Take Your Eye Off the Ball

mara beast

Keep your eye on the ball!

I have coached youth softball for the past five years, and have uttered those 6 words more times than I can count. Particularly when the girls were very young, it was important to help them push past irresistible distractions like building sandcastles in the infield and picking dandelions in the outfield, and to focus on the one thing that matters most. The ball. Hit it, catch it, dodge it… whatever the case may be, but zero in on doing that one thing right.

As the girls get older though, the game gets more complex. Of course, “keeping your eye on the ball” is still critical, but stopping to first “take your eye off the ball” becomes arguably more important. How many outs are there? What is the score? Does this pitcher like to throw change ups? Should I take a pitch so that my speedy teammate on first base can steal second base? Are the infielders playing deep? The list goes on and on…

It no longer is enough to just do your one job and swing away… it is important to first understand the context, the competition, and the potential scenarios. It will always be important to execute in the moment, but first stepping out of the batter’s box and seeing where this moment fits within the broader game should inform how we take that swing.

In the vast world of innovation, we are much like that batter— eager to step up to the plate and take a big swing. But do we discipline ourselves to first step out of the moment and make sure that we are taking the best possible swing at the optimal time?

Before we start writing a new concept or idea, do we thoroughly research what work has been done before?

As we look to rapidly launch a product into a new market, do we fully understand the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of our competition?

Do we learn from our mentors, coaches, and experts before we storm forward, or are we in too big of a hurry to take the field?

As we look for new ideas, do we allow ourselves time to study trends, to brainstorm new approaches, and to look at the problem from a different angle?

Do we pause, reflect, and reevaluate our approach as we go along, or do we let our addictions to activity distract us from our big picture goals?

Particularly in the overwhelming pace and pressure of 2017, it is easy to want to just step in the batter’s box and swing big. And in the short run, that approach may allow for some quick results and some good numbers. But in the long run, champions are born from fully understanding the gravitas of the moment, understanding the game within the game, and anticipating (and creating) the future.

We all want to take some big swings—we just need the added discipline to step back first and understand our context, our competition, and our scenarios. And maybe even allow ourselves a moment to build a sandcastle or pick some dandelions along the way.

Note: I originally published this blog at http://www.upstream360.com.


Ten Tips to Tryout for the Team


The snow is melting, the birds are singing, and winter is coming to an end.  Spring has sprung and softball and baseball season has arrived!  For many, the start of the season means tryouts for school teams or select teams.  Whether this is your first time trying out for a team or if you are an experience veteran, below are some pointers for how to carry yourself and to put your best foot forward as you take the field and show your coaches and teammates what you are made of.

  1. Hustle. Always.  Softball is a crazy game and you will have good days and bad days.  You can’t always control your results on the field, but you can always control your effort. Run from drill to drill and never stop moving.  The drills will show your skills, but your hustle will show your heart.
  2. Be prepared. Make sure you have your glove, your helmet, your water, and everything you need when you walk into practice.  When it is your turn in a drill, give it your full attention.  Be noticed for your play on the field and for your attitude… not for being inattentive or unprepared.
  3. Play big. Tryouts aren’t the time to play it safe.  Swing away and show your strength.  Dive for balls and demonstrate your courage.  Put some extra juice on your throws to highlight your aggressiveness.  Give it everything you’ve got, and leave it all on the field.
  4. Dress like a ballplayer. When trying to earn a spot on the team and show the coaches and the evaluators that you belong, throw on a jersey, lace up the cleats, and pull up those softball pants and socks.  Look like you’ve been there before and show that you’re a player.
  5. Wear something with your name on it. Coaches are human and tryouts are short, so make it easy for them to put a name to the face.  Your play should do most of the talking, but go out of your way to be memorable.
  6. Talk to your coaches. Coaches want to see what type of player that you are on the field, but also the kind of person that you will be in the dugout.  Demonstrate your maturity, ask questions, and stay engaged.  Softball is more mental than physical, and show your coaches that you want to increase your knowledge of the game as much as your skills.
  7. Be a team player. Don’t get caught up in competing with your peers and your potential teammates.  Focus on doing your personal best and encourage others to do the same.  Compliment good play, share advice, and pick up others if they get down.  While not everyone can make the team, focus on what’s best for the group and be the consummate teammate and a good sport.
  8. Be a leader. Volunteer to be first in the drills.  Demonstrate techniques.  Carry the team bag.  Help others get ready and lead by example.  Help the coaches run the drills.  Pick up softballs after batting practice. Be the first one on the field and the last one off.  Be the player that others look up to and respect.
  9. Take failure in stride. You are going to make mistakes.  Ground balls will go through your legs, you will take some ugly swings, and some throws will fly wildly out of your hands.  Smile, punch your glove, and say “Can I try that again, Coach?”  Coaches don’t want to see temper tantrums… they want to see maturity and confidence.  Embrace the fact that you will sometimes fail, and focus your energy into getting better.
  10. Have fun. At the end of the day, you are playing a game and it should be fun. Enjoy the sound of the crack of the bat, the laughs with your teammates, and the thrill of the sport.  You should play this game because you love it.  If you feel yourself being stressed, frustrated, or angry, take a deep breath and remember that this isn’t a job or a chore… it’s a game.  Smile, laugh, and PLAY ball!

When all is said and done, if you make the team, accept the honor humbly and support your friends who don’t make the cut.  If you don’t make the team, give yourself some time and space to feel that disappointment. But don’t give up!  You love this game, so keep practicing, play summer ball, and continue to get better.  Good luck to all the girls and boys trying out for spring sports, hustle hard, and leave it all on the field!

Fathers, Daughters, and Career Advice


My oldest daughter, Mara, is in junior high this year, and I am still reeling from the fact that she is growing up so fast.  This has further fanned the flames of what has become a “Year of Reflection” for me (sounds more aspirational than “mid-life crisis”), as I have turned 40, changed careers, and taken many a trip down memory lane.  I have beseeched her consistently in her young life to “not be in a hurry to grow up” because frankly there is no better job than being a kid.  But as she starts to enter this world of young adulthood, her thoughts and our conversations are inevitably turning more toward her rapidly approaching future. As such, for the first time we had an actual conversation of…

So what do you want to do when you grow up?” 

First, she sarcastically retorted, “I don’t know, Dad… what do YOU want to do when YOU grow up?”  Valid point, but she was stalling.  As her mind wrapped around my question, I could see the wheels turning and the emotions conflicting.  Part of her seemed to be clinging tightly to her childhood, another feeling that fear of becoming a grown up, and yet another sparkling with the excitement of adventures ahead.  Finally, with a look of peace she said, “Dad… I am still only 12 and I like waaaay too many things to even begin to decide what I want to do when I grow up.  What I do know though, is that whatever I choose will be something that I love to do, that I’m good at, and that helps people.  And with those simple words, she had concisely and insightfully given a better answer than I could have imagined. 

As I have coached and managed people, businesses, and projects over the years, it is a simple, consistent, and amazing truth that these three elements are core to achieving success and fulfillment.  Whether it is a career path, a creative idea, or a new project, we often neglect one or more of these elements in making choices and decisions: 

  • Talent: A skill or core competency that is a step above “competition”
  • Passion: An inherent love or drive that radiates from within
  • Benefit:  Making a difference for someone(s), by providing a product, service, or idea that they truly need or want.

This isn’t rocket science in concept, but is surprisingly uncommon in practice.

As individuals and teams walk through my door each day, looking for breakthrough concepts, disruptive ideas, and to growing new business, the ones that inevitably go on to be successful can say YES to the following questions: “Are we good at this?”, “Am I emotionally invested?”, and “Does it make a difference?”

Of course, by no means am I saying that “making money” is not important (I certainly don’t intend on my daughter living in my basement forever!). But the money should be an output that arises naturally from infusing innovation with these three factors.  In a world that too often encourages action before reflection, let’s take some advice from the world’s 12 year olds and stop to run our ideas and decisions through these filters.  It could make a world of difference.

Note: I originally published this blog at http://www.upstream360.com.

The Art of Collaborative Creative


Over the past few years, I’ve had a growing passion for writing. As a guy who spent most of my early years labeled as the “math nerd” (which, to be fair, is still a fairly accurate descriptor), I have truly enjoyed stepping out of the numbers as a blogger and the published author of a book.

To this point I have largely constrained myself to non-fiction. There is plenty of room for creativity here, but it is still relatively safe as I am playing within the sandbox of innovation that I’ve lived and breathed throughout my professional career. My new goal is to do some fictional work, and to push myself to a whole new level of risk-taking and imagination. While it is a thrilling proposition, it is daunting. And finding the time to further hone my skills, is proving to be elusive at best.

While it has taken me 41 years to start this process, my 12-year old daughter already is finding ways to build her own creative writing skills and has several projects in the works. And, as the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, her primary roadblock is the lack of time as well.

So to address both our creative inkling and our motivational downfalls, she and I have started a collaborative project to spur each other to write every day. She developed a new fictional adventure story-starter and spent ten minutes crafting the opening. She then passed it to me, and I spent ten minutes of my own building the tale from there. And so it has continued. Each day, we spend no more than ten minutes continuing the story, adapting to the twists and turns that the other introduces, setting up new directions for the other to pursue, and diverging into a narrative web that is far richer and much different than either of us could have imagined at the beginning.

Seeing the story evolve is fascinating, and both of us are amazed with the different elements that the other adds. We both had some pre-conceived notions of how the story would evolve and some of those have come to fruition and some have been abandoned outright. Of course, there are elements that each of us would have done differently, but in these divergent stages we have embraced the varying directions and continued to encourage each other to push boundaries and introduce surprises.

We have now reached the more difficult phase of the project. Driving to a conclusion. When we were diverging, it worked wonderfully to independently innovate and to build and take our project in various directions. But now we are finding that it is necessary to collaborate a bit more on where we want this story to end. We are still allowing for the independence and freedom along the journey of writing, but are needing to work together to chart an ultimate destination. Otherwise, we will find ourselves diverging endlessly or losing motivation as one or the other’s vision begins to dominate the final reveal.

Back to my comfortable world of innovation now… I find this process a sharp parallel to a lot of the work I do with teams in developing new-to-the world ideas and products. You’re not alone if you are currently fighting so many business fires that carving out time to focus on innovation is challenging. And when teams do make that investment in the upstream work, often they converge too early, which fails to allow an idea to pass through all members of the team to diverge, to build, and to grow. The ultimate goal must be to both embrace and to accept a range of possibilities early on, but also to elevate and to align on the best holistic solution at the end.

Whether writing a book or growing an idea, this back-and-forth of open divergence and collaborative convergence is key to maximizing the innovation while making choices to ultimately complete the project. I’m excited to continue authoring this new fictional adventure with my daughter, and will be curious to read (and to share) how it ends. The best part of this collaboration is, there’s no need for a spoiler alert!

Note: In researching the topic and images for this blog, I learned that the name for these cooperative techniques for writing and drawing are referred to as “Exquisite Corpse”… developed by French surrealists. I think my daughter and I will stick with calling it “Collaborative Writing”.

Note: I originally published this blog at http://www.upstream360.com.

Bring Balance to the Force… of both Novel and Nostalgia


I have never been more excited for a movie than I am for tonight’s Star Wars – The Last Jedi premiere. I have also never been more nervous. I have been journeying to this galaxy far, far away for my entire life and the Force is ingrained in all the best parts of my childhood. And while I may no longer be a young Farm Boy on Tatooine, I have now evolved into an old Jedi Master in the suburbs… inspiring new adventures with my own young padawans.

So as this installment of the Skywalker Saga arrives now forty years after the original, what is it about this VIIIth Episode that has me more enthused, yet more anxious than all the rest?

Luke Skywalker.

Luke was my hero growing up and has one of the greatest story arcs of any character from any movie franchise. A “nobody” from a desert planet, Luke is propelled into an epic adventure in which he ultimately discovers “magical” powers and saves his friends, his father, and all the good in the galaxy. And then he parties with ghosts and ewoks.

That was 1982 and represented Luke’s last on-screen appearance until 2015’s “The Force Awakens”. Luke reappears for only the closing shot of this movie and, although he never says a word, the epically literal cliffhanger has had me on the edge of my seat for two years. And after years of anticipation, I finally get to see my childhood hero in action again.

But what if Luke is not who I want him to be?

While I am hungry for this new twist to the journey, I also don’t want to see my long-standing perception of Luke be damaged or erased. Luke right now is a perfect hero, and while I recognize that some new weakness, some pain, and likely even some Darkness may be necessary to move his story arc forward, I want it to be done in a way that does not diminish, or even destroy, the hero of my childhood.

I want the perfect balance of Nostalgia and Novel.

This is a sensitive balance to strike, and a fine line that the filmmakers of Disney must walk with each of these new films. When The Force Awakens launched two years ago, J.J. Abrams rightly swung the balance more heavily toward nostalgia as the audience yearned to feel the tonality of the original Star Wars trilogy rather than the prequel trilogy that followed. As Rian Johnson takes on this next chapter, we’ve challenged him to swing the balance the other direction and to deliver something that we’ve never experienced before… but in a way that still builds off of that nostalgic base that we know and love.

This tension extends far beyond Star Wars into this galaxy as well. As a consumer, I strive for efficiency and do the balance of my shopping online, yet I still love to physically walk into a few small, specialty stores for certain items. As an innovator, I work to evolve existing brands with breakthrough products, packages, and ideas, but still strive to strike the right pacing and fine balance of fresh and familiar. And as a father, I can’t wait for my kids to grow up and to find their place in this crazy world, yet simultaneously want them to cling dearly to the youthful innocence of childhood as long as possible.

There may not be a scientific formula to solve this delicate equation of nostalgia and novelty, but there is certainly an art… and this art is grounded in the intricate knowledge and creative insight of our consumers, our brands, our products, and ourselves.

So tonight, I will journey again to that galaxy far, far away with my children, my brother, and my friends. As I recline enraptured with the screen before me, I will heed Luke’s warning that, “This is not going to go the way (I) think.” Yet I am excited to join him on this next adventure and am optimistic that The Last Jedi will build on the nostalgia of this heroic character while endeavoring into entirely unchartered space.

May the Force Be with Us.


Note: I originally published this blog at http://www.upstream360.com.

kNOw Sweat. The Six Word Story.


Throughout the month of November, our team at Upstream 360 helped to support the inaugural Hyperhidrosis Awareness Month. Hyperhidrosis is a debilitating disease in which the body’s mechanism for cooling itself is overactive — so overactive that sufferers may sweat uncontrollably, often four or five times more than is necessary. This disease impacts nearly 5% of the global population – more than the entire population of the United States. To quote a pre-eminent expert in the field, Dr. David Pariser, “While hyperhidrosis may not be a life-threatening condition, it’s deeply life-altering, with overwhelming effects on social, professional, and home life.”

The driving force behind establishing this Awareness Month is the International Hyperhidrosis Society (IHhS). “Founded in 2003 by an elite team of world-respected physicians and experts in hyperhidrosis research, the International Hyperhidrosis Society is the only independent, non-profit, global organization that strives to improve quality of life among those affected by excessive sweating.” (SweatHelp.org). Led by Lisa Pieretti, this organization is leading an intense and impassioned quest for finding better treatments, and ultimately a cure.

My personal journey with the IHhS began more than a decade ago when I was working to develop the Secret Clinical Strength antiperspirant at Procter & Gamble. Our two organizations formed a strong partnership that led to a deeper understanding of the condition, a greater awareness of the extreme social and emotional impact on sufferers, and the design of a new category of underarm antiperspirants that helped to alleviate some symptoms. This relationship has remained strong over the years, and I am blessed that even upon my leaving P&G that this journey has continued.

Now at Upstream 360, my team has partnered with the IHhS to develop content to drive education, community, and support for this inaugural Hyperhidrosis Awareness Month. In managing the social media efforts, we have developed videos, infographics, and messaging to achieve this mission. And while we are proud of the work that we have developed, we humbly acknowledge that the most impactful messages came from the community of hyperhidrosis sufferers themselves.

I talk often in these blogs about the power of a good 6-word story in its ability to paint a concise and insightful picture. As part of this social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter, we asked the community to “In 6 words or less, describe the story of hyperhidrosis in your life.” The responses were amazing and often heart-wrenching. Hundreds of responders told their tales and managed to capture the heart, mind, and soul of what these sufferers experience each and every day.

Sweat pours, tears fall, neither stops.

Uncontrollable sweating that drowns your dreams.

Hyperhidrosis is anxiety. Anxiety is Hyperhidrosis.

Embarrassment, causing stress, causing more sweat.

Chronic discomfort resulting in frequent anxiety.

Sweat hides me. Prison of shame.

…powerful stories that sincerely and succinctly show the sadness, the stigma, and the anxiety of so many who are suffering in silence.

So as this inaugural Hyperhidrosis Awareness Month comes to a close, again I am humbled to have been a part of driving awareness for this underserved condition. If you are touched by these stories, if you wish to learn more, or if you want to donate to the cause, please visit the IHhS website for more information.


Note: I originally published this blog at http://www.upstream360.com.

Blood, Sweat, and Beers

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Our team was at a crossroads. What had begun as a small, impassioned, spirited team, was rapidly devolving due to corporate turf wars, petty arguments, and power struggles. Once a scrappy, under-the radar project, our achievements had quickly led to our work becoming high profile, highly visible, and thus highly contested. Our cross-functional group of five (dubbed as the “Dream Team”) was in danger of becoming a victim of our own success, and we had reached a critical inflection point.

So as our flight from Cincinnati landed in Philadelphia that cool fall day, the stakes were much higher than the consumer research that we had traveled to conduct. Our project goal was to develop a new class of antiperspirants, that could break from the clutter of a commoditized category and bring “Clinical Strength” protection to the men, women, and children who needed it most. We had a winning concept and had made a lot of progress on the product, the positioning, and the package— but we were now struggling as egos and conflicting agendas were threatening to tear the team apart. Our team arrived early to the research facility and locked ourselves into a small conference room to engage in a necessary debate.

Confined together with our luggage, our laptops, and an unlimited supply of M&M’s, we wasted no time honestly and openly airing our grievances. Despite the tension and exhaustion that accompanies such a heated conversation, there was also an air of relief as so much that been bottled up was now being released. By no means did we solve all of our problems, nor did we address every concern… but by having an intense, gritty, and “bloody” conversation we were at least able to start moving forward.

From there, we grabbed our M&M’s and distractedly walked into a dark backroom to watch focus groups from behind a two-way mirror. Our research was among sufferers of hyperhidrosis*, a condition in which the body’s mechanism for cooling itself is overactive — so overactive that sufferers may sweat four or five times more than is necessary. Each of us refocused quickly as we heard debilitating stories of embarrassment, of anxiety, and of pain from people of all ages who were desperately yearning for a solution. Or at least some relief.

There were many tears shed, on both sides of that mirror, and we experienced a powerful reminder of the purpose that we had originally set out to solve. We also gained a humbling and harrowing perspective of the pettiness and insignificance of much of our current internal strife.

That night, we left the facility mentally and emotionally drained… but decided not to head straight back to the hotel. We found a bar and grabbed a drink, shared some stories, and laughed out loud. And then we repeated. And repeated again. Earlier that morning, we had gotten on an airplane plotting how that we would “win” our various power struggles. Yet by the time we left that bar, we were an even stronger small, impassioned, and spirited (in more ways than one now!) team who ultimately went on to launch the highly successful Secret Clinical Strength initiative.

I have often shared this case study from my time at P&G, as an example of breakthrough innovation. I talk of our work to uncover a new job to be done, our holistic product design, and our business model development. But what cannot be overlooked, is how that “Dream Team” came together on that fateful trip to Philadelphia to fight, to cry, and to bond. The blood, sweat, and beers of that day refocused our team and became the catalyst to that enabled a good idea to get over the hump of and become a billion-dollar execution.

*For more information about Hyperhidrosis, visit sweathelp.org

Note: I originally published this blog at http://www.upstream360.com.