Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations, Feb 2013 - March 2013

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March 21, 2013 Topic: Ambition

Today's Topic: Ambition

Hannah's story: Hannah visited Nashville on vacation. She met a musician who, by our society's standards, had no ambition and this really caught her notice. He told her that he can just go downtown, play music for 4 hours, make $100, that was enough for him. This encounter made her begin to question how we value ambition in people. Why do we value ambition so much? Why is it even celebrated? Is there such a thing as ambition fatigue where we get to the point that our ambition wears us down? Does ambition come at a price - affecting other areas of your life? How can you clear out the clutter - de-stress and eliminate some of the ambition? How do you set boundaries and how do you know when enough is enough?

Grow that business! Often ambition in business means that you want to grow your business. But ambition can also mean that you want to be the best at what you do. That is, there can be a difference between the ambition to refine your craft and the ambition to grow your business for financial reward. So, it's important to know how much you want to work, what amount of work makes you happy and where the limits are.

People can be ambitious in a variety of ways:

  • Obtaining social recognition.
  • Financial rewards
  • Identifying a problem that needs to be solved, or creating a new product or service.

Being consumed with ambition can clearly have negative consequences. Think about this:

  • For many entrepreneurs, business becomes a trap for them, it overwhelms them. Business should exist to provide you with the life you want to live.
  • The business should be able to be run without you - if it's entirely dependent on you, you can't ever get away from it and you will burn yourself out.
  • You have to work and grow business to a certain point to achieve the life you want, and then take a step back.
  • Hannah believes that whatever you're doing with ALL your life has to be what you want, that you can't segment you life into what you want and don't want to do (that is, you should enjoy your work and not do work that you don't enjoy just because it allows you to do things you do enjoy on your time off).

Bob's ideas: Ambition has 2 paths:

  1. The competitive side (self centered, but ok to a point)
  2. The motivation side, which can lead to really good results. Bob tries not to have any expectations, because for him, the fun is the journey, not the destination. People say, if we just raise our expectations, things will get better. But Bob says that higher standards are more important than high expectations. Bob prefers the word motivation to ambition.

John on the Spaulding Court project: When he asked residents, all people in the neighborhood wanted from the project was to have good people living there. Their expectations were so low compared to John's, who had much more ambitious plans for the buildings. He thinks that perhaps they don't know what's possible. Perspective - it's impossible to know how much or little of it you have.

In sustainable business, ambition might be tied into gaining an understanding of what is possible - that there are better ways to do whatever you do. How curious are you? How driven? How motivated are you to be constantly improving your business, always looking for a better, more sustainable way?

Question: Does ambition necessarily require external affirmation?

  • Raising the standard for what clients can expect in her massage business as well as the quality of the working environment for her employees. Hannah spends so much time, so much mental energy thinking about this stuff that she finds it exhausting. That's why the Nashville musician she met really resonated with her. In her understanding, this is what makes a sustainable business, participating in the conversation with those people that you come into contact with everyday. So the feedback is vital to keep going in her work. She is necessarily seeking outside validation.
  • Sara (writer): Having ambitions in a creative field like writing has to do with being very self centered, wanting recognition for herself. She's a bit envious of those who don't need that outside validation.

Dog walker vs. Wall Street Banker: A dog walker would not be considered ambitious by society's standards, and a Wall Street Banker would be. But how do we value the work that people do? Perhaps the dog walker doesn't require a big income and truly enjoys being outdoors with these dogs, and might be using that time for thinking, reflection. The Wall Street Banker might be making good money, but what is his true quality of life?

Why, as a society, do we put positive value on ambition?

  • We make a lot a decisions based on social convention or expectations - ambition as a cultural construct.
  • Our culture tells us that it is almost a moral imperative to work hard, and ambition gets tied up into the work we do. We are taught that we will find great satisfaction knowing that we did what we are supposed to do (regardless of whether or not we get satisfaction from the work itself).
  • We live in a culture of competition - if we want to be successful, we have to somehow do better than the other guy.

Jeff's perspective (Toronto native): In Canada, more things are shared than in US. Competition and ambition are certainly present, but their culture works toward more shared goals, so for them, ambitions are better shared as well.

March 14, 2013 Topic: Business as Art

Comments from last week's conversation on Employee Development:

Recap to Tunde and Jeff's conversation:

  • If your employee is short term, you can make the commitment to development, but be honest that it will be for only one year. You can always make time for helping someone develop skills, even within time constraints.
  • This comes from a natural model, not a calendar model.

Denny: Concept of self growth - a business owner creates an environment in which an employee feels encouraged to grow. Perhaps there's a path for progression laid out for them, helping them to develop a vision and their own path. This yields a benefit to both the company and the employee.

Important to have yearly sit-downs to evaluate the personal and professional goals you might want to achieve within a company and to have regular re-evaluation. Have you achieved last years goals? What are your goals for the coming year? An Employee should to commit to their own development and we can support that as an organization.


How do business and art intersect?
How do business and art intersect?

Today's Topic: Business as Art

There is a saying which explains the difference between Art and Design: Art asks questions, Design solves problems

  • The general understanding of business is that it meets a need, solves a problem. But can we look at business, particularly sustainable business, as more than just "design", more than just a problem solver? What if business could ask questions, too?
  • How do we approach business as something more like art, as something that, in the process of meeting a need, poses new questions?
  • Can art and business come together? Do they already come together?

Think of all the solutions that humans have arrived at that have now become problems:

  • Cars - filled the need for efficient, affordable transportation, but now we have to deal with waste, emissions, traffic congestion, accidents, etc.
  • Bottled water - filled the need for portable drinking water, but opened the door to a huge new environmental problem of increased need for petroleum, waste. What mechanisms came together to cause someone to want to bottle and sell water for 1000x the cost of tap water, and people would buy it.

Art education vs. Business education:

  • Art education can teach you so much more about problem solving and thinking outside the box, often more than studying something technical like engineering or science.
  • Business is taught as if it is were a science - goals are to make more money and achieve more efficiency. This kind of education has affected a lot of people who have come out of B schools.

To be a good artist, you still have to understand the technical areas (geometry, for example) but have to be creative as well, and have to be able to think differently.

We need to know how to ask questions and, especially, how to ask the right questions that lead you to your goal. It's easy to ask the wrong question. Even in science, you need to ask the right question or the solutions you find won't be relevant.

Art as part of your business decisions forces you to think more in the long term rather than in the short term.

Differences between business and art:

  • Art = proactive Business = reactive
  • Business is intrinsically externally focused. Other people have to care about my business to make it successful. Art doesn't have to be externally focused.

Art in the workplace: People are influenced by the art that is in the GG when they walk in. Music stores can influence people when people enter. Art creates mood in a business and can be an important feature of a physical place.


What does art mean to a sustainable business?

  • Think of business as an ongoing conversation, always changing, adapting, answering new questions, creating new conversations. A business that is not sustainable would not take the feedback and ask new questions. A sustainable business exists in a larger ecosystem putting itself in the middle of that ecosystem and responding to it.
  • If you're working in sustainability, you should be engaging in larger questions, questioning what we suppose to be true:
  • Sustainable Pet Business: Tom was surprised by the questions that arose in the pet business learning sessions (SEED session at the GG): How do you define a pet owner or a pet? Do you own another living being - do you own your children? No, but can we really own animals? Legally they are property - but is that right? So we started with a sustainable business process and quickly progressed to posing some very fundamental questions.
  • Bottled water industry: Looking at this business through the sustainability lens, we begin to pose some very important and fundamental questions - What is the environmental impact of this industry? Is bottled water cleaner/healthier? Do we even need it? Does it make sense from an economic point of view? We must have the courage STOP what we are doing, and to ask important questions, challenge assumptions.

So, as in art, the sustainable business should ask fundamental questions, challenge assumptions and think outside the box.


Sara defines herself as an artist - her medium is words. Best selling type of literature today is Young Adult Fiction - Twilight, Harry Potter, etc. She knows of a writer who hired grad students to ghost write YAF books in order to make big money. What she does and what he does is like the difference between art and business. But the line between them can be fuzzy, because, in order for people to have access to or experience your art, business might have to be involved (art show, publishers, e.g.).

Business is better when it is informed by art. But art has also been influenced/grown by business:

  • The auto industry is not just a business, but the art of auto design that propels the business and makes money. The art of the design engages people and makes them want to buy a car.
  • Henry Ford Museum - an interesting example of a place built around technology and business, but also full of art: the design of the buildings, the trains, machines, crafts, etc.

Other thoughts from the group:

  • There can be art in lots of things, but doesn't mean that everything IS art.
  • An entrepreneur like a conductor of an orchestra; he has to choose which instruments are going to be a part of it, who plays each instrument, and what will it sound like in the end. Business is sometimes like a modern jazz quartet, where musicians in conversation with one another, improvising, hearing one another and responding.
  • If you're willing to work with people, listen to new ideas and are willing to take risks, you might get to places you never even thought of before.
  • Detroit is a unique place for making your business what you want it to be, to do something completely new.
  • A lot of what we do in sustainable business, we do because it hasn't been done before. There is an art to finding the THING, asking a new question. It's about being more holistic.
  • Mark let us know that there's an art to cutting a lawn - you have to be like a craftsman at what you do, so there's an art to finding that craftsmanship.


March 7, 2013 Topic: Employee Development

Comments from last week on Understanding How You Learn:

Denny's two thoughts:

  • His wife, in observing kids, found that one learns best when teaching others.
  • There are different categories of knowledge. In business, one often needs to learn processes and procedures, stuff that can be learned by just about everyone. Then there's the higher level thinking, i.e. problem solving, that can be a little more difficult to learn.

Tom's exploration into anaerobic digestion: Kirsten went to a class on living soils at the Rodale Institute with soil expert, Elaine Ingham. She explains how she converts farmers to using natural soil remediation instead of chemicals. How does this relate to anaerobic digestion? Tom learns you can convert one pound of compost into a compost tea to improve 40 acres of farmland. According to Elaine, no one anywhere is working on this kind of soil remediation. Tom will now spend next 6 to 8 months learning all about this. He meets or learns about people doing these kinds of amazing things and then he just dives right in and starts to figure out how to acquire knowledge in the area. Identifying and combining problems that haven't been figured out yet with deep knowledge exploration creates, for him fertile ground for new work to be done in a way that's never been done before.


How do you know when to invest in the development of an employee?
How do you know when to invest in the development of an employee?

Topic for today: Employee Development

Questions to consider:

  • How do you know when to develop an employee?
  • How can you tell if they have the capacity/potential to grow in a way that will allow them to do the work that needs to be done?
  • How of you know if that will probably not happen?
  • How do you think about yourself as the teacher? Who else might be in a better position to teach?


Understand of the fundamentals of the job before you even hire a person. You must understand the job you're asking them to do well enough to know you're hiring the right person.

  • What are the prerequisites for the job, the fundamental skills a person needs to have just to walk in the door?
  • What kind of time frame are you working with?
  • There is a gap between the fundamental skills a person needs to do the job and the skills they may have to learn on the job. Can that gap be bridged?

Look at the following:

  • Actual work experience
  • Projects they've already worked on and completed
  • Certifications (if necessary)
  • References (who have they worked with?) There is some discussion as to the real value of references. How reliable are they really? Are people afraid of liabilities if they give a poor reference?

Other observations by the group:

  • Real experience vs. classroom learning: Jeff (Mt. Elliott Maker Space): It matters more to him that someone has actually built a robot rather than earned an Engineering Degree but not built anything.
  • Many businesses are moving toward a more experiential review of a person's skills - a trial period - before they actually hire them. But there's always a gap (work skills, attitude, priorities). Is this gap bridgeable? Can they be taught?
  • Invest time up front: Spend the time necessary in vetting the person - you'll save time in the end by not hiring the wrong person.
  • Adaptable to change: Recognize that business circumstances and environment are always in flux. So people you hire have to be able to continue to learn and adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Some people like to hire people with no experience because they can more easily train them to do things in their own way, using their own unique methods.
  • Evaluate ability to learn quickly and problem solve against work experience. While experience is valuable, a quick learner and problem solver can sometimes be more valuable on the job.
  • What's the value of attitude and work ethic to you? Are these as important or more important than specific skills? Sometimes, if on a team, a skill gap can be bridged by team members. But the team has to work well together (work ethic, attitude matters more here).

Is there a sustainable model for employee development?

  • The industrial model treated people like machines that are designed to fill in certain functions. But what is the sustainable approach to employee development?
  • If you are able to design work around the person based on their abilities and interests, that's great, but it's not always possible.
  • Example: Let's say you have an engineering problem and you hire an engineer to work on the problem. He solves it but his solution costs $100 million? Well, that person will never become a project manager for a $100 million project. It's like nature: nature has flexibility to it, but it also has limits. This past spring in Michigan the cherry trees blossomed then froze so then produced no fruit. Nature allowed the trees to survive but not to produce fruit. As in nature, there can be flexibility in a job but there will also be things that are beyond someone's limits. So, as a manager, you need to know where you can be flexible, and where those limits lie.

How do you accommodate the growth of an individual with the growth of a company? How do the company and the employee support each other through these changes?

  • There are many kinds of businesses that exist with a hierarchy, and everyone starts at a basic job/skill level and advance as their skills develop. So then, if the company wants to grow, how does this happen? Maybe someone has an idea and that leads the company to grow in a certain direction or to develop a new product, etc. This can lead to both company growth and employee growth.
  • Mt Elliot Maker Space is an interesting business in that most of the jobs have a natural termination time after about one year. That is, it takes about one year to master the work and then most people will be ready to move on after that. There is an assumption that the longer someone is in an organization that is de facto good, but this isn't necessarily true nor even realistic. Many jobs like this have a natural termination time. This is the case at the Maker Space, so Jeff is up front and honest with the people he hires about how long they should expect to be there and makes sure that there will be a smooth hand-off to the next person coming in. Jeff asks employees interested in development to have an open and honest discussion about it, to give him a reason for investing in them - they just might convince him.
  • Some in our group believe you should focus more on the individual's growth rather than the company's growth, because if your employees are growing and developing, that will contribute to the growth of the company. What's the purpose of the company? To develop itself (that is, to earn money) or to develop people for their own growth, thus serving the company as a whole? Investing in the person should be a long-term strategy, with the purpose of developing the person - the development of the business should be a natural outcome of this.

What's your mission? What are your principles? From the get go, make sure employees resonate with your mission and principles. That will be a good indicator of whether or not to invest in an employee. You really have to know your identity. You are hiring a person into your identity as a company and there has to be a good fit.

February 28, 2013 Topic: Understanding How You Learn

Comments from last week on Building a Team:

Pros and cons of hiring friends and family: You know what you're getting when you hire people that you know well. But, there are emotional traps when you hire people with whom you have a deep relationship - how do you deal with that if the working relationship doesn't work out?

  • Keep track of your hiring practices, what works well and what doesn't.
  • Hiring managers will have a gut instinct about bringing someone new onto the team, but when you know you've made a mistake, you have to act on it immediately.
  • People are coachable, but you have to be honest with the employee if they are not going to work out. Communicate your expectations clearly to the employee and let them know you are in a partnership together to achieve certain goals. Let them know where they are on board and where they are not - be clear and honest.
  • How do you know how much energy to invest in an employee if you're not sure they're going to work out? You have to balance the investment with the work that needs to be done in the end. Skills can be taught but how do we determine what development is possible? (This will be topic for next week).
  • As a manager, pause and ask yourself if you are part of the problem. Remember, the relationship goes both ways. Some people are just difficult to work with - could it be you? Are you working as hard as you want your employees to work? What kind of example are you setting? How do you communicate with employees?
  • If you realize that you have hired the wrong person for your team, remember that this is not about FAULT. It's just an example of something that's not working. If not working, do I have capacity, time, skills to coach that person? If not, just say, "Hey, it's not working out and it's not your fault. This is just not the right match for either of us and I don't have the skills to help you. How can I help you get to where you need to be?" In Germany, you can't fire people, so you have to find a way to get that person appropriate work within an organization.
  • Filling slots in an organization chart is just an illusion. Figure out who you have, and how to best create a set of roles that fits those people in a way that will get the work done. Businesses are living organisms, not machines, and people don't fit into this "machine paradigm." How much effort do we spend in getting a person to fit a box? What if you designed the box wrong? Better to ask yourself, Who do we have? What do they like to do? How can I put this group together in a way that will get the work done?
  • Look at the system: When you have an employee who doesn't seem to fit the job well, look at the whole system within your organization. Is there something within this system that is making it harder for this employee to do his job well? Deming will say the 85% of the time, the problem is within the system.
  • But, say you're expanding your business. You have a specific, defined need and you need to find the person who can fit into that box. How do you bring people on when you're trying to design the work around a person's skills? Think about expanding on a Systems level rather than on a specific job level. The world never remains still, so your business has to adapt as well. Staying relevant to people and to what's going on in the wider world is so important in a small business. Are you using the capabilities of the whole person? Have their skills evolved? Have circumstances changed? Do your employees want to move into a different kind of work? How am I growing myself? How does the organization facilitate the evolution of people's skills within the environment?
  • Should we structure our interview questions to identify people's passions as well as their skills?

Recommended reading: Good to Great (article), by Jim Collins, Good to Great (book)


Topic Today: How Do You Learn?

There's a whole science around adult learning. Do you learn by talking about things? Reading about things? Doing things? Observing or listening and talking to others? (See: Howard Gardner - theory of multiple intelligences)

What philosophy are you using for adult learning in your company?

Do we know what kind of learners we are so that we put ourselves in work spaces that are good and healthy for us?

  • Jeff learned what makes learning more pleasant for him. He tries to match his own passions/interests with some segment of an area he's trying to learn. Doesn't learn well by being lectured to, but through discussion, reflection and hands-on work.
  • Perhaps it depends on what it is that you're learning. Sciences, maths, physics, for example: do you need to have things more visually presented or hands-on to understand this stuff?
  • You may have a model about how you learn to do or understand things, but how do you apply that model to real situations? Maybe showing someone how to do something, and teaching them the theory behind it (a story to put it into context), helps to reinforce what you've learned.
  • It's a challenge for some people to learn something that is abstract. How do you do that? One suggestion is to review what you have just read, and then spend some time teaching it in an imaginary class.
  • If you can articulate what it is that you've learned really helps you to refine your deep understanding of a subject or skill. In that process, you're an active learner.
  • Try to gain an understanding of things at their elemental levels in order to truly learn them and acquire that knowledge.
  • Some learn through relationships - communicating and sharing of information. There's the story of two college guys who would teach each other what they learned in class each day, thus increasing the value in their educational experiences.
  • Repetition works for some people - doing something over and over again.
  • Retention of knowledge - Having lots of information in your head that allows you to make interconnections and develop new areas of knowledge.
  • Some people learn in patterns. In order to learn something, Bob digs way down, gets his boots muddy to understand where it all came from.
  • Tom says he learns through listening. He hears an idea, a seed, that connects to something or that disproves something that he thinks he understands. He questions assumptions - lots of whys in his head that he wants to know about. He gets a lot of energy out of the flow of ideas and conversation.


Earlier Conversations: Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations, continued Sept - Oct 2012

Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations, cont'd. Aug - Sept 2012

Sustainable Business - Learning Community Conversations June - Aug 2012

Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations Feb - May 2012

Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations, Nov - Dec 2012

Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations, Jan - Feb 2013

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