inspiration in how to avoid or improve it. I’ll have to think about that one a little more.

Inspiration doesn’t seem to be a well that I can just wonder over to and dip a bucket in and come out with a new idea. It is more of an understanding of how things work and how I relate to them, and putting myself in the positions where there has been a proven tendency to find inspiration, and then being aware enough to recognize it when it hits. It seems to be the doing of something, possible fully unrelated to the topic that allows you to form the new associations to the old issues.

For me anyway, that does not usually involve the reading of the latest management self help, or how to innovate book. In this case it came from talking to a friend out those books.

Learn Young

I recently read an article by Julien Smith titled “20 Things I Should Have Known at 20”. I thought it was excellent. Where was he when I was twenty? Looking back at who I was when I was twenty (in my case, at my age I require binoculars, very high power binoculars to look back at myself at the age of twenty) his list of twenty items to know reads like a litany of youthful opportunities. Some I was fortunate enough to have taken advantage of on my own. Some others, not so much.

As I read through Julien Smith’s tips I was not only entertained by how well they applied to the world in general, I was also surprised at how well they applied to the business world specifically. This got me to thinking, which as we all know is a dangerous state for me to be in. I’ll provide a few of Julien’s “tips” for twenty year olds and then follow them up with a few of my corollaries for would be leaders in the business world. Hopefully I won’t be reaching too far and Mr. Smith won’t object too much to the way I have chosen to apply his work.

1.    “The world is trying to keep you stupid. From bank fees to interest rates to miracle diets, people who are not educated are easier to get money from and easier to lead. Educate yourself as much as possible for wealth, independence, and happiness.”

I am not going to say that corporations want to keep their employees stupid. That is definitely not the case. They definitely do however want to communicate their vision, strategy and spin on the status of things. That is how they attempt to manage you. Listen to them carefully when they communicate. Understand what they are saying and almost as importantly what they are not saying. Bad news or difficult issues are almost always couched in other or less direct terms.

Educating yourself on your markets, competitors and business trends is going to be a key. Read up on what the analysts are saying, both the good reports and the bad ones. Leaders don’t put their faith in any one specific source. It is your career and you are going to be responsible for making decisions that will affect you for years to come.

2.    “Do not have faith in institutions to educate you. By the time they build the curriculum, it’s likely that the system is outdated– sometimes utterly broken. You both learn and get respect from people worth getting it from by leading and doing, not by following.”

After having just told you to do your research on not only your company but your competitors and the market in general, it is only fair to tell you not to place all of your faith in that information regardless of the source. Where do you think it came from? The very companies that you were researching. There are very few independent sources of information on businesses. Remember the words of every investment prospectus when it comes to information:

         Past performance is no guarantee of future success.

What companies have done in the past is only a guide to their potential future actions. Learn to take input from several sources, including your gut and instincts, triangulate it as best you can, make a decision and get going. Trust yourself. It’s said that eighty percent of life is just showing up, so show up. Once you get things moving you’ll be surprised at how easy it can be to change the course if you find you need to. Leaders don’t wait until a decision is fait accompli or made for them.

“Read as much as you can. Learn to speed read with high retention. Emerson Spartz taught me this while I was at a Summit Series event. If he reads 2-3 books a week, you can read one.”

Twitter, Facebook, texting and email are not reading. Read novels. Read books. Read articles. Read Blogs. You will be surprised at how much of what you read you retain and can apply to work and your life in general. I have observed that you are perceived by how you communicate. Content, grammar and diction may not be important in today’s immediate forms of communication, but it is crucial in business. Poorly written communications and correspondence in the business world will hold you back. You learn not only the content but also how to better communicate by reading books.

“Connect with everyone, all the time. Be genuine about it. Learn to find something you like in each person, and then speak to that thing.”

Chances are that some time in your career that you are going to have to find a new job. It is the new normal in the business world. It is more effective for a corporation to let people go in one group and hire new or different people in another group at the same time. It may be no comment on your performance or anything else other than the corporate performance. It just happens. Be ready for it.

Learn to retain friends and associates. Be out going. Go to lunch. Maintain a business card catalog and periodically reach out to people. I learned this one much later in my career than I should have. It’s not hard and it does not take much time. When the time comes, and it inevitably will, having an extensive network of contacts and relationships may be crucial to your career. Even if there does not come a time where you need to impose on them, you will be surprised by the opportunities that they can create for you.

“Don’t waste time being shy. Shyness is the belief that your emotions should be the arbitrators of your decision making process when the opposite is actually true.”

Leaders have opinions. Good leaders like team members who also have opinions. If you have a studied and knowledgeable solution to a situation or topic, share it. It is not a competition for attention. It is a desire to get the right answers and more importantly get things done. Notice the difference I have noted. Everyone has an opinion. Not everyone has a solution.

Do not allow a fear of being wrong or a shyness to keep you from providing a solution. I think that it probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: If we had more solutions we would probably have fewer problems. Think about it. Good leaders will search for team members with differing opinions and solutions. Differing approaches almost always result in a stronger team solution.

It’s interesting where we can get our inspiration. I think we all have either been, or are going to be twenty years old at one time in our lives. If you ask my wife she would probably say that I still act as if I were still twenty sometimes, usually, okay, a lot. I think Julien Smith put together twenty items I wish I had known. I won’t go through the other fifteen items. You can read the rest of them at It is also interesting how things that we should know at the age of twenty are also applicable to business at just about any age in life. I guess that learning truly does never stop, especially in business. I probably should have learned that earlier too. I guess I’ll try to learn the ones I missed and apply them from now on.

You Can Take Some Things With You

As we start out on a new year I was looking back at the past one(s). There is no doubt that we have been in, and continue to work through unsettled times. I have several friends that are in the employment market. Some for the first time, and others are repeating the process. I too have been through multiple position changes over the past several years. As I said, I think it is a sign of the times.

When people ask about these multiple positions, I think the reasons for the changes are clear. Companies and businesses are making changes and adapting to new environments that are requiring them to adjust their resource plans at ever increasing speeds in order to deal with the financial demands that they face. Simply put, businesses are increasing staff much more slowly, and reducing staff much more quickly in response to the market pressures than they have in the past. As a result, many of us have had the opportunity to work in multiple environments over this period.

While it has been unstable, challenging and sometimes stressful, it has also provided many of us with the opportunities to work in, and experience different business models and cultures that can’t help but assist us in future business opportunities. Below are some examples of what can be learned and taken away from different and varied assignments.

Many of us have spent the majority of our business careers in a General Manger type environment and structure. This seems to have been a favored structure for North American companies. This structure puts significant value on the performance of the individual and business as the primary metric functions. While it was a very good model for each discrete business unit in the structure, it does create an insular and competitive environment where there is very little cross unit communication or assistance. While it was also very good for rapid response and action (after all there is ultimately only one person making the final decision for the business), it also did not openly foster the need for contribution and buy-in from the entire team.

As Matrix organizations and structures become more popular, a greater emphasis is now being placed on the communication and cooperation between business units that is needed to now get jobs done. Since there is now in effect multiple entities that are required to concur before a decision can be finalized, multiple inputs and contributions are both needed and invited. This structure generates a concurrence and consensus orientation to decisions that reduces the internal conflicts associated with the General Management model, but may take longer for those decisions to occur.

The future will require business leaders to be equally at home and adept at managing in both the General Management decision making / responsibility structure and Matrix management communication / consultative structures. Being comfortable or good in one structure will not be enough. Leaders will have to be able to understand and work well in both structures, probably at the same time.

These times have presented the opportunity, and in many instances demanded that leaders who have been involved with large multi-national organizations to work in and learn how smaller and entrepreneurial organizations function. Understanding how to help small organizations act big, and how some big organizations may need to learn from and in many instances emulate the smaller and more nimble businesses will probably also be a requirement of the future business environment. Since almost all competitors will compete in almost all markets, the ability to be “big” when necessary and “small” when required will be a flexibility key to success in the future. As businesses opportunities will evolve to be situational by market, the ability to recognize, vary and change business approach and behavior to take advantage of them will be a key to future success.

Another opportunity that these times have presented is the opportunity to experience both sides of the “Head Office – Remote Office” divide. The problems, perceptions and bias’ that occur from prolonged involvement in one office structure or the other can affect future performance and views of a leader. Being able to understand and live the different and discrete issues associated with trying to manage remote offices, or being in a remote location managed by a distant head office, can provide the perspective needed to understand the forces driving particular behaviors at both locations.

Few of us “like” to have to transition from one position to another. In many cases it will take us out of our comfort (or familiarity) zone. By understanding that when we step into new organizations and structures we not only have the opportunity to contribute from our experience set that may be external to the current business culture, and thereby strengthen them, we also have the opportunity to learn and take away new experiences that will increase the breadth of structures and situations that we can and have dealt with, and thereby strengthen ourselves.

Over the past while we have seen the business world focus on each individuals “depth” of knowledge in very narrowly defined responsibilities. As the business environment hopefully begins to improve I can’t help but think that the leader who has come through these times and taken with them an increased breadth of perspective and experience will become more in demand.