First Friday Book Synopsis

"…like CliffNotes on steroids…"

Rebecca Costa: An interview by Bob Morris

Rebecca Costa is a sociobiologist who offers a genetic explanation for current events, emerging trends and individual behavior. A thought-leader and provocative new voice in the mold of Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell and Jared Diamond, Costa examines “the big picture”– tracing everything from terrorism, crime on Wall Street, epidemic obesity and upheaval in the Middle East to evolutionary forces.  Costa spent six years researching and writing The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction. In her book, she explains how the principles governing evolution cause and provide a solution for global gridlock. The success of Costa’s first book led to a weekly radio program in 2010 called Rattler Radio. In 2011 the program was renamed and syndicated as The Costa Report, currently one of the fastest growing radio programs on the Central Coast of California.

A former CEO and founder of one of the largest marketing firms in Silicon Valley (sold in 1997 to J. Walter Thompson), Costa developed an extensive track record of introducing new technologies. Her clients included industry giants such as Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer, Oracle Corporation, Seibel Systems, 3M, Amdahl, and General Electric Corporation. Raised in Tokyo, Japan, Costa lived during the Vietnam conflict in Vientiane, Laos, where her father worked in covert CIA operations. She attributes her ability to see the “big picture” to her cross-cultural education and upbringing. She graduated from The University of California at Santa Barbara with a Bachelors Degree in Social Sciences.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of her. To read the complete interview, please click here.

*     *     *

Morris: Before discussing your brilliant book, The Watchman’s Rattle, a few general questions. First, who has had the great influence on your personal growth? How so?

Costa: I spent my formative years in Japan.  My Japanese grandmother was a Zen Buddhist.  Her reverence for nature had a huge impact on how I now view my place in the natural world.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Costa: In 1975, I picked up a copy of Edward Wilson’s watershed book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, and it changed my life.  With enormous clarity and compassion, Wilson forged the connection between evolution and the behaviors or modern man.

Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Costa: Like many college students, once I graduated from the University of California I returned home.  At the time my parents were living in a suburb next to what would later become Silicon Valley.  I found a job at a technology company and worked in Silicon Valley through the eighties and nineties when there was explosive growth.  It was during this time that I began keeping notebooks.  According to the founder of Intel, Robert Noyce, data densities would double every 18 months.  But any evolutionary biologist knows that adaptation is very slow – sometimes occurring over millions of years.  At some point, human progress would exceed the capabilities that humans had evolved to that point in time – and what then?

Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have accomplished in your life thus far?

Costa: It was the combination of my education as an evolutionary biologist and my experience with accelerating technology, while working in the heart of Silicon Valley, that caused me to become concerned about the future of humankind.   I knew that the day would soon come where life would become too complex, too over-featured, too specialized for the man on the street to navigate competently, let alone the leaders of entire countries.

Morris: Let’s say that you are hosting a private dinner party and can invite any six people throughout human history as your guests. Who would they be and what would you be most interested to learn from each? Why?

Costa:  That’s an easy one.  Charles Darwin would be seated at the head of the table.  153 years ago he discovered the most important principles which govern all life on earth.  And that includes us, whether we like it or not.  Next to Darwin I would like to seat Ghandi, Richard Feynman, Hemmingway, Kant, and Edward Wilson.  What?  Only six?  May I have that table extension please?

Morris: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first entered the business world full-time?

Costa: That I am driven by fear.  Fear of failing, fearing of being judged, fear of embarrassment, fear of being poor, fear of giving the wrong answer, fear of being unprepared or ignorant.  I was successful in business, but it never did a thing to make me feel safe.

Morris: Opinions are divided (sometimes sharply divided) on the importance of charisma to effective leadership. What do you think?

Costa: The problem with charisma is that it’s just like trying to be funny.  The worst thing a person can do is try to be funny.  The same goes for charisma.  Authenticity is the only charisma that works.

Morris: In recent years, there has been severe criticism of MBA programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, which area is in greatest need of immediate improvement? What specifically do you suggest?

Costa: The MBA has come and gone and is no longer relevant.  Teaching people how to solve problems – how to think their way out of a jam with speed and agility is the new talent executives need.  That and computing skills.

*     *     *

Rebecca cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Wednesday, March 28, 2012 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The three biggest mistakes made when attempting to solve a problem

I can easily identify with the executive in Frank Cotham’s cartoon that appeared in an issue of The New Yorker years ago.

Problems really do seem to multiply like rabbits on steroids.

However, experts on decision-making agree that there are three mistakes that seem to make  difficult situations even worse…and all can be avoided.

1. Solving a symptom rather than a cause. Wet highways do not cause rain. More often than not, problem-solving initiatives focus on effects rather than on their root causes. Mowing weeds, for example, or feeding hay to a dead horse to get it going again. The best technique for “drilling down” to a root cause is fishboning, devised by  Kaoru Ishikawa. A less complicated technique is called “Five Whys.”

2. Solving the wrong cause. As Steven Johnson explains in The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, it was widely assumed after a plague developed (in 1854) that the deadly virus was transported through the air. Only months and thousands of lives later did the authorities learn that the virus had been transported in water drawn from one well. They shut off the supply and the epidemic ended.

3. Assuming that if you wait long enough, it will solve itself or simply “go away.” This non-decision (actually a “do nothing” decision) usually enables an insignificant problem to become very serious, perhaps even deadly and eventually fatal. Infections resulting from “minor” cuts, for example, especially if staphylococcus aureus is involved.

My own lamentably extensive experience with making all three mistakes is that there are no in significant details when in a crisis situation. Oh sure, there can be “paralysis from analysis.” However, as a general rule, it is prudent to solve a small problem immediately… if it really is a problem.


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Paul J.H. Schoemaker: An interview by Bob Morris

Paul Schoemaker is the founder and chairman of Decision Strategies International, Inc., a consulting and training company specializing in strategic planning and executive development. He is also a co-founder and chairman of Strategic Radar Inc. and serves as Research Director of the Mack Center for Technological Innovation at the Wharton School. He specializes in decision making and strategic thinking, working with companies worldwide. His books include Decision Traps with J. Edward Russo, Wharton On Managing Emerging Technologies that he co-edited with George S. Day, Winning Decisions (with Russo), Profiting from Uncertainty, and more recently, Peripheral Vision co-authored with Day.

Here is an excerpt from an interview I conducted a few years ago. Since then, Paul has published Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure (Wharton Digital Press, November 8, 2011). To read the complete interview, please click here.

*     *     *

Morris: Before we get into a discussion of some of your specific books, Paul, please explain what the Mack Center for Technological Innovation is and does.

Schoemaker: As we explain at our Web site (, in May 1995, the Wharton School established the Emerging Technologies Management Research Program to address the need for new best practices, strategies and competencies in the field of emerging technologies…under the supervision of a Core Team of senior Wharton faculty and staff representing management, marketing and strategic planning.  In 2001, the program was brought under the newly created the Mack Center for Technological Innovation, with a broad mandate to continue and expand our research and to communicate our insights to firms around the world, and to help prepare tomorrow’s future business and technology leaders being educated at Wharton.

The goals of the ET Program are to:

• Provide research-based insight and guidance to firms competing in emerging technologies

• Identify (and where necessary, develop) new best practices and competitive strategies, to replace traditional practices that no longer apply to emerging technology-based industries

• Offer the Wharton School as a respected neutral venue for open discussion of critical issues and problems in emerging technologies

•  Report the results to corporate and academic communities

• Include the results in classroom curricula, to be shared with faculty and students in undergraduate, graduate and executive management education.

We believe that emerging technologies represent a “different game” that doesn’t fit the culture and business approaches of most established firms. Many traditional management principles and methods do not address the high risks and uncertainties that characterize emerging technologies. Better practices and strategies are needed. General and specific insights come from studying patterns of success and failure across a wide variety of emerging technology-based industries. The best performing companies are those that are willing to abandon old technologies and embrace new ones. Early stage success does not assure eventual success in development and commercialization of emerging technologies.

Morris: You co-authored a book about “decision traps” with Jay Russo. What exactly are these “traps”?

Schoemaker: Typically, people fall victim to solving the wrong problem, being overconfident, shooting from the hip, repeating the same mistake (i.e. not learning), assuming that groups or team necessarily make better decisions, etc. Dividing the decision-making process into discrete stages can provide that map to avoid these landmines. These four stages provide the backbone of any decision process, and consciously or not, every decision-maker goes through them. Here they are:

1. Framing. Framing determines the viewpoint from which decision-makers look at the issue and sets parameters for which aspects of the situation they consider important. It determines in a preliminary way the criteria that would cause them to prefer one option to another.

2. Gathering intelligence. Intelligence gatherers must seek the knowable facts and options and produce reasonable evaluations of “unknowables” to enable decision-making in the face of uncertainty. They should avoid such pitfalls as overconfidence in their current beliefs and the tendency to seek information that confirms their biases.

3. Coming to conclusions. Sound framing and good intelligence don’t guarantee a wise decision. People cannot consistently make good decisions using seat-of-the-pants judgment alone, even with excellent data in front of them. A systematic approach—particularly in group settings—leads to more accurate choices, and it usually does so far more efficiently than hours spent in unorganized thinking.

4. Learning from experience. Only by systematically learning from the results of past decisions can decision-makers continually improve their skills. Further, if learning begins when a decision is first implemented, early refinements to the decision or implementation plan can be made that could mean the difference between success and failure.

In real life, of course, the process is not as linear—or as distinct—as our four stages suggest. Indeed, information discovered in the intelligence-gathering stage may inspire you to go back and reframe your issue. Moreover, a complex problem (the relocation of your business, for instance) may entail a series of smaller decisions, each of which may involve several framing decisions, several intelligence-gathering efforts, and several coming-to-conclusions steps.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Peripheral Vision that you co-authored with George Day. Important business books are often written in response to a compelling question. For example, Jim Collins and his research associates set out to learn how a good or even mediocre company could become great. Was there such a question that you and Day attempted to answer in Peripheral Vision?

Schoemaker: Yes. We need to ask: “Why do so many organizations get blindsided – in terms of threats as well as opportunities – and how can they avoid this?”

Too often we overlook events unfolding at the far edges of our business because signals from the periphery are usually weak and ambiguous at first.  Sometimes, however, these early signals foreshadow major problems––like new competitors or products that threaten the company––or they could present significant opportunities. Managers and their organizations build a superior capacity to recognize and act on these signals before it is too late.

Morris: What is a “vigilance gap”? How can it be avoided or at least diminished?

Schoemaker: In a survey of senior executives, we found that less than 20 percent of firms possess sufficient peripheral vision to stay ahead of rivals and potential threats in the future. The following five steps can improving your peripheral vision:  (1) Setting the scope right, (2) Using multiple methods to scan, (3) Avoiding common traps to interpret peripheral signals, (4) Knowing when and how to probe further, (5) Understanding how to act judiciously to stake out options early.  In addition, leaders can (6) enhance their organization’s capacity for peripheral vision and (7) become more vigilant themselves.

Cases we describe in our book include Anheuser-Busch’s anticipation of low-carb beers, the impact of Bratz dolls on Mattel’s Barbie dynasty, the BBC’s response to the digital revolution in communications, and strategies of Philips in addressing the emergence of LED technology in lighting.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read your brilliant book, please explain what the “Strategic Eye Exam” is and why you and George Day recommend that it be taken.

Schoemaker: While peripheral vision is more important than ever, there are strong indications that many organizations are not up to the task. A survey of 140 corporate strategists found that fully two-thirds admitted that their organizations had been surprised by as many as three high-impact competitive events in the past five years. Moreover, 97 percent of the respondents said their companies lacked any early warning system to prevent such future surprises.[i]  A survey we conducted with more than 100 global senior managers found that the growing need for peripheral vision continues to outstrip the capabilities of organizations, resulting in a “vigilance gap” as shown in Figure 1.[ii]  Over 81% of the respondents perceived their future need for peripheral vision to be greater than their current capacity.

Whether or not your organization’s peripheral vision needs change depends upon your current capability as well as the need for peripheral scanning in terms of your strategy, the nature of your business, and your industry environment. The “strategic eye test” helps an organization assess its future need in peripheral vision relative to its current capability.

Morris: Looking ahead is always perilous but if we do so with peripheral vision, we can at least recognize “weak signals” which are especially significant. In your opinion, where are we most likely to find them?

Schoemaker: At the edges of your business; look at five key domains, namely social, technological, economic, environmental or political.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, here’s a question you are probably asked all the time. How can peripheral vision help us to recognize those “weak signals”?

Schoemaker: Develop good external information networks, create a prepared mind, and insist on multiple interpretations for weak signals.


[1] Leonard Fuld, “Be Prepared,” Harvard Business Review,  November 2003, pp. 1-2.

[1] A self-assessment on a scale of 1-7, based on responses from participants in senior management programs at Wharton and INSEAD. Details of this diagnostic “Strategic Eye Exam” used to estimate these results may be found in Appendix A of our Peripheral Vision book.  Readers can take the eye test themselves at

*     *     *

To read the complete interview, please click here.

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Tony Schwartz on “The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time”

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Tony Schwartz for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.

*     *     *

Why is it that between 25% and 50% of people report feeling overwhelmed or burned out at work?

It’s not just the number of hours we’re working, but also the fact that we spend too many continuous hours juggling too many things at the same time.

What we’ve lost, above all, are stopping points, finish lines and boundaries. Technology has blurred them beyond recognition. Wherever we go, our work follows us, on our digital devices, ever insistent and intrusive. It’s like an itch we can’t resist scratching, even though scratching invariably makes it worse.

Tell the truth: Do you answer email during conference calls (and sometimes even during calls with one other person)? Do you bring your laptop to meetings and then pretend you’re taking notes while you surf the net? Do you eat lunch at your desk? Do you make calls while you’re driving, and even send the occasional text, even though you know you shouldn’t?

The biggest cost — assuming you don’t crash — is to your productivity. In part, that’s a simple consequence of splitting your attention, so that you’re partially engaged in multiple activities but rarely fully engaged in any one. In part, it’s because when you switch away from a primary task to do something else, you’re increasing the time it takes to finish that task by an average of 25 per cent.

But most insidiously, it’s because if you’re always doing something, you’re relentlessly burning down your available reservoir of energy over the course of every day, so you have less available with every passing hour.

I know this from my own experience. I get two to three times as much writing accomplished when I focus without interruption for a designated period of time and then take a real break, away from my desk. The best way for an organization to fuel higher productivity and more innovative thinking is to strongly encourage finite periods of absorbed focus, as well as shorter periods of real renewal.

If you’re a manager, here [is one of] three policies worth promoting:

1. Maintain meeting discipline. Schedule meetings for 45 minutes, rather than an hour or longer, so participants can stay focused, take time afterward to reflect on what’s been discussed, and recover before the next obligation. Start all meetings at a precise time, end at a precise time, and insist that all digital devices be turned off throughout the meeting.

It’s also up to individuals to set their own boundaries. Consider [the first of] these three behaviors for yourself:

1. Do the most important thing first in the morning, preferably without interruption, for 60 to 90 minutes, with a clear start and stop time. If possible, work in a private space during this period, or with sound-reducing earphones. Finally, resist every impulse to distraction, knowing that you have a designated stopping point. The more absorbed you can get, the more productive you’ll be. When you’re done, take at least a few minutes to renew. three behaviors for yourself:

*     *     *

A single principle lies at the heart of all these suggestions. When you’re engaged at work, fully engage, for defined periods of time. When you’re renewing, truly renew. Make waves. Stop living your life in the gray zone.

*     *     *

To read the complete article, please click here.

Tony Schwartz is the president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of Be Excellent at Anything. Become a fan of The Energy Project on Facebook and connect with Tony at and To check out Tony’s blog posts, please click here.


Wednesday, March 28, 2012 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment



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