The ‘That’s OK’ Economy


I recently wrote about how companies can provide small, unexpected surprises, based on their normal business practices, to create ‘WOW!’ moments for their clients. Of course, the opposite is true at the other end of the client’s experience spectrum, when you ignore the impact of your daily interactions you can plunge your customers into head-shaking reactions.




I was at a bakery to buy a loaf of sourdough bread (really good sourdough bread). I waited in a long line for about 15 minutes, an eternity in the right-now-reality of today. Part of the reason, of the three registers, only one was being manned despite the obvious backup of customers (the line was 12 deep). But, the bread was worth it. Even though I had to listen to the customers around me complain about the ridiculous wait, it was worth it. As my turn approached I asked for a loaf of sourdough, thickly sliced. She gave me a legitimate blank stare. I waited and then politely repeated my order. She turned to the racks of bread loaves and asked, “Which one is sourdough?”

Uh Oh! The one with the little beautifully calligraphic sign that said, you guessed it, sourdough. “Can I get it THICKLY sliced?” “Sure.” As she put the properly identified loaf into one of two slicers, I recognized that she put it in the thin slice machine. I said, “No, no, the thick slice machine.” She corrected me, “This IS the thick slice machine.” Though I don’t work for this purveyor of carbohydrates, I could tell by the width of the cutting template which machine was which, but too late to correct. The deed was done and I had a thinly sliced loaf of bread. Oh, by the way, it was the last loaf of sourdough. She apologized and I said, “That’s alright,” and went on my way.




At the movies, I ordered a medium Diet Coke. That will be $4.11. I gave her a fiver and she counted out the change. She thanked me and said’ “I hope you enjoy the movie.” I stood there and she asked, “Would you like something else?” “No, but I would like my Diet Coke.” What? I gave you the money and you didn’t give me my Diet Coke, thus the transaction is incomplete. She looked at me blankly. We all, unfortunately, are getting used to that look. I politely waited for a reaction and receiving none, I repeated the order of events until she finally perceived that she had yet to complete the transaction. She passed over the drink and as I had a sip on the way to the theater discovered it was a regular coke. “That’s alright,” I figured.




What’s the Problem

We immediately retreat from our expectations into the realm of ‘that’s alright.’ Neither of these incidents was world-changing, but both were evidence of a lack of face to face attention. This spells a lack of training and it is the core reason for our commonplace low expectations. The basics are a big deal and the basics should be the basics. If it is client facing, it’s NOT basic, it’s fundamentally critical to your desired outcome. Front facing is the empirical identity of your brand.

Check out how you’re greeted by the front facing folks at Chick-Fil-A or the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award winning teams at Rudy’s BBQ (when you’re in Texas). They make you feel like family and they know their stuff because they are well trained.

We expect things to go wrong, for the service to breakdown, for the ‘that’s alright’ experience.

So, if you are looking for WOW moments, look no farther than how your phone is answered, how your receptionist greets someone entering your office, how well those that are your front line warriors represent YOU.  You know what’s important and you can stop the dipped shoulders of a customer saying, “THAT”S ALRIGHT!”

As a leader, do you have your feet planted in the past?

I am a child of the west. Born in California. Lived in Idaho and now a long time Texas resident (I don’t think an outsider is ever a true Texan). I always marvel at travel back East. When a client says; “Take the train from Washington D.C. to Philadelphia, I furrow my brow and say, “Train?” When I hear the train I think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

During a recent trip east I watched an old-time engineer backing up his engine. He had his head craned out the window looking backward at the ground crew for hand signals. No rear view mirror on this engine, or simply an “old school” engineer. Trains are used to going forward.  They don’t often think about reversing. Leaders do.

During our two-year study into leadership (The DNA of Success), I was amazed at the role the rear view mirror played in great leaders. They were great at stopping, turning around and thinking about what they did. They were great decision reviewers.

From this key leadership characteristic, here are some of those rearview images.


Keeping Perspective in Leadership


  • THE SEARCH FOR PERFECTION: When you take time to look at how you responded to a leadership situation you quickly learn to forget about perfection. In leadership, it simply doesn’t exist. If it is your goal you can’t catch that leadership train. Mistakes, getting it wrong, missing a choice by an inch is just part of the deal. I love the quote that “perfection is the enemy of good.” Leaders love good.

  • NOT ENOUGH HELP: I can do this by myself, heck, I’m the leader. It’s my job to make the call. Every leader we interviewed talked about that learning moment where they figured out they couldn’t do this alone. Somewhere along the line, they were embraced; “I don’t know”. This is a classic mindset shift, a moment past a blind spot. I remember Israel Alpert, a tech/video leader using this little gem – PHELP – It stood for “Please HELP”.

  • WHO AM I LEADING? Leaders ask this question all the time. They check their past, both close and distant for key contact points, and don’t lose touch with their direct team. They check in further down the line and become VISIBLE. They hang out with their customers, ask questions, and listen. They check in!

Leadership is a process that centers on the two key timeframes.


  1. The Past – They are learners by experience and experience only teaches when you take a look back.

  2. The Future – They are required to shift their gaze from the learning past to peeking into the various potentials that could make up their tomorrows and the opportunities available to their organizations.

Some trains may not have review mirrors, but you should!

Committing to a Model of Innovation


Last week, in an effort to feed the Netflix monkey on my back and having already exhausted so many of Netflix’s great original series, my wife and I stumbled upon a true gem. As a foodie, I’m fascinated by the creative process that takes place in the kitchen and was blown away by Noma: My Perfect nomaStorm. The documentary offers a unique peek into the internationally recognized Danish restaurant, Noma, its head chef Rene Redzepi, and the inner workings of a restaurant that has been voted #1 in the world for 4 years since 2010. It wasn’t that the movie was great (it was), or that the food looked amazing (it did), or that watching this film with my wife has cost me a future unknown fortune as she was insistent on a promise to take her there one day (the downside of Netflix and chill) that caught my interest. What was interesting was how Rene had developed and implemented a systemic approach to a culture of constant innovation and accountability.

At Noma, on Saturday nights, after 80-hour workweeks, and into the wee hours of the night  (after 2am), the hustle and bustle in their kitchen doesn’t seem to die down. You don’t see chefs and kitchen staff wandering out into the night looking for a drink to calm the nerves of a high-intensity night. Instead, eager and weary chefs gather for what has become a sacred saturday-night-projectsceremony, Saturday Night Projects.  At Saturday Night Projects one chef from each station in the kitchen is responsible for creating something new, a snack, a dish, an ingredient, or an idea, it really doesn’t matter as long as it is new, true to the chef, and pushes the limits of their current reality.  (oh and that it uses regionally specific Nordic ingredients which can be a problem as his chefs come from all over the world).

This process has opened the door for new and exciting food that consistently places Noma at the top of the restaurant charts year in and year out.  Creating a process that fosters creativity isn’t easy. If you look at the Saturday Night Projects now vs. what it was at its inception you wouldn’t recognize it because it’s changed quite a bit. So, what is the secret to Noma’s success? Well, in traditional Creative Ventures format I’ll break it down for you in three parts:


  1. Budget time for creativity: You have to intentionally etch out time in your schedule for innovation. Noma isn’t the only great example of creating a specific time for innovation, Google does a pretty good job too. They allow their employees to have one day a week dedicated to idea development, which has led to the success they have had with Google Maps, Gmail, and Froogle. Or look at 3M, arguably the most consistent innovator in business. They mandate that 15% of all engineers and scientists time is spent on a project that interests them, effectively giving them permission to be creative and harness their passions. It doesn’t matter whose model you follow, just that you create an environment that fosters innovation.
  2. Find the right fit for you: When Saturday Night Projects started each chef in the kitchen had to present something. Rene figured out rather quickly that having that many people create and present at the same time wasn’t an effective use of his time. What did he do? Quit? No, he adapted. He tweaked the model until it fit his restaurant and his staff. The lesson here is that if it doesn’t work at first it doesn’t mean that you should abandon the idea. Work on it until it not only meshes with your business and culture but also has some success.
  3. Repeat

What’s great about all of this is how Noma handles prototyping. We have preached in previous blogs and newsletters the importance of the prototype. We at Creative Ventures have experimented with our own models of innovation until we finally found the right fit for us. If you decide to make a prototype-review-refinecommitment to a culture of innovation you have to be prepared for the outcome, new ideas! Having a new idea is great but how do you share, test, and ultimately have success with launching something new? Over the years we’ve stolen some great ideas from companies who do this very well (yes its ok to steal good ideas, just ask Austin Kleon or read his book Steal Like an Artist) and have created a system we teach and share with our clients across the country.

Step One: Be Quick to Prototype – Take advantage of the energy that exists around a new project. Push your team to get something to the table. The prototype is just that, a prototype. Don’t waste time trying to perfect your idea, product, or process in this phase. Just create something. Refining it comes later.

Step Two: Prototype to Market – This can be the most tricky aspect of this whole process. How do you test your prototype? Do you test it internally? Do you test it on existing clients? There are a multitude of options for you to explore and find out what works best for your business but if you’re looking for great Printexample check out Nikes Innovation Kitchen. At their innovation facilities in they have the great benefit of mitigating the risk that comes along with new products by testing their gear on their sponsored athletes. Why is this great beyond having experts critique every aspect their product? It insulates them from the risk associated with consumer testing. Whatever model works best for your business make sure to capture all of the feedback.

Step Three: Final Product Launch – Take all of that feedback, analyze it, and implement changes. Make all the final adjustments needed, create a marketing and sales strategy, and execute.

Your business might be running smoothly today. Hell, it may continue to run smoothly for the next twelve months. But, a strategy that omits a commitment to growth and innovation leads to business stagnation. Whether you find inspiration from Noma, Nike, 3M, or some other innovator, what’s important is embracing and implementing your own innovation model. Commit to a process and hold your team accountable to its application. If you find yourself struggling in this endeavor, give us a call. We’d be happy to help.

The Magnetism of Exploration

Like iron is drawn to a magnet we, as humans, are drawn to exploration.  It is damn near impossible for us to leave a rock unturned.  At Creative Ventures we share this passionate curiosity as we build and launch our strategic ideas, always looking for  new ways to express value.

In 1990 NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope.  Up it went and set up housekeeping about 370 miles above our address of “third rock from the sun.”  From there we have been able to peer into reaches of space that earthbound sky watchers could only dream of.




The Hubble Space Telescope, named after Edwin Hubble, the father of modern cosmology, is basically an optical / ultraviolet ray telescope.  Though it has opened the near universe to us, it is limited in what it can “see”.  The next generation space telescope is coming, not necessarily to replace Hubble, but instead as a worth successor.




Enter the James Webb Space Telescope, named after the early leader of a fledgling space agency that would soon become NASA.  Under development with NASA at the James Hopkins University, this $8.8 billion dollar international project will take its place in our solar system in 2018.  17 different countries are involved under the NASA leadership flag.  In fact, the telescope will be launched on a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket from a launch site in New Guiana.


The James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb is pretty big.  While the Hubble is about the size of a school bus, the James Webb is bigger than a tennis court.  It won’t be orbiting earth, oh no, it will be orbiting the sun about 940,000 miles from earth. That’s why you need a rocket to launch it.  The home orbit for the James Webb is a LONG WAY from here.  Where Hubble was an optical / ultraviolet telescope, the James Webb is an infrared telescope looking at the electromagnetic spectrum with long wavelengths that go well past visual.  Infrared telescopes can penetrate the great cosmic stellar dust shrouds that block our vision of deep galaxies, allowing us to see farther back in time than imaginable.  Since light travels at a fixed speed when you see the light from a sky full of star’s you are actually seeing the distant past.  It takes those twinkles a long time to reach us.  The night sky is our time machine and the James Webb will give us a +/- 12 billion year window into the birth of the universe.  WOW, hard to even get your head around!


James Webb Space Telescope's Home in Space

So, as the heavens open to our curiosity, so should we all be explorers.  The search for opportunity and solutions is not so different from our search of the dark depths of our universe.  It’s only the field you are playing on that’s different.  So think and may curiosity and risk drive your passion!

Exploration is the engine that drives innovation.  Innovation drives economic growth.  So let’s all go exploring!  Edith Widder.

The Art of Expectation

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 What you say and do not mean, follows you close behind –  Ben Harper

“We can have someone come by your house between 1:00 PM and 4:00PM, does that work for you?”  There it is, an expectation contract.  It’s simple and agreed upon.  In fact, the service provider set the terms of this micro agreement.  You simply accepted.  A level of hope is now in place.

At 3:45 PM you are notified that your 4:00 PM outside time is not going to happen.  In fact, they now can’t be there until 6:00PM.  Does that work for you?  NO.  Since you have shattered my expectation contract can you tell me the new time I might expect someone?  Tomorrow, between 1:00 PM and 4:00 PM.  Welcome despair.  Why should I hold out any hope you might show up then?  I don’t trust you.

There you have it, a crushed engagement and a freefalling reputation.  All done in the blink of a non-caring eye.  There is nothing harder to reconstruct than broken trust.


Accountable 1

It happens all the time.  The meeting is scheduled for a 10:00 AM start time, but doesn’t get rolling until 10:15.  A conference call is scheduled that gets cancelled at the last minute.  A deadline is set and then moved back and back until its validity is about the same as a sasquatch sighting.  It’s  so often our experience that it has become the norm.  Did I really expect someone to show up between  1:00 and 4:00 PM?  Of course not.  I have been in this sinking expectation boat too many times to hold my breath for a timely knock on my door.  Sad but true and you know it.

A customer, team member, manager or leader should recognize the intense power that lies in setting, fulfilling or better yet (get ready) exceeding expectations.  Just think of the minimum.  You say something and then do it, just as you described.  Wahoo!!!!  I love that and that is just a smallest thing you SHOULD do.


Hand firing off confetti.  Focus is on the cone.  Confetti is blurry due to motion

If you can build the least amount of fulfilled expectation you have a reputation that can grow.  Clients are shocked.  You mean my car repair is done?  My 9:00 AM appointment is ready to roll?  I received my package on time?  You know the simple joy Amazon or Zappos creates when your order gets their AHEAD of schedule.  Heck, you are singing and dancing before the UPS guy gets back to his truck.  EXPECTATIONS.  Do the minimum to build to the next level.  Miss the minimum in your expectation agreement and guess what?  You are in constant recovery mode and you will be apologizing for the foreseeable future.  A business built on I’m sorry doesn’t stand a competitive chance at survival.

Before you commit to something, think of it as a contract between you and the other party.  You are the designer and implementer of this agreement.  Don’t make it lightly.  THINK.  Can you actually do what you just promised, because this agreement, this expectation contract, no matter its size, is a PROMISE.  It tests your word.


storyboard 3 (2)

One of the laws of Creative Ventures is that “speed should never outweigh thought.”  Speed is often the villain in this drama.  You think it is the master of expectations.  The faster the better.  You make promises based on your love affair with speed, but speed is the enemy of expectation.  We are horrible estimators.  We think we can do things we can’t and we promise those “cant’s” as expectations.  We build  our own traps and unfortunately our word and integrity  is the thing that gets caught.

Try this, slow down and think.  It sounds simple, but when speed is pushing your brain, slowing down seems impossible.  At Creative Ventures, after an initial project call, we often tell our clients that we need to think about the issue and provide a timeframe in which we will develop our initial ideas.  This allows us to really think and actually forces us to slow down.  We ask if this works for the client and then our integrity clock starts.  We have provided time for us to think and produce based on an agreed upon schedule.  It’s not about NOW, but instead about an agreed upon when, a when that allows us time to make it happen.



Accomplishing our commitment to our client is our gold and it should be yours too!


The Primitive Use of Paper

I am quite often amazed, when working with small or large groups, at the number of people that arrive for a learning session with nothing to write on.  They have no tablet, not paper, no pen, no electronic note taking method, they just show up and take a seat.  AMAZING.  Apparently they pre-determined that nothing valuable enough to commit to pen and paper would be offered.

In or latest strategic platform, we examine the idea that developing a simple discipline in committing what you find interesting to some type of visual reference will change the way you develop ideas, look for solutions and view opportunities.

Safety Not Guarenteed 2

Let’s start with a simple fact:

When you write something down, the process creates a link to memory.  In fact, you are 34% more likely to recall a key point when you write it down.  That may not seem like much, 34%, but when you compare it to the 5% ability to remember when you DON’T write it down, 34% is like the Grand Canyon for your memory!

risk management

Next is about how you take notes.  At Creative Ventures we are old school.  We believe the deliberate process of using pen and paper has a distinctly positive impact on your memory.  There is something powerful about the primitive use of paper.



We practice the note style of “sketchnoting” –  the use of shapes, connections and text to visually synthesis information.  By developing a very rudimentary level of sketching, we have discovered what designers have been taught; images expand your attention span, create a completely different way to focus and radically increase comprehension and retention.  By developing a crude method of creating images you become a visual tinkerer.


We teach this style of note taking by beginning with a few simple images.  Try it out and discover if it can fit your style and thinking methods.



If you are really interested and want some additional resources, simply drop us a note and we will get them to you.

Educate vs. Entertain

Next Level Academy_Logo 2

We recently lost a proposal to deliver an educational platform to a large client.  One of the reasons was sound, we are a small, innovative strategy firm and though our ideas were impactful, we simply weren’t scalable on the level that the company needed.  The second reason was a little more subjective; our style seemed to value entertainment as a core element of our content delivery.  They had trouble getting their heads around that idea, that educational outcomes could be delivered in a fun and engaging manner.  Huh?  That’s the only way education should be delivered, not just at the corporate level but at ALL levels.

IN 1948 Walt Disney coined the phrase, “edutainment” and used it to describe their new True Life Adventures, nature series.  Disney believed people could  learn from something that was also entertaining.

Most people are familiar with the idea, if not the word, when you think; Schoolhouse Rock, Sesame St or Bill Nye, The Science Guy.  It has been proven as one of the most effective ways to shift behaviors and can act as a primary catalyst for change and not just in children.  The World Bank helped sponsor the PlanetRead Program – Literacy for a Billion.  In India they added Hindi subtitles to Bollywood music videos to promote language skills.  Fun and educational.  The impact:

  • Adult levels of illiteracy were cut in 1/2.
  • The number of children that became good readers doubled.

At Creative Ventures and The Next Level Academy, we have built our educational philosophy around turning information into knowledge.  We achieve this goal through introducing the core ideas and creating interactive, FUN exercises that allow the idea to be learned through practiced behaviors.  These “practiced behaviors” are our original learning games.  We believe if you can take information and apply it, it can become knowledge.  We want our interactive elements to be both learning driven, but also FUN.  Why not?  Fun is a good thing and should not be sucked out of learning through rote techniques.


Education 1

Fun is not a bad thing and when married with cutting edge skill development creates, what we believe, is the highest and best formula for learning!

Why Presentation Skills are Critical to Success

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We teach two core skills in our Next Level Academy –  THINKING and COMMUNICATION.  In our communication curriculum we focus on two key areas – Interpersonal, 1 on 1 communication and Presentation Skills (also part of our Once Upon a Time Project storytelling platform).

Why are these two skills so important?  Think about it, you are either talking or writing an email to one person, thus it is interpersonal or you are talking or writing to more than one person and it becomes a presentation.  They are very DIFFERENT skill sets.

Let’s talk about your presentation skills.  Interpersonal communication skill sets are very challenging because they involve so many elements, each flexible,  filled with subtle variances and nuances.  But presentation skills are much more simple and thus easier to learn.  We believe that anyone can become a good presenter.  Some can learn to be great, but almost anyone can learn to be good.

You have all been to horrible presentations, classes and lectures where a root canal would be a better choice than sitting through another minute of the drone of a poor presenter.  How important are those skills?  Well, just a couple of days ago you saw what the lack of these skills can do to an organization as Roger Goodell held one of the worst press conferences in recent memory and continued to harm the credibility of one of the most successful organizations on the planet – The NFL.

Again we see a CEO reading a lawyer created statement attempting to sound sincere about the mistakes that had been made.  Shielded behind a podium, in a black suit, Goodell sounded stiff and insincere.  Clearly some mistakes on the part of the NFL were made and what everyone wanted was specific steps and a truly contrite explanation.

How about using your presentation skills, structured around your style to make a statement that will make a difference.  Get rid of the podium and sit on  a stool.  Have a conversation with the audience.  Know your presentation so that you don’t need to read it.  Be honest and informative.  These are at the heart of great presentation skills.  Sure, it is risk filled, but the benefit from creating a connection between your topic, how ever difficult it might be, and the audience can change everything.

Learning 3

Presentation skills can be learned and are worthy of your professional development.  Become someone that can change the flow of ideas through commanding the way you present them to your audience.


Entropy Prevention

As most of you know, I am a scientist by education and that perspective has influenced the way I see things and how my thinking attacks the problems we are blessed to solve.  Which brings me to this idea.  If we look at companies and organizations as “systems” it makes them subject to the various laws that impact systems.  One of these is ENTROPY.  Entropy is from the Second Law of Thermodynamics and basically involves how systems run down or loose their energy.



Companies face this problem all the time.  The market shifts, they loose talent, they become trapped with a small group of products or services, all of which point towards conditions of entropy.  So if a system heads towards entropy, its very potential becomes dissipated.

Companies can do something about this and we have been grateful to be involved in quite a few “anti-entropy” programs.  Here is the principle action that will stop the drain of potential:   LEARNING!  A company with a strong educational program, one specifically designed around creating and developing specific skill sets is less likely to run out of energy.  More and more companies and organizations are allocating both resources and time to learning initiatives than ever before.  At Creative Ventures we are involved in five learning programs either as curriculum designers or as instructors.  But it’s not just our clients:

  • At Fathom, a growing digital marketing firm in Ohio, they recognized that “letting their skills flatline” was a key problem impacting their growth.  “If you aren’t a learner, you are the reason the company is not growing towards its potential.”  You need to constantly be supporting a “sharpening your skills” mindset.
  • In the upcoming book; How Google Works, you will discover a huge part of their success is their learning programs.  They look for people who are constantly learning and they want to be the source for their curiosity.

Learning 7

If you don’t have the size or resources to create a specific learning division, there are tons of other options ranging from industry sources to online learning.

Stop the forces of entropy by creating a strategy that pushes the leverage found in learning and skill enhancement!


education 1




The Advantage of Primative Form

What do car designers, architects and industrial designers all have in common?  They are quick to give their ideas physicality by building PROTOTYPES.


Prototype 1


The idea of building models based on your concepts is as old as ancient Greece.  In fact, the word prototype comes from the Greek, prototypon, to create impression or develop a primitive form.  At Creative Ventures we are quick to go to prototype and have discovered it gives us something to work from, something solid and real.  Getting a prototype done quickly moves the idea from the theoretical to the tangible.  The prototype becomes critical with the more people involved.  Try discussing your idea with a group of people and you will rapidly find yourself in the old game of “telephone” where everyone hears the idea differently, but give them a prototype and everyone will be working from the same place.

wonder 2

Most of our prototypes take the form of storyboard sketches where we are able to visualize our ideas.  We post the storyboards all over the walls of our offices and begin to see what the project will look like.  Since most of the readers of this journal entry are probably not designing sport cars or blenders, your prototypes may well be sketches.  The sketches don’t have to be pretty.  Michael Lungren of HKS Architects (and my sketching instructor) talks about the “scratchy start”.  He means just get something on paper to get going.  Starting is an important part of prototypes.


A prototype is best served when the model meets the desired outcome.  Car designers use clay models to prototype their designs.

At Creative Ventures we are getting ready to launch a new media platform with video series based on our strategic platforms. Here our prototyping took the form of BETA testing. We shot half a dozen videos and got them ready for post-production work just to test the idea.


Form follows function so find the right style of prototyping to make your ideas come to life and to help them find the traction that will bring them to reality!