History is Educational. Not Prescriptive!

My first client as a consultant was an electricity cooperative in a sleepy “little” town in North Texas - the kind of place where people stay a long time and eat at the same taco place every Tuesday (Rosa's... YUM!). The project was a great first gig right out of school -  nice people at the client, awesome project team AND an approachable, mentoring project leadership team (I now know that combination is quite elusive). I learned more in the first six months than in all of B-school - about being a consultant, setting expectations, leadership, taking initiative and, sadly, the show Lost (why did everyone love that show so much?! Magic, time travel, the hatch? I still don’t get it.).

There were multiple projects in flight at the client when I joined the team. I was put on a project that was, at it’s core, about technology. We were replacing their paper-based ticketing system for the client’s technicians in the field. For example, when a meter was not reading correctly or it was tampered with, it needed to be replaced by someone with more expertise than a meter reader. Tickets for these types of incidents were generated at the corporate office (which all the engineers drove to from all over North Texas every morning), distributed to the techs and then worked by the appropriate tech back in the field, largely based on geography. The techs would work their tickets, complete them, and then drive back to corporate HQ to turn in their tickets (hopefully, you are starting to see the inefficiencies!). What I quickly realized is that we weren’t doing a technology project - we were helping the client transform their thinking.

The interesting part was not with the technicians (they were generally reluctant to adopt new technology, but were curious enough about the tablets that they were engaged), but with the supporting departments. Most notably was the Billing department - their process was painfully manual - typing in comments and readings on multiple screens. When I was documenting the process I asked why it was entered and re-entered (the same information on multiple screens) and I got the infamous line, “We’ve always done it this way…"

Author’s Note: In my consulting career I have led numerous transformation efforts. One thing I have learned to listen for - especially when digging to figure out where the real issues are - is the phrase, “We’ve always done it this way…” Now, this can have various meanings, but generally its, “No one really knows why we do it this way, but we do and we always have and there is no way we could ever, ever do it differently. EVER!"

After completing the current state document, we moved on to designing the future state (to support the new tablets and their integration with the billing system). Obviously, one of the opportunities for improvement was the processes within Billing. I met one-on-one with the Director of Billing and she wasn’t excited about me “messing up” her department. As we continued the conversation - I was explaining the benefits of the changes: no longer entering things on multiple screens, auto filling in comments from the tablets, pushing meter readings automatically... It was basically utopia! Her response, well, not so much:

“I have children older than you! What do you know about running a billing department!?”

After I pulled my chin up off the desk (I was early in my career and hadn’t developed a great “ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME!!” poker face), I simply asked her to explain to me why this wasn’t good for her and her department. “Well,” she replied, “that’s just not how we do things here!"

Wow. Just… Wow.

Four Simple Steps to Learn from the Past, Not Repeat it.

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail.

The number one driver of the status quo is comfort. Period. People don’t even look for ways to improve (RE: Change) because they’ve “always done it this way”… The comfort that one draws from knowing how things are done creates an impenetrable armor of FEAR. Fear of the unknown. Fear of failure. If you want to stop repeating the past - you have to confront the possibility of failure.

Teach yourself to be comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown. PRACTICE! Start with small things with low risk (letting your significant other choose where to eat, cook a new recipe, wear a new shirt color!) to learn to cope with your discomfort. The reality is, failure is simply a step forward towards success. Don’t fear it. Embrace it.

2. Ask “Why” - Early & Often

Yes, we get incredibly frustrated when two and three year olds ask “why” about EVERYTHING. Their innate sense of curiosity is insane! However, the thirst for knowledge and understanding is something we should re-learn. Sinek challenges us to Start With Why and Sakichi Toyoda implored us to ask why FIVE TIMES! Yet, we are so comfortable with nodding our heads and just doing it the way it's always been done.

If you are intentional about discussing why with your people, you teach them that it’s better to understand and learn from the past rather than repeat it.

3. Never Stop Learning!

Einstein was famous for saying, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.” Frankly, I couldn’t agree more. Each day you have experiences. From positive to negative, the outcomes impact you in a certain way. YOU CAN LEARN FROM THESE EXPERIENCES! No matter how much control you think you have in a situation, you absolutely have complete control over your reaction and what you can learn. Decide today - this moment - that you are going to stop looking at an experience as a reason to bitch and moan at the world and you are going to start looking at them as an opportunity to learn.

4. Surround Yourself with People that Think Differently.

We like to be around people that are like us - think the same, were raised the same and love the New England Patriots (FREE TOM BRADY!). However, if you want to achieve high performance and do things that have NEVER been done in your organization (or on your team) - you must surround yourself with smart people that see the world differently. Someone a lot smarter than me once (I’m clearly on an Einstein kick) said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Step outside your comfort zone and bring in people that will challenge you by thinking differently (and ask hard questions!).


History is educational. Not prescriptive. Stop thinking you can only do things the way they’ve been done and you will go places and do things you never thought possible!

Learning from Crisis - Lessons from the Boston Marathon

I've been a very fortunate Bostonian.

Besides the obvious fortune of being able to live in the greatest city in world - the past four years have been sports nirvana.  I've seen the Bruins in the Stanley Cup, the Revs reach the MLS Cup, the Sox win the World Series and the Pats lift the Lombardi Trophy! It has basically been sports greatness non-stop (let's ignore the three last place finishes by the Sox!).  The most memorable sporting moments for me, however, have all been during the Boston Marathon - a race I've had the opportunity to run the past three years. 

The Marathon in 2013 was one of the most impactful events in my life. 

There will be some that read this that are crazy enough to have run a marathon (I've run four and have plans to run another in November... Yeah, I'm REALLY crazy), but for those of you that have only shaken your head at us weekend running warriors, let me give you some insight into what it's like... Torture, ice baths, blisters, snow, aches, pains and more ice baths.

Despite the absolute grind, the feeling of crossing that finish line is unlike any other feeling. The feeling of adrenaline rushing through you - elation, pride - battling back the physical and emotional exhaustion, the pain. It’s something we call the “Runner’s High” - but you don’t get it, and that’s ok. We don’t do it for you, we do it for ourselves…

Most of the country doesn’t understand that the Boston Marathon truly is the “Super Bowl” of running. There isn’t anything else like it - the history, the course, the weather, the city… They grossly limit the field by requiring ridiculously fast qualifying times (that sounded like a #humblebrag, but it wasn't - my ticket was punched by raising money for charity) - this isn’t your local running club’s 10k. And, on April 15, 2013 - everything was just as it should be. 


April 15, 2013 was a pristine Patriot’s Day. One of those days you pray for when planning a picnic for a first date - deep blue sky with contrasting fluffy clouds and a crisp spring temperature in the high 50s - warm enough to be pleasant, but cool enough to want to share the blanket. This was my first marathon and I had the nerves of a kid on the first day of Middle School… I knew what to do and how to do it, but I was in a big, new, scary place and just didn’t want to look stupid. Thankfully, my training partner and Boston-Marathon-Partner-for-Life had run in big races and was full of “pro tips” (big shoutout to the man, the myth, the Legend - Eric Winton!). 

Frankly (this is your official #humblebrag warning), I CRUSHED the race!! Wow, ok, you’re right. That was just an obnoxious, blatant brag…and I’m ok with it! I EARNED it! I couldn’t have scripted the day any better. I came out smart, survived the middle and dominated the hills. I actually posted negative splits the last five miles (that’s a really geeky, impressive running lingo - nailed it). 

It was perfect. Until it wasn't. 

We were blocks away from the finish line when the bombs went off… A string of emotions came at full speed - curiosity, confusion, anger, frustration, worry, fear. It couldn’t really be happening, could it? Will I get to finish? Why are they stopping me?! What the…?! Why do we have to turn back? Wait, so I’m not going to finish?! What do you mean it’s not safe? What happened? 

I don’t need to chronicle what happened at 2:49pm EST. You’ve heard about it, read about it, likely, you’ve seen the footage. What you may not know is what efficient brilliance was shown by a group of people that was prepared for aching muscles, blisters and over-exertion - not multiple bombs meant to destroy and maim. 

Lessons from the Boston Marathon: Prepare for the Unknown Tomorrow

  • Acquire the Right Resources
    As a business leader, you are responsible for ensuring your organization has the most effective resources possible for any given scenario. If you’re a new supervisor on the factory floor, it’s making sure you’re people are on-time, alert and have the right safety equipment… If you are responsible for coordinating the most prestigious marathon in the world, you worry about water, gatorade, clocks and of course, great volunteer and medical staffs. Why were there limited casualties from the TWO bombs that were set off at the finish line? The marathon was adequately staffed and had the right resources to react accordingly to anything - even a pair of bombs. If you are going to be a great leader - capable of navigating even the most tumultuous of situations - you must acquire the right resources and prepare them for anything. How? It starts with communicating...
  • Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
    For anyone that has been involved with the Boston Marathon in the last decade knows they are incredibly efficient. One impressive manifestation of this is the way they communicate. They have a constant drumbeat of communication throughout the year - from “Congratulations! You’ve been accepted!” to “See you next year!” to the signs papered all over the city leading up to the race. The learning? Their culture of clear communication resonates through everything. Everyone in attendance understands who, what, when, where and how. This isn’t on accident. You cannot be prepared to thrive through crisis if you’re people don’t trust you (if they hear you, but don't trust you - you'll lose). Trust starts with communication.
  • Accept That the Only Constant is Change
    Medical professionals are a different breed. They are trained from day one to expect the unexpected and persevere through any and every situation to save people’s lives. They’re incredible. Obviously, this was true of those volunteers at the finish line. They were prepared for anything. They were ready for any scenario - even one that was never supposed to happen. Agility, Flexibility and Change are critical core competencies for an organization that hopes to exist beyond tomorrow. If you hope to be successful next quarter, next year or into the next decade - you better start learning - and teaching - how to thrive through change.
  • Execute. Don't Panic. 
    One of my all-time favorite quotes came from a Lee Child novel, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It doesn’t matter what you do if you can’t execute. I’m not talking about executing in the “best case scenario”; this is the real world. It’s scary, it changes, everything goes wrong and at least one thing breaks. Every. Single. Day. Arguably, this is what the team at the Finish Line did best - they executed. They didn’t panic - they didn’t run away. They did what they were (tangentially) trained to do. In crisis situations, the people follow their leader. YOU’RE ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDEST. 

Prepare yourself. Start today. 

I ran the marathon the next year with 35,755 of my closest friends - the largest field in the history of the race. It was a glorious day (albeit, wicked hot!). It was perfect again…

But I promise you this, everyone was ready to respond. To anything.

Are you? How will you react in the face of crisis?