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Think before you sink

Harvey Mackay
From an International Speaker, Author, Columnist and Consultant Perspective

Issue 79: February 2009
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Four centuries ago when French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes made his famous statement, "I think, therefore I am," he probably wasn't thinking about the survival of American businesses.
But businesses that aren't thinking simply won't exist anymore. In a better economy, they can slide a little. In this climate, it takes all the thought processes you have to keep the doors open.
Sometimes, we have to turn off the rest of your life and live in the moment. In other words, stop thinking so hard about things that don't matter and concentrate on the things that do!

Consider Alfred Butts, who lost his architect job during the Great Depression. He switched gears, and studied the front page of The New York Times to calculate how often each letter of the English alphabet was used. The end result: he invented the game of Scrabble. Cheap research, simple design, and a game that remains enormously popular more than 70 years later.

Ira Hayes was vice president of advertising at National Cash Register, now part of AT&T. He believed that everyone should have an "idea-of-the-week book," the goal of which is to write down one really good idea a week. Hayes' personal book spanned 30 years. He said: "The movers and shakers of tomorrow will be those who have the resolve to write down an idea, despite its source, and to keep trying it, despite any resistance they encounter."

You should be open to unorthodox methods and creative plans. These tough economic times will try even the most stable businesses, and will require some bold actions to keep operating. Don't believe me?

Even if your company is in line for a bailout, you probably have had to change your strategy ... things like attracting customers, selling your products or services, negotiating contracts and buying supplies. What good ideas have you had this week to address your challenges?

Genevieve Bell, a cultural anthropologist at Intel, says that to do good fieldwork, she has four ways of thinking that she keeps front and center when she's working. Here are her guiding principles:

 * Be present.
Get in the middle of whatever you're doing. Talk to anyone who will listen; listen to anyone who will talk. Read the news. Shut off all your electronic devices and participate in what's going on around you to benefit from it.

Be vulnerable.
Let go of any preconceived ideas you have. Get engaged—and if you get knocked off-center, pay attention. When you're vulnerable and uncomfortable, she says, you're in a position to learn the most—about yourself and others. That's when you really pay attention.

Be surprised.
When you're surprised, you'll ask questions. Be willing to ask stupid ones, she recommends, and be willing to look foolish. I always say there is no foolish question, if it is sincere. And the only dumb question is the one you don't ask.

Be honest and brave.
Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know." Bell says that when she's asked questions like, "What are the three key takeaways about China?" she resists answering. She tries to stay true to the stories she gathers. When people share their stories with you, you have a duty to guard the truth of the information with which you have been entrusted.

Keep the details and nuances—no matter how contradictory or nonsensical they might seem, Bell says. If you do, you'll give voice to those who might not be able to do it themselves. In business that often means asking hard questions—as well as not giving easy answers. It means telling the truth to those in power.

Every organization has people who can see the big picture; those people are real assets. They know where you are and where you need to be going. Don't let them get bogged down in a lot of meaningless meetings and paper shuffling. Instead, give them opportunities to solve problems and advance your goals.

Be prepared to take some unorthodox actions; think twice before dismissing a novel approach.

So when you see your key people looking out the window, congratulate them. They are probably doing the company a lot more good by just thinking than anything else they are doing. It is the hardest, most valuable task any person performs.

A penny for your thoughts? It's a bargain for a million-dollar idea!

Mackay's Moral: If you can think it, you can do it.


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