Monday, February 22, 2016

Maybe Down Is Up

Maybe Down is Up:
Connecting business and life for self-knowledge and growth 

A Review of Failing My Way to Success, by Steve Lobel

You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can't possibly live long enough to make them all yourself. 
In Failing My Way to Success: Life Lessons of an Entrepreneur, Steve Lobel takes us on his emotional and financial rollercoaster of entrepreneurial risk, failure, and success. This is not a comprehensive survey of what you need to succeed in business or in life, nor is it a “how to” guide for business or career start-ups. Rather, it is a highly readable and engaging personal story that conveys powerful insights, not only for entrepreneurs but for anyone in the beginning or midst of their careers.

Throughout the book, the importance of connections is evident—connections to family, friends, customers, clients, employees, advisors, partners. Lobel’s self-conscious understanding of the importance of connection is revealed early in the book in his choice of the name for his fledgling gourmet cheese shop. He calls it “The Cheese Connection.” It was the small, basement-level shop that he grew into the region’s first—and fondly remembered—upscale food market in Stuyvesant Plaza, Cowan and Lobel.

Proving Something 

Of the many connections woven throughout the book, a few are described in depth. For example, in the first few chapters he describes his close connection to his father. He describes how he gave up his high-school social life to work with his father on weekends, photographing weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. The importance of that connection surfaces again and again. Fully two thirds through the book he again reflects on his connection to his father. He explains part of his motivation to be an entrepreneur as “… proving something to myself—and, I suppose, to my father, always my father.” (p. 68.) Similarly, his connections to his wife, Vivian, and later, his business partner Dan Cowan, are case studies in what make personal connections succeed or fail.

After describing his first-year struggles and triumphs with The Cheese Connection, he sums up, drawing an even bigger circle around the importance of interpersonal connections: “You can know a lot or you can know a little, but as long as you understand relationships, you have a leg up. You need to care about people’s likes, their desires, their fears, their needs. This is a big part of your personal and professional integrity, and to me integrity is everything.” (p. 33.)

What’s Real Success?

A different type of connection, one that gives title to the book, is the connection between success and failure. Failure in one venture provides lessons that lead to success in another. But it is not a simple failure-leads-to-success story. Much of the book shows how each experiment, success, and expansion, provided new failures, business insights, and self-knowledge. As Will Rogers (and others) have said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” Lobel’s words are perhaps not as clever, but deeper. “We may fail, but no one who learns from life’s mistakes can be considered a failure. … [T]he lessons of failure have made me kinder, wiser, more generous, more empathetic. This too is a definition of success. Maybe the best one.” (p. xi.)

Lobel’s personal experience brings to life the importance of self-knowledge. He learns what he is good at, and what he is not good at. “I loved the ‘right brain’ parts of retailing, all the creative, challenging, and stimulating bits, but I’d never disciplined myself to do the ‘left brain’ labor, the dry, crucial, crunching of facts and figures. … I am a visionary, big-picture kind of thinker, and in those days my creativity and imagination sometimes ran far ahead of my judgment.” (pp. 46-48.) While his areas of marketing and customer relations certainly are “creative, challenging, and stimulating,” for some people, the same is true of “the crucial, crunching of facts and figures.”

Getting Help 

For the things he is not good at, Lobel came to recognize the need to get help from others, albeit with some prodding. For example, given the insistence of his banker, he hired a bookkeeper. He drew his wife into the business because she “is practical, careful, detail oriented. … She possessed all the skills I lacked. She was stable, organized, level-headed—and tough.” (p. 48.)

Lobel’s story shows how, relying on his own judgment and discounting the advice of others, his risk-taking sometimes paid off. At other times, it led to failure. How to make that choice—when to forge ahead and when to hold back—is not clear. However, Lobel does make clear the pitfalls of selfish need-fulfillment. As he admits, when risking his family’s financial security on a new business venture, “I was like a drug addict, craving the adrenaline fix of a new business. … I simply could not quit.” (pp. 70-73.)

That Lobel’s story ends well is a demonstration of his personal drive, ability to identify emerging trends and opportunities, and willingness to educate himself about subjects of which he had no previous knowledge or experience. Supporting his efforts at every stage are the interpersonal connections that sustain and enrich him. In the end, he finds greater meaning in life as a philanthropist and mentor and closes with the following wish. “May your failures point the way to your ultimate success. And may your success be the means by which you help repair the world.” (p. 101.)

Failing My Way to Success: Life Lessons of an Entrepreneur 
 By Steve Lobel 103 pp. F&S Publishing. $15.
failingmywaytosuccess.com

This review first appeared in The Jewish World, Vol. 51. No. 13, Feb. 18, 2016, pp. 3, 7.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Top 20 Ways to Know You're a Group Facilitator - Humorous

For the “serious” list, see The Top 15 Ways to Know You're a Group Facilitator - Serious
For the original list, see You know you're a group facilitator if.

You know you’re a group facilitator if …
  1. no one understands what you do for a living.
  2. you want to write it on the wall.
  3. group members admire your wide selection of different sized, shaped and colored post-its.
  4. your phone's photo gallery of family snaps and selfies is interspersed with flip charts, white boards, lists, and mind maps.
  5. your 3-year old says “no no no daddy/mommy, stop facilitating me!”
  6. you can argue the merits of blu-tack over white-tack.
  7. you choose the boring supportive flats rather than the heels or boots that really match your outfit.
  8. you know how to remove permanent marker mistakenly used on a client’s whiteboard.
  9. you amaze the room by taking session notes on what look like white garbage bags that stick to the wall by static electricity.
  10. you maintain an inventory of different colored sticky dots so you won’t run out of any colors.
  11. you ask people, like at the grocery store, if they want feedback.
  12. you have a flipchart stand in your living room.
  13. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is your favorite book. (Don’t Panic!)
  14. you arrive early so you have sufficient time to move around the tables and chairs.
  15. someone comes up to you and asks, “Have you considered using small groups and an ice-breaker,” and politely you say, “Thank you; I’ll consider that.”
  16. you are in a really awful meeting and have to sit on your hands to avoid taking over.
  17. you walk into a room that has been set up for you and the chairs and tables are classroom style – and you don’t groan because you anticipated this.
  18. you know how to set up just about every type of flip chart known to man.
  19. tears fill your eyes and you feel so understood when a new client says, “I know it is just a one-day session, but this is so important we expect we will need you for at least three days of preparation.”
  20. you're thinking that there should be a better process for collaboratively arriving at a “top ten” list.

The Top 15 Ways to Know You're a Group Facilitator - Serious

My previous post, You know you're a group facilitator if …, drew many additional suggestions. I compiled 38 of them and conducted a poll; 165 people responded. Following are the 15 highest scoring statements that “say something delightful and uniquely characteristic of group facilitation.” They are listed in order, high scores on top. I should note that the Top 4 were all excerpted from IAF's Statement of Values and Code of Ethics for Group Facilitators. (It's a good thing they received the top scores!)

A number of people commented that the list included both serious and humorous statements and it was not clear how they should respond. As you'll see, most respondents chose the more serious ones. In The Top 20 Ways to Know You're a Group Facilitator - Humorous I have selected some of the more humorous indicators.

You know you're a group facilitator if …
  1. you believe in the inherent value of the individual and the collective wisdom of the group.
  2. you believe that collaborative interaction builds consensus and produces meaningful outcomes.
  3. you strive to help the group make the best use of the contributions of each of its members.
  4. you set aside your personal opinions and support the group’s right to make its own choices.
  5. you summarize what others have said and check that you accurately captured their ideas before sharing your own thoughts.
  6. you know that a good answer to a question is “I don't know.”
  7. when you enter a meeting room, the first thing you look at are the walls.
  8. several books on your shelf have “meeting,” “group,” and/or “facilitation,” “facilitator,” “facilitating,” or “facilitative” in their titles.
  9. you can accept that a situation is desperate, but not hopeless.
  10. you know when to make a tactical intervention and when to make a strategic withdrawal and, of course, when to say nothing.
  11. you’re able just “to be present.”
  12. when invited to a meeting you ask about its purpose, what’s on the agenda, what decisions are to be made, if all the people necessary to make a decision will be present, if sufficient time has been scheduled, and if they’re really inviting you so you’ll facilitate.
  13. when the group thinks they could have gotten to the outcome without you, but it was nice having you.
  14. you can explain Brainstorming, Nominal Group Technique, Technology of Participation, Future Search, Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space Technology, and World Cafe.
  15. when you answer questions with a question – even when you’re not facilitating.

Monday, August 25, 2014

You know you're a group facilitator if:

The popularity of my post, "You know you're a storyteller if ..." inspired me to work on this one.

Eighteen ways to know if you're a group facilitation expert:
  1. You have three different colored markers and masking tape in your briefcase.
  2. You can thoughtfully distinguish between facilitating learning, facilitating group development, and facilitating collaborative problem solving and decision making. Other uses of "facilitating" make you groan.
  3. You wonder, when you're invited to a meeting, if their facilitator will be as good as you.
  4. You wonder, when you're invited to a meeting, if they really just want you to facilitate.
  5. You wonder, when you're invited to a meeting, if they will let you facilitate.
  6. When invited to a meeting you ask about its purpose, what's on the agenda, what decisions are to be made, if all the people necessary to make a decision will be present, if sufficient time has been scheduled, and if they're really inviting you so you'll facilitate.
  7. Your hands have multi-colored splotches.
  8. You can explain the history of the term "brainstorming" and lament how it is misused.
  9. People ask how you manage to remember everyone's name.
  10. You have a particular technique for ripping off a sheet of flip chart paper so it doesn't leave behind a residual shred of paper at the perforation.
  11. You can explain Brainstorming, Nominal Group Technique, Technology of Participation, Future Search, Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space Technology, and World Cafe.
  12. Several books on your shelf have "meeting," "group," and/or "facilitation," "facilitator," "facilitating," or "facilitative" in their titles.
  13. You believe in the inherent value of the individual and the collective wisdom of the group.
  14. You strive to help the group make the best use of the contributions of each of its members.
  15. You set aside your personal opinions and support the group's right to make its own choices.
  16. You believe that collaborative and cooperative interaction builds consensus and produces meaningful outcomes.
  17. No one understands what you do for a living.
  18. You are right now thinking of another way "you know you're a group facilitator if ..." What is it?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What we need is ...! What you need is ...!

Felt, observed, and real needs

I think it is useful to understand the distinction between felt needs, observed needs, and real needs (a distinction Ward Goodenough made in his 1963 book, Cooperation in Change) and aspire to find and increase their overlap.

Felt needs are the needs identified by the members of a community (or any collaborative group). Felt needs are identified based on the information available to the members, however incomplete and inaccurate that information might be, and how the members interpret that information in the context of their own experiences and predispositions.

Observed needs are the needs identified by the change agent (outsider, leader, facilitator, donor, etc.). They might be the same as the members’ felt needs – or not. Change agents identify observed needs based on the information available to them, however incomplete and inaccurate that information might be, and how they interpret that information in the context of their own experiences and predispositions.

Real needs are the needs that could be determined by an omniscient being. Real needs would be identified based on perfect information – information that is complete and accurate – interpreted in the context of all reality without bias.

Neither the members’ felt needs nor the change agent’s observed needs should be presumed to be the real needs. Together, members and change agents should aspire to better identify the real needs, but all the while exercising doubt, learning from others and keeping their minds open to new understandings and insights.


Goodenough, Ward (1963). Cooperation in change. Chapter 3: Wants and Needs, pp. 49-60. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Words We Use: Groups, Meetings, Facilitation, Collaboration

Wow! I wish the Google Books Ngram Viewer was around when I wrote my essay, Group Facilitation’s “Golden Age”, in which I tracked a few measures of growth and development in the world of group facilitation. Here are a few simple examples of readily available Ngram analyses.

Note: Apparently the Ngram Viewer graphs are not visible in Internet Explorer. Try Firefox or Chrome.

The following graph shows that, in Google's corpus of English books published between 1800 and 2008, the term "group effectiveness" first appeared in 1898; its frequency peaked in 1974. "Meeting management" and "group facilitation" first appeared in 1920 and 1921 respectively and seem to have recently plateaued. "Group facilitator" first appeared in 1947, "workshop facilitator" in 1969, and "meeting facilitator" in 1976, all still increasing in use. "Group process," which first appeared in 1894, is in such greater usage that I decided to show it on a separate graph.

The terms that appear in the title of this blog occur much more frequently. All were already in use in 1800. I find it interesting that use of "communication" dropped between 1860 and 1930 while use of the terms "consensus" and "collaboration" grew. Also interesting is that of the latter two terms, "consensus" was more widely used except between 1914 and 1972, when "collaboration" was more widely used. Most noticeable is the bump in use of "collaboration" from 1938 to 1948 when, I suppose, it was used in the context of "collaboration with the enemy."

For more information about the underlying data and how to perform this analysis visit the Google Books Ngram Viewer. Please let me know if you find some interesting results.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Consensus and Authority in a Hierarchy: A Proposal


How can consensus work in a hierarchical organization? Wouldn't consensus undermine the authority of the superior?

I have encountered this question in organizations with a strong hierarchical structure. The person in the superior position has the formal decision-making authority and is held accountable for the decisions made. And yet, I do not think consensus decision making and hierarchy are incompatible. I have attempted to lay out how consensus can actually work in a hierarchical organization. Although these rules are somewhat tedious, please bear with me and share your thoughts.
  1. If the Head is not a member of the group, then the group strives to reach agreement on a recommendation that is presented to the Head. It is useful if the Head has agreed in advance to fully consider the recommendation of the group and understand its reasoning.

  2. If the Head is a member of the group, and if the group reaches full agreement, then the Head's decision is the same as everyone else's. The Head's authority is upheld in the consensus. For this to work, the Head must be a full participant in the consensus building process.

  3. If consensus is reached, and some of the members are not in full agreement but nonetheless willing to support the decision, then:

    1. If the Head is in full agreement with the consensus decision, the Head's authority is upheld in the consensus.

    2. If the Head is one of those not in full agreement with the consensus decision, the Head has the discretion to ask the group to reconsider the issues, clearly taking the Head's concerns into account (an option available to any member of a consensus-based decision-making group) or adopt a decision other than the consensus decision.

  4. If consensus has not been reached, and there is either agreement by the group that a decision must be made at this time, or there is an external constraint that requires a decision at this time, then the Head has the discretion to make the decision.

So what do you think? Does this sufficiently address both consensus-building and maintain hierarchical authority? Are there any loose ends?