Pretending to be someone I’m not

A few Saturdays ago I spent three hours helping my first grader with her math homework. It was a frustrating for both of us. The concepts weren’t making sense to her. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t focus. It probably didn’t help that I was trying work while she completed her homework (my attention was divided).

That night, I thought about my failings as a parent and how I wished the afternoon had gone better. I started to think through alternatives to help her learn and keep me from becoming impatient. How might I make learning fun for her and focus my attention on teaching her?

The idea I settled on was to pretend to be someone else – to role play.

The next day (Sunday) I told my daughter that I had hired a private tutor. “He has extensive mathematical training AND he is British. Mr. Shepard, the patient, British math tutor.”


I set up a flip chart and we started working away on concepts (doubles, making ten, adding by 8, and so on). I used my best British accent and was very patient. I tried to think “what would Mr. Shepard do?” (by the way, I just invented Mr. Shepard that day). Mr. Shepard thought of lots of fun examples and was complimentary

My daughter loved this time and it was a blast for me too. She learned the concepts and finished her homework quicker than the previous day. Mr. Shepard has not visited since, but I’m sure he will come again when the time is right.

This exercise got me thinking about the value of role playing – pretending to be someone else is a great way to gain empathy and take a stand. You may be wrong in how you are approaching the role, but there is no middle ground.

Imagine that you and a colleague are working on a presentation for your CFO. What if one of you pretends to be the CFO? Mannerisms and all – really get into her head. What questions would she have? What other information would she want to see on slide 4? What parts would she like, what would she not like?

This is an exercise in empathy – by role playing you are consciously stepping out of your shoes and into your CFO’s shoes. Also, you are taking a leap. You have seen your CFO in action, but thinking like she thinks takes inference. These leaps lead to insights – seeing the world from a different perspective.



But what if you are wrong? What if you completely misunderstand how your CFO thinks and you bomb the presentation? This is great!

Imagine the next time you are preparing for a presentation? You’ll remember how the last stand that you took needs to be adjusted. If you had not role played, if you had not taken a stand, what would you have really learned from the meeting about your CFO?

Empathy is a continual learning process. Attempt, fail, adjust, attempt again, fail again, adjust again, etc.

So the next time you need some inspiration, patience, or want to approach a problem the way and expert would, just play pretend and gain instant empathy!



November is National Blog Post Month (NaBloPoMo). This post is part of my post-a-day challenge. I have picked a theme for the challenge: song titles. These songs have been featured on live albums from KEXP (an awesome alternative radio station in Seattle), so at a minimum you will hear some great music.

There are two juveniles that are particularly close to me. I just tucked them into bed, but they went to sleep unaware that they took part in my personal and professional development. And it wasn’t just tonight, they help me grow every day.

Tonight we did something that they love. We played a game that is called “emcee.” I grab something that looks like a mic (tonight it was a half used tube of diaper cream) and then emcee the rest of the night. The girls sit on their beds and I start:

I want to thank everyone for joining us tonight. It has really been a special time. This is a really unique setting and makes me feel very close to you. I just want to run down the rest of the evening for you.

Next we will be brushing teeth. That will occur in the bathroom. It’s just down the hall to the left. After that we will floss – as you know it’s super important that we floss. One of the most important things we will do tonight.

After flossing, we will brush hair. We certainly don’t want any tangles in the morning. No one wants to start their day with tangled hair.

That about covers it. Let’s meet back in here in fifteen minutes for a special presentation. Thanks again for joining us. It’s been a real treat to be with you tonight.

They absolutely love this sort of treatment. They continually laugh and instruct me on what to say. All the while, I am getting better as a public speaker. I’m not sure why I had the idea to MC my kids bed time, but I am glad that I did.

Think about all the time you spend with your kids (or nieces/nephews). They are a great audience. They tend to laugh at your jokes. Why not try out fun stuff on them that could potentially improve you professionally?

Share what you’ve done. I’d love to have more ideas and opportunities to practice with my kids.

Get emotional

As someone who is continually looking at numbers, specs, contracts, prospectuses, etc, it is easy to forget about the people who buy our products. Focusing singularly on the technical aspects of one’s job tends to create a clinical environment. Somewhere in the discussion of “ROI”, “pattern of cash flows”, “interest rate sensitivity” and “asset/liability matching” we lose touch with our emotions.

I’ve written about the importance of feeling something at work and how I believe it’s important to be “emotional” – even – no, especially – when you work in a technical field. Being “emotional” has a negative connotation, but I believe being an “emotional” employee will help you to become more engaged and innovative.

Your company exists because of its customers. Customers are the reason that any business exists. And spreadsheets, contracts, processes, KPI targets all serve as a buffer from the messiness of people’s lives. But why is it that we create, or allow this separation?

I believe this separation mindset was made popular during the industrial revolution, where management believed that employees were interchangeable parts. Managers only cared about the work force being as efficient as possible and most workers were happy to have a job that paid them much more than they could have made farming or continuing the family craft. Empathizing with the customers didn’t seem necessary.

But as we have moved from an industrialist society to a post-industrialist connection economy, empathy and connections matter. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t care if their work has impact.

Isn’t it time to change how we view our work?

Part of my personal journey involves a transformation of a worker who lacked empathy, to one who saw the life changing impact of knowing the customer intimately. Here are a couple of huge benefits of being closer connected to your customers:

  1. Better engagement – most workers net worth does not increase $1MM for every $1 increase in the stock price. Your record quarter doesn’t mean much to 95% of the company. What matters are the lives that you are able to impact through your work.
  2. Innovation – the magic of design thinking depends upon empathy. When I truly feel what it is like to have a particular problem, I see the real needs. The real problem. And I will develop more innovative solutions.

So, why aren’t more workers connected to the customers? I think the language we use plays a large part in removing the emotion from work. Here is an example from the actuarial field:

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This symbol stands for “the probability that a life aged 33 will not be living at the end of 15 years.” In other words, what are the chances that a guy aged 33, would die before 48? We would run a model and I could tell you that out of a 1000 lives, 21.297 people are not alive at the end of the 15 years.

While this may be technically accurate, it misses all the emotion. What if you thought of this symbol standing for:

  • A father not being there to walk his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day
  • A mother not being there to see her son graduate high school
  • A middle school aged girl who isn’t sure who will take her to a father-daughter dance

Photo credit: Jenna Perfette photography

How much more motivating and rich would your work become if you felt more connected to the impact your business has on its customers? Start by imaging the peoples lives that are represented by the spreadsheet. Your customers are more than just points in a model or a series of cashflows. They are real people.

There’s nothing wrong with using technical language to describe a calculation, or spending time in a spreadsheet. But don’t lose sight of your customers. Literally. Place their pictures on your walls, know their stories, go and talk to them.

You’ll find yourself more engaged and you’ll find yourself thinking more creatively about solving their problems.

First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy

I heard of this video from the brilliant Anna Love-Mickelson. It struck a chord with me, because reminds me a lot of what I am trying to do with design thinking at Protective Life. Sometimes, I feel like this shirtless guy dancing. (I kept my shirt on when we did the Harlem Shake). But much of the time, I feel like there is a movement afoot and there are lots of “first followers” that have surrounded me.

I love these lines in the video:

If you are a version of the shirtless dancing guy, all alone, remember the importance of nurturing your first few followers as equals, making everything clearly about the movement, not you.

Be public. Be easy to follow!

But the biggest lesson here – did you catch it?

Leadership is over-glorified.

Yes it started with the shirtless guy, and he’ll get all the credit, but you saw what really happened:

It was the first follower that transformed a lone nut into a leader.

There is no movement without the first follower.

Marshmallow Challenge Results


So the results are in!!! As I hinted towards in a previous post, the kids did better than the insurance professionals. At the LIMRA conference in New Orleans, we had about twenty teams. Of twenty, only five had a standing tower (25% completion ratio). Compare that to a third grade class where 75% of the teams got their tower up. Also, the winning team’s tower was only two inches taller than the kid’s winner.

My design thinking talk got great reviews. It was very cool to push the group of almost 100 to tap into their latent creativity.

If you are interested in listening to my talk, I have it on brainshark.

I would love to hear from some of my readers, so please don’t hesitate to provide feedback.

Yes, AND…


You are trying to come up with lots of ideas to solve a really thorny issue at work (or at home). You’re not worried about evaluation of the ideas at this point, you just want to come up with as many ideas as possible. You have this idea in your head…it’s a little crazy, but you go ahead and share it anyway….you’re idea is met with an emphatic…”yes, BUT…”

How does that feel? Does it take all the air and creativity out of the room? We’ve all been there. You have an idea that you’re excited to share and you are met with all the reasons it won’t work. In this post, I want to introduce you to a mindset of “yes, AND…” rather than saying “yes, BUT…”. In addition, I’ve met some people who LOVE to practice this technique. I’ll show you where you can find these people, so you can practice and become a master of the “yes, AND”

What is “Yes, AND…”?

It’s simple really…when you are trying to ideate solutions, or just build off of others ideas, you try and say “Yes, AND…” in response to everything that is said. This is an old comedy improve trick.

Here is an example. We are trying to ideate around, how might we make patients being discharged from Children’s hospital feel like movie stars? You say “kids walk down a red carpet to get to exit the hospital.” Then I say, “yes, AND…we have a nurse ask ‘who are you wearing?'”. You say, “Yes, AND three photographers take their pictures.” And so on and so on…This technique helps foster robust ideation. Below I have listed IDEO’s rules for brainstorming and BOLDED the rules that this technique supports. (Note: I first had just listed out the rules that applied, but after thinking about it decided to list all the rules. In fact, I suspect a future post will be coming about this list. It is extremely helpful to creating a posture of rapid and radical ideation.)

  1. Defer judgement
  2. Encourage wild ideas
  3. Build on the ideas of others
  4. Stay focused on topic
  5. One conversation at a time
  6. Be visual
  7. Go for quantity

Who loves “Yes, AND…”?

Ok, so your boss isn’t pleased with your desire to do some more “Yes, ANDs…” Your coworkers look at you like you have two heads. How do you practice? With children! They love to play “yes, AND…” Just this week, I have had a running session of “yes, AND” with my six year old daughter. It all started on our way to church. There has been an enormous Lifetime Fitness going up beside our church. We drove past the pool and here’s how the conversation went…

Daughter: I wish we were going to the pool (maybe instead of church!?!)

Me: What if we held church in the pool?

Daughter: Yes, and, the nursery is in the kiddy pool

Me: Yes, and the pastor would sit in the lifeguard stand…(arrive at church, convo pauses)

Later in the day

Daughter: Daddy, what if your work was a pool?

Me: Yes, and the bosses have big corners of the pools instead of offices

Daughter: Yes, and there are islands in the pool where you have your computers

Me: Yes, and you take a lazy river to meetings

Daughter: What if your work was a zoo?

Me: Yes, and each department works in cages and people could come by and feed us lunch

Daughter: Yes, and the bosses are the zoo keepers! (giggles uncontrollably)

This is so much fun…she loves it, I love it AND I am working on my creative muscles AND becoming a better design thinker at the same time. Think about how different this conversation would have gone if I would have responded to her first statement with, “yes, BUT”…the “yes, AND…” allowed us to encourage wild ideas. See #2 on IDEO’s rules for brainstorming.

So to further work out your creative muscles, spend a day, or an hour responding to everything with “yes, AND…” Also, spend some time with your son, niece, goddaughter, etc. playing “yes, AND.” Report back here to let us know how it goes. I promise you will have a great time.


Rapid Prototyping from a six year old


Kids are amazing prototypers. It is how they learn. Have you ever watched a two year old continually drop a toy to see what happens? She is experimenting. She is making sense of her world by doing.

I had a recent experience with my daughter that showed me that she is better at prototyping than I. We were making snowflakes – one of her favorite crafts. You fold paper several times. Next cut out some shapes. Then you unfold the paper to observe your snowflake – except that is not what my daughter did. She would cut a little then unfold the paper to she what she had made. Cut a little more and then check it out. Cut a little more and then it was done. My method was to cut, cut, cut and then unfold to see what it looked like.

What my daughter was doing was prototyping. As opposed to me – I was just cutting away and waiting until it was too late to change course. Have you made the mistake I have made before? Maybe it was with a project – you worked weeks and weeks without getting feedback. Or a presentation – you spent two days getting everything right before showing it to your boss. Try and take a cue from a six year old and check out your snowflake before it is too late.

I’ll save more on kids prototyping for later when I cover Tom Wujec’s TED talk.