S2 E107 — Leaving Us Adrift in a Sea of Change

When things get tough — during a merger — you should do what, go sailing?  You might ask, “Why sailing and why Catalina Island?  Was that like some sort of outdoor adventure boondoggle?  How did you get away with it?”

“5”  Steve Zahn, 51:Consider making a vision board. The surface verisimilitude of an image makes you feel as though you are within touching distance of your desire. Your brain gets used to this, bridges a gap, shortens the leap to reality.” Scorpio

Hi and welcome to Thursday’s Episode 107 in Season 2 of  “My Pandemic Year Natural Experiment” on this 3rd day of September in the fall of 2020.  

“The Tau of Steves: What You Don’t Know Could Fill a Book”

Table of Contents

Season One and Two are a two-year examination of how bits of wisdom changed during the “normal” pre-pandemic and then in this unfolding pandemic year.

Previously in Season Two, the Pandemic Year

S2 E106How We Brainwashed Curmudgeons; S2 E105When Cosmic Leads to Decline, Pair Extremes Intentionally; S2 E104Worst Monday Ever. Very, Very Grim …

Related from Season One, the Normal Year

S1 E107How Do You Rate Your Sense of Curiosity?; S1 E106 — Attempts to Upset 9 of My Life Stages Apple Cart; S1 E105Will Fortune Smile on Us Later in the Evening?; S1 E104How Yesterday’s Success Triggers Tomorrow’s Failure


This is a continuation of “Volume Two Manuscript — WorkFit” a work-in-progress.

In previous episodes we described Start Up, Emerging Growth, Rapid Growth, Sustained Growth, Maturity, Decline and now Reinvention stages.  

Reinvention without Decline

Image Credit: Stephen G. Howard  Copyright 2020

We described a mini-case of a major decline,  Part One, Part Two and Part Three. And, before that we profiled two mini case studies about what it was like working behind the scenes at a mature company in a financial, in a consumer industry and two more in another century-old university system — Part One and Two. 

Now we turn add to Part One with the wildcard Part Two behind-the-scenes Reinvention mini-case.

Reinvention Part Two

23.  Organizational Development – Technology

For a mainframe computer it took almost 24 months to offer the new line when I first joined.  We knocked it down to 18 months, but with enterprise customers their long buying cycles meant our sales people worked and worked and worked to get them to sign on the dotted line.

But then out of the blue word came down that we had entered a quiet period during a merger of two equal sized computer players with some overlapping markets and technologies.

And, it was further delayed due to alleged bribery for government contracts at the other company and the ensuing uncertainty about who would be doing what and what our new identity would be.

Almost immediately all our division employees panicked on the news.  And almost immediately the management team disappeared behind closed doors. 

The vacuum triggered worst case scenarios. And lot’s of questions:

    • How would the merger impact sales? 
    • Will we be handicapped right out of the start gate?
    • What would happen if our hardware, software and manufacturing projects were eliminated?
    • Wasn’t the merger about doubling the size of our marketshare?
    • What would happen to our own, local reinvention efforts?
    • If word leaked out from manufacturing that the next mainframe was as small as your desktop PC, somebody in the customer’s approval process could halt the sale.

In the face of fear and uncertainty and doubt no-one had answers.

Meanwhile, I represented our division interests on the new corporate task force that launched a corporate-wide employee survey and recommended ways of addressing the fear, uncertainty and doubt. 

We tackled the rebranding and communications campaign.

Two formal technology rivals, each with their own operating systems, serving different customers and industries grew from two very different roots. 

From those roots grew two very different cultures which reinforced themselves, until months after the merger.  

Our corporate task force acknowledged those differences, but we began digging until we found the two core foundational stories and creatively began communicating fewer differences and more similarities in an effort to build a new shared value set. 

The company was renamed and branded as the Power of Two (squared).   But, even Steve Jobs couldn’t resist the choice when he quipped, “Little did they know at the time that ‘2’ would be their stock price.”

We all fell victim to FUD — fear, uncertainty and doubt.  When two companies come together to form one you have winners and losers.  At first, since we acquired them, we all figured we’d be the victors.  But, that wasn’t how it turned out entirely.

Locally in our division, we collectively decided to only focus on what we could control.

Shaping a Cultural Climate for Innovation

For another initiative, our Climate for Innovation — the theme my team got three local leaders of manufacturing, software engineering and firmware engineering to sponsor in the California division.

Here’s what the engineering and software teams faced. 

    • They needed to dramatically shorten the time from idea into customer hands.
    • At the same time — they didn’t know when — a competitor would introduce a dramatic improvement which forced the product team to match or beat it.
    • They had to account for technology wild cards. 
    • They themselves didn’t know if they would survive the internal cost cutting elimination process or if their merging counterparts would lose.

We weren’t engineers or software developers.

So, How Could We Contribute?

They were on the hook to finish products on their roadmaps, but to figure out ways to shrink development time before their competitors did. 

So, we scheduled a series of communications programs that interviewed each leader and gave them an opportunity to describe what was important to their group and how each of the other groups fit together.  

It wasn’t technology or talent as much as it was product team formation, storming, norming and performing that sped progress on the relentless time to market. 

My communications co-conspirator described it as a “license to steal,” but in a good way.  As long as we helped move the needle towards a “Climate for Innovation” we practiced tail-wagging as an example for the newly emerging company.

We reinforced a fast-paced, innovative culture that attracted the best of the best. Our motto was simply, “It’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission.”

When things get tough — during a merger — you should do what, go sailing?

You might ask, “Why sailing and why Catalina Island?  Was that like some outdoor adventure boondoggle?  How did you get away with it?”

By sailing to Catalina, holing up in a local hotel and hashing product roadmaps teams were literally able to think out of the box away from the mainland and return to their work with a fresh perspective.

Convene the Brain Trust

Crazy creative Dave pitched a high risk, high value proposition based on a sailing experience.

Robin, one of our local engineering managers and eventually our co-conspirators had taken Dave out to Catalina for fun.  He volunteered as a leader of Sea Scouts based in Dana Harbor, so he had the access to the sailboats and Dave is crazy creative.  

And, crazy creative Dave introduced me to Jim whom he met at a Corporate Communications boondoggle out in the desert of Arizona at a Wickenburg dude ranch. What Dave immediately liked about Jim was his combination strategic thinking and team building tools.

One of Jim’s real estate client brought him to Southern California for executive coaching.  Crazy creative Dave conspired with Robin — the boat, Jim the tools, and me looking for FUD-busting stories to tell.  

We set out on a get-to-know-each-other sea cruise in the Pacific Ocean at dusk from Dana Point named for Richard Henry Dana who wrote, “Two Years Before the Mast” about his adventures on the Pilgrim up and down the coast.  

Fur trappers would throw down their hides from the cliff overhead to the tall ships anchored in the harbor as part of trade conducted in Mission San Juan Capistrano — founded, I believe, in 1775.

Change-Worthy Resilience

Funny how that history kind of provided a little something in our conversations and being on a sailboat, you’re tightly constrained physically so everybody participates. 

And there’s something wonderful about the ocean. The up-and-down motion. The side-to-side motion. The vagaries of the wind and the tacking back and forth. To make any kind of progress, you have to focus on the matter at hand, and balance in three dimensions. 

The sea works its own magic on conversation. It didn’t take long before we found a common passion — the challenge of building change-worthy organizations and individuals.

And, suddenly the wind stopped. The ocean calmed around us momentarily — the surface turned smooth as glass. Simultaneously, we reached some sort of synchronicity state. 

That moment when every thing happens in slow motion. We finished each other’s sentences. Ideas burst out of us like popcorn. We collectively saw a future — at least a trajectory based on the technology we were building, and a way to achieve what we all wanted individually, but in a way that would benefit all of us working together.

So, how did that play out? It sounds so, what … corporate hippy bullshit.

That’s why I couldn’t ask for permission from my 116 Institutional Traditionalist boss. 

Our task was to create an accelerated team building and innovation process — the sailing to Catalina — facilitate brainstorming sessions, and capture their output — decisions, plans, action items, further investigations.

Did it Work

Still sounds like a typical corporate boondoggle, right?

If you’ve been to a workshop or a class, what happens?  

In about 20 minutes after it’s over — by the time you leave the parking lot — you forget 50% of it.  When you come back to work, all the emails and requests that piled up while you were away command your time and attention.  

You lose another 30%.  

By the end of the first week, the Catalina experience is just a fond memory.

Did They Forget Best Laid Plans

No, we recorded all of their work in video and photos.  During the first week “back at the ranch” we delivered daily reminders of commitments they made by documenting them doing so in pictures.  Intermittently, we’d send another reminder and request for a status update.

It was like they could fall back into their highly engaged experience — in a kind of a re-immersion. 

It worked, really well.  Dave and I treated each safari as a proof of concept and built on what we learned running prior ones.  

We experimented with a variety of outdoor venues, if you will, and learned how to program sessions with music and turn the whole adventure into — well, we called them “Strategic Safaris” to accelerate team development, conduct product planning sessions and drive new initiatives immediately.

Next up: Part Three when intrapreneurially sourced innovations take shape.


“5”  Steve Zahn, 51:Consider making a vision board. The surface verisimilitude of an image makes you feel as though you are within touching distance of your desire. Your brain gets used to this, bridges a gap, shortens the leap to reality.” Scorpio

Thanks for the fond memories.  On the island with the engineering teams we’d have them draw out what they felt were their team futures.  They broke down steps to achieve what they had drawn together and we filmed them committing to what they achieved on Catalina together.

Random ones that make me want change my sign.

“ 4”  Steve McQueen (1930 – 1980): “There have been times when it was hard for you to imagine being free, self-reliant and in control of your own financial and emotional destiny. Today’s developments are a dream come true.”  Aries

Can I get an “Amen!”  My decade-long advisory role in the university system helped turn that line of anxiety off forever.

“4”  Steve Winwood, 71; Stevie Wonder, 69; Stephen Colbert, 56: “Not all feelings are messages from the depths. Some are just momentary choices based on comfort zones. A feeling can also be a distraction from another, less-appealing, more uncertain feeling.”  Taurus

Got me.  I tend to favor my muse by asking Leo da V what I should concentrate on, expecting a deep exploration.  But, often curiosity masks distractions.

“4”  Steve Greene, 34; Steve Guttenberg, 61:You’re likely to pour over every detail. The perfectionism that has you moving incredibly slowly now will also be the reason that you’re so excellent at the task.” Virgo

Yes and no.  Too much detail numbs my brain.  Not enough detail fails to satisfy my Systematic-Professional leanings.  Is it a stalemate?

“5”  Steve Kerr, 54:You are very aware of what you don’t know and only get more aware of it as you go. This is proof that you are amassing a great body of learning indeed, as every new idea opens up 10 more questions.” Libra

Just 10 more questions?  It’s as true for me today as it was finding resilience in uncertain times during our 360 degree model for adventure learning.

What’s Going On

Literally Bottled and Set Adrift from KnowWhere Atoll 

    • @knowlabs followers of one or more of my 35 digital magazines organically grew from 4906 to 4990.




    • Saw the movie, didn’t realize that one of my favorite authors, Michael Connelly — his detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch book series and Amazon Prime series — also wrote, “The Lincoln Lawyer” which I just finished. Gotta tell you I can’t not see his lead character (Mickey Haller, Bosch’s half brother) as anyone else but Matthew McConaughey. 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by: Holiday Mathis – Creators Syndicate


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