Creative Writing On Demand

By Tony Vengrove

Boisterous Children

I recently had the pleasure of visiting downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania during the holiday break. This small city is worth getting to know. There is a great group of citizens, brimming with creative energy and passion, working hard to create a more vibrant community and economy.

During my walk, I rounded a corner and discovered the city’s creative energy on full display: I met Abigail Mott, a poet. She sat quietly by the edge of the street on a small chair in front of a folding table with a beautiful antique typewriter resting upon it. A paper sign, secured only by the weight of the typewriter, hung over the front edge of the table. It read, “Pick a Subject, Get a Poem.”

I was intrigued. I made a beeline and inquired about her story.

Abigail grew up in Lancaster and currently lives in Colorado. She was back home visiting for the holidays and set up shop just outside the busy Lancaster Market to engage the community with her poetry on-demand project.

I love stuff like this and immediately requested a poem. My topic: boisterous children. (I have three kids, two of which are 3-year-old twin toddlers.) She told me it takes about ten minutes to compose a poem.

Abigail inserted a small piece of typewriter paper into her machine. The paper itself was special–a beautiful cream color with a delicate quilt texture. She immediately began to type. There was no moment of deep contemplative thought or writer’s block; she dove right in. Click, click, click.Abigail Typing

I stepped away to give her some space. When she reached for her camera phone to snap a picture of her work I knew it was time to return. As I approached the table, the rest of my family, including my three kids, had caught up to me, just in time to hear Abigail read the poem herself.

I love it all. I love the poem. I love the simplicity of what she is doing. It’s brilliant.

It’s also a great reminder on this first Monday of 2016 that we’re all empowered to utilize our creative gifts and that we possess everything we need to start now. There’s no excuse to stall or complain about a lack of resources. Grab a simple pencil and paper (or an old typewriter), let go of that inner judge, and dive right in!

If you’re intrigued with Abigail’s work, be sure to check out her Tumblr and follow her on Twitter.

Wishing you all a very creative and innovative 2016. Happy New Year!

Founder, Miles Finch Innovation LLC

Miles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation. We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges. We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership. Email us or call us at 860-799-7505 to learn how we can help you you unlock the creative potential of your employees.

The 2015 Post Worth Re-Reading

By Tony Vengrove

Raphael HernandezinKabul

As we approach the end of 2015 and look forward to a new year with a refreshed sense of optimism and hope, I’d like to invite you to re-read our favorite Miles Finch Innovation post of 2015. The post was guest written by Raphael Hernandez who recalled a poignant story from his tour of duty in Afghanistan. Raphael reflected on an encounter with Anwar, a 10-year-old boy he met while shopping in a crowded market on Kabul’s Chicken Street.

Raphael used the story to glean lessons about employee engagement and salesmanship. While the piece holds its own in this regard, it’s actually much more powerful when we consider the disconcerting events taking place across the globe. When we look at the story through the lens of increasing global conflict, we’re reminded of a simple remedy: the uplifting power of human connection.

There’s been so many tragic events during the past year with an equal amount of troubling trends that lay before us. Sadly, I fear things may get worse before they get better. The increasingly divisive nature of our national and global discourse is especially disconcerting. It seems many of us are separating into factions and digging into our philosophical trenches for the long haul.

Raphael’s piece reminds us that we can overcome stereotypes and labels with a simple hello. We can build community and friendships by asking questions and listening. We can create lasting friendships when we refrain from judgment. We can make the world better if we care enough to serve others before we cater to our own selfish needs. We can start by making eye contact and smiling.

Please read Raphael’s post, What a 10-Year-Old Boy From Kabul Can Teach Us About Employee Engagement, and take a few moments to reflect on what you will do in 2016 to connect, build community and make a positive difference–wherever you are. If so inclined, please share your ideas and thoughts below.

My personal reflection on Raphael’s story and the power of human connection brought me back to our Seven C’s of Creative Leadership–“Connecting” is one of the seven principles. As I considered all Seven C’s in context of this post, I realized they also serve as a great framework for driving change in the world.

So, here they are, re-written as a 2016 Call-to-Action for Change!

communcation1. Let’s commit to healthy COMMUNICATION. Let’s listen and understand before we speak and judge.

curiosity2. Let’s be CURIOUS about other people’s perspectives and traditions. Let’s understand the “Why” before we jump to conclusions and label things good or bad.

creativity3. Let’s be CREATIVE about finding solutions to problems. The “how things are done around here” mentally is slowing dying off. We’re empowered to utilize our miraculous creative powers to discover better ways to get things done.

connecting4. Let’s extend our hands and hearts to lift others up. It’s harder to hate someone when you’ve CONNECTED with them on a human level.


5. Let’s embrace the diversity of all world CULTURES. It not only makes the world more interesting, it inspires creative connections that can unleash innovation.

change-management6.  Let’s commit to CHANGE. We can no longer sit on the sidelines and commentate on the state of affairs. It’s up to us to make a difference.


7. Let’s have the COURAGE to walk to the talk or, as Raphael and his fellow Marines would say, “Let’s make it happen.”

And with that, it’s time to sing Auld Lang Syne and flip the calendar. Happy New Year!

Founder, Miles Finch Innovation LLC

Miles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation. We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges. We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership. Email us or call us at 860-799-7505 to learn how we can help you you unlock the creative potential of your employees.

Calling, Purpose, and Customer Service Via Sukhothai

By Raphael Hernandez

Cobra Goldi 002

There I was, in central Thailand, one of two passengers in a van being driven by a driver I will call Chen. We were there conducting a site survey to identify training venues for the U.S. Marine Corps who would be conducting training exercises with their Royal Thai Marine Corps hosts later on in the year. It was our second day of the survey and we were approaching the ancient city of Sukhothai, which means “happiness,” when we were suddenly surprised by the wonderful aroma of Thai cuisine in the air.

We decided to stop for lunch near Sukhothai’s ancient ruins; an open-air market lined with restaurants came into view and we agreed it was the perfect spot. The smell of Thai curries hung lazily in the air and we quickly selected a place to eat so we could quell our growing appetites. As we disembarked the van, I turned to Chen and invited him to join us for lunch. I was shocked by his reaction and what his facial expression communicated. Chen looked at me like I had just gifted him a check for a million dollars. His eyes welled up with water and his face lit up with a grin that spread from ear-to-ear. When I turned to my companion and gestured, “What’s up with this guy?” my friend answered, “Usually clients don’t invite their drivers to lunch; this is a big deal for him.” Chen joined us for lunch and we had a great conversation. He shared his personal story, we learned about his family, and he enthusiastically shared how much he enjoyed driving “important’ people in his van, which was maybe 10 years old and a bit worn, but impeccably maintained – one could say it was lovingly maintained for the maximum comfort his clients!

I was so grateful that Chen joined us instead of sitting in his van, going without a lunch meal while waiting for us to finish ours. We learned a great deal about Sukhothai and the surrounding area that our online research had not revealed and Chen offered to give us a personalized tour of the ruins for free. Chen was one of the most interesting, thoughtful, and happy people I’ve ever met. We learned so much from him in that hour or so we spent breaking bread together. We were so appreciative of his company and generosity of spirit. As the meal came to an end, Chen suddenly excused himself and darted across the street to where his van was parked. I asked my companion why he turned so serious, so abruptly. He explained that Chen wanted to ensure his van was ready to be re-embarked by us. “All we’re going to do is jump back in and move to the next stop and jump right out again,” I said. Quickly, I Cobra Gold 001realized that Chen saw his job as a calling and ensuring the happiness of his clients was his purpose in life. I wondered at that time if the Buddhist-inspired decorations inside the van had anything to do with his desire to make others happy. For Chen, it did not matter whether he was hired to transport people a few blocks within Bangkok or hired for a multiple day trip, like the one we were on—he was going to treat his every client “like royalty,” regardless of time and distance. The attitude and actions Chen displayed during our week together made me realize three valuable lessons:

Embrace diversity and connect with people you don’t normally speak with. Had I not invited Chen to join us for lunch, we never would have learned the rich history of the areas we visited and we would not have benefitted from the wisdom he shared via his captivating stories. Our worldview expanded and I believe Chen’s had as well. When was the last time you had lunch with someone that was not in your socio-economic circle? Why not make an effort to connect with someone completely different that yourself? You may just learn something new about yourself and your community.

You don’t need a high-paying job or a fancy title to pursue your calling and live a life of meaning and purpose. Chen was clearly a servant leader—a servant leader puts the needs of others first. He was called to serve and he did so by putting his heart and soul into providing the best possible transportation services for his clients. He did it in such a way that one didn’t notice that his van was not the most up to date model, and he did it with an infectious joy that made his clients “feel like royalty.” During our lunch, Chen spoke fondly of the year he spent as a young man living the austere life of a Monk, which is a customary rite of passage for most young Thai men. We might conclude that his “others-focused” worldview was driven by a higher purpose. What are you doing to align your life with a “calling” and/or with your “purpose” in life? Have you found your purpose?

Customer Service is all about putting others first; those who do it well are poised to be tomorrow’s leaders. Chen was a leader. I know this because on subsequent trips back to Thailand, I observed him organizing and leading multiple groups of drivers and from observing the group dynamic. It was clear that he was a trusted leader who was looked upon as an inspirational person by his peers. He led with a smile and his inspiring leadership made things happen. What are you doing to develop your customer service representatives on the front lines? Do you put the needs of others first? What are you doing to inspire your customer service employees to enhance their desire to put others first?

The last time I saw Chen was in 2011. He came searching for me at a hotel in Bangkok after learning I was in town. We met by chance just outside my hotel as I was stepping into a taxi. He shook my hand, gave me a hug, and told me he would miss not seeing me again. As I pulled away for the airport, I couldn’t help but think once again about the meaning of Sukhotai: happiness. Suddenly, I felt a smile form on my face and I happily gazed out the window to appreciate the beautiful landscape one last time.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *


More from Raphael:

What a 10-Year Boy From Kabul Can Teach Us About Employee Engagement

The Stories of Creative Leadership: Raphael Hernandez


The Spirit of Whatever it Takes

By Tony Vengrove

Solution for the problem

This post is adapted from an article originally published on Intrepid Now.

I absolutely abhor the phrase, “make innovation happen.” It’s a silly phrase often used in blog titles such as, “Seven Steps to Make Innovation Happen.” I read such posts and feel like I’m listening to a snake-oil peddler pitching a super tonic that has the power to cure everything from cancer to heart disease. If you believe innovation can happen by following a few formalized steps, then I’d love to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. The truth is, there’s no silver bullet for making innovation “happen,” or any other worthy endeavor. Innovation is a circuitous journey filled with hard work, patience, and persistence.

Alas, though, too many organizations continually seek a surefire process that will guarantee their organization a never-ending stream of innovative Grand Slams.

Several years ago I was working on an Executive Certificate program at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, outside of Boston in Cambridge. It was twice a month and I had to commute three hours from my home in Connecticut to attend. As much as I loved the program, getting up at 4:30 a.m. was the dawn of the living dead, but I’d fill a mug of coffee, turn on talk radio, and hope for a golden sunrise as I drove east.

I recall one time when I arrived especially groggy. A number of students were already seated around the twenty or so circular tables and were flipping through the course materials that had been provided on each seat. I wasn’t ready to socialize just yet, so I hunkered down while I contentedly sipped my coffee—until an ebullient attractive young woman joined our table and said, “Hi, I’m Julie. My company just declared innovation a key corporate strategy, so they sent me to this class to learn what process we should implement. So, what process do you use for innovation at your companies guys?”

Oh God, please don’t drag me into this conversation, I’m not fully caffeinated.

All four others around the table, though, enthusiastically jumped in and before you knew it, a full-fledged debate about what optimum innovative process was underway. It was quite entertaining. My classmates made passionate cases for what they thought was the magic formula, but there was no clear winner. Then our professor stormed in and the debate was curtailed.

I’ve never forgotten that conversation, because it was the first time I realized how much emphasis people put on process to deliver innovation. As Julie noted, most organizations that get serious about innovation embrace a process orientation, then they put their best managers in charge to run it. Don’t get me wrong, process is an important piece of the puzzle, but implementing and managing a system won’t magically output game-changing innovation. Only curiously engaged human brains working collaboratively have the power to do that.

So how do we make innovation “happen?” There’s really only one answer: any way you can.

So let’s agree to let go of the notion that there’s a single magic formula for innovative success. Instead, let’s adopt a spirit of whatever it takes!

  • Do whatever it takes to get inspired, and to inspire those around you, to solve those seemingly impossible problems.
  • Do whatever it takes to connect the right people together and build a collective brain.
  • Do whatever it takes to understand what your consumers are really experiencing and feeling.
  • Do whatever it takes to create the conditions for others to channel their creative genius.
  • Do whatever it takes to defend ideas, no matter how much you’re outnumbered by skeptics.
  • Do whatever it takes to satisfy every constraint management throws at you, until you earn a green light for launch.
  • Do whatever it takes to learn and make things better—embrace failure a la Thomas Edison.
  • Do whatever it takes to gain agreement to take a shot on goal.

This spirit is infectious and will build confidence with both your superiors and subordinates. At a former company where I was Director of Innovation, I brought a “whatever it takes” spirit to the job—every day. When several of our new products were ready to test market, management continually delayed the launches because of looming legislative and taxation changes. With each delay they added new constraints or requests for modifications.

My team and I were frustrated by each delay, but we always rose to the challenge and met management’s objectives. We never surrendered. After a few rounds of delays, I found myself presenting our new test-market plans for the coming year to senior management. At the conclusion of my presentation the President said, “Tony, I feel like we ask you to do your job while standing blindfolded on one foot, with your arms tied behind your back, while we continually push back the finish line. Somehow you manage to find a way to get it all done. I’m beyond grateful.”

My team and I beamed with pride. Those products soon made it to market.

The lesson is clear: never give up! Do whatever it takes!


Founder, Miles Finch Innovation LLC

Tony Vengrove, Founder & CEO

Miles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation. We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges. We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership. Email us or call us at 860-799-7505 to learn how we can help you you unlock the creative potential of your employees.


What a 10-Year-Old Boy From Kabul Can Teach Us About Employee Engagement

By Raphael Hernandez

Raphael HernandezinKabul

I recently attended the Hay Group’s Employee Engagement Forum in New York City, which was attended by well-known organizations such as ESPN, Univision, Merck, BMW, Miles Finch Innovation, Luck Companies, Data Alliance, Borderfree, Estee Lauder and the Girl Scouts of America. This intimate gathering provided a forum to share insights and experiences related to employee engagement. A story I recounted at my table caught the interest of the broader group and I suddenly found myself standing before the entire audience relating the story. It’s about a 10-year-old entrepreneur I met in Kabul who taught me a thing or two about employee engagement and great customer service.

In 2002, I was working in Afghanistan as a logistics planner and routinely traveled to Kabul to conduct business with organizations there. During one of these visits, I took the opportunity to shop for some unique Afghan gifts I could bring back to my family. I found my way to a crowded market filled with several small businesses, all nestled closely together, competing aggressively for people’s cash. The market was known as Chicken Street.

Chicken Street was unlike any Main Street USA image you might conjure up in your imagination. It was an area heavily guarded by a combined security force of Afghani and Coalition Forces who were responsible for providing a safe and secure environment. Chicken Street was thriving; the place bustled with shoppers and animated salespeople negotiating fiercely. The fact that a few of us were wearing flak jackets with bullet resistant plates didn’t seem to faze anyone. They must have known behind our armor were bulging, dollar-filled wallets waiting to be emptied.

As I walked through the brown and dusty marketplace, I was drawn to a vendor’s stall thanks to the gregarious smile and vibrant green eyes of a 10-year-old boy. He was holding court at his father’s small business, which specialized in clothing items and other accessories. I noticed this particular store not because of the assortment of goods, but because of the charming employee who acknowledged me with a warm smile and made eye contact that suggested, “I care about you. I’m happy you are here and I want to make sure you find what you need.”

The small group of American and French citizens I was with made a beeline to the boy. For certain reasons, I’m going to call this young man, Anwar. I assumed didn’t speak English but was pleasantly surprised when I discovered he did—quite well, in fact. He told us he learned it while watching American movies. When I asked why he chose to learn English, he replied, “So I can take good care of my English speaking customers!”

An interesting transition took place midway through the conversation: he began to ask me questions to identify what my needs were. He listened intently and ascertained that I was searching for special gifts to take back to my family in the United States. This kid was good—really good! Before I knew it, I was buying more stuff than I had anticipated!

I worked my way through college selling men’s clothing in a retail store, so I know a thing or two about customer relationship management, not to mention that I have many years of professional experience as a marketing, logistics and operations professional. As such, I have a solid understanding of professional selling skills. This enthusiastic, engaged, and knowledgeable 10-year-old went through all of the key sales steps any world-class sales representative would have.

He clarified and confirmed; drawing out my needs behind the needs, and he made the close when I signaled I was ready to buy. He did it in a way that made me feel great! I felt great that I was contributing to the local economy and helping Anwar and his family. I felt proud about why I was there representing my country in the first place. And I felt excited that I found truly special gifts to bring back to my wife, daughter, and son; beautiful gifts that were unique to this country—a country with thousands of years worth of culture, history and tradition. You see, I was seeking the truly memorable because of the huge sacrifice my family made in allowing me to pursue my passion: to be of service to others during this difficult time in history.

When I asked Anwar why he was the only one in the store that day, he told me that his father was away on other business. Since Anwar was in charge that day, he wanted to impress his father by selling as many goods as he could before he returned. In doing so, he’d prove that he could be trusted to take care of the family business.

Anwar was a remarkable young man. I was so taken by him that I asked if we could snap a photo together to remember the experience. He enthusiastically agreed.

So what did I learn from this young man about employee engagement and customer service?

Be wary of quick judgments. Employees have valuable skills you may not be aware of. I made the assumption that Anwar did not speak English and I was wrong. He not only taught himself English, he did so to support the needs of his customers and the family business. Are you aware of all the valuable skills your employees possess? As leaders, we need to ask ourselves, do we really know those we lead?

A smiling employee is an engaged employee—so take care of them. Anwar initially communicated with me nonverbally. He made me feel special and drew me in by smiling with extraordinary enthusiasm. Unlike other vendors who were verbally pestering me to shop at their store, Anwar didn’t have to say anything. His smile and sparkling green eyes were infectious and all that were needed to draw me to his storefront. Are your employees smiling in your organization? Why not get them smiling by being a beacon of enthusiasm—just like Anwar was?

Invest in developing frontline employees with sales skills they can use for a lifetime. Anwar clearly had been trained by his father and, very likely, influenced by his community on buyer behavior, marketing, sales, and customer service. He benefited from a culture known thousands of years for its trading expertise. What are you doing to develop your employees so that customer service and an enthusiastic spirit become part of your culture’s DNA?

Engaged Employees are your best brand ambassadors and they have the power to transform your customers into ambassadors. It goes without saying that Anwar was a highly engaged employee and a great ambassador for the family business. His enthusiasm and ability to communicate authentically made me an ambassador—his biggest fan! Are you leading in a way that inspires belief, passion, and commitment from your employees? Do you empower them to express their unique passion to customers? Train them. Get them fired up. Let them loose!

Trust your employees. If a ten-year-old in a war zone can be trusted to manage the family business, doesn’t everyone possess the capability to be trained and trusted to take charge of the business? Today’s 21st Century Leaders must be trustworthy and trusting of their employees. This supports our natural human desire for autonomy, encourages initiative, and ultimately builds confidence—all of which benefit the bottom line and mission attainment. What is your organization doing today to develop current and future leaders so they lead by example, act ethically and earn the trust of those they lead?

As I concluded my story at the Hay Group Employee Engagement Forum, I mentioned how I think of Anwar often and hope he is doing well. I would not be surprised if he is a wealthy 22-year-old small-business owner now. Why wouldn’t he be? After all, he earned a PhD in Business and Leadership when he was 10 years old!

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Raphael HernandezAbout Raphael Hernandez: Lt. Col. Raphael Hernandez currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command and in coordination with J. Walter Thompson Atlanta, the Corps’ advertising agency, leads a strategically aligned, multi-million dollar, national integrated marketing program designed to increase brand awareness, generate high quality leads for 3,700 plus enlisted and officer recruiters located across the United States. Raphael has served in the United States Marine Corps for 21 plus years and has extensive experience in logistics, strategic and operational planning and execution, recruiting operations and organizational leadership. He earned a business degree from the University of Texas At El Paso and a Masters in Organizational Leadership from National University, LaJolla, California. He served in Afghanistan and Iraq and in 2011 was part of a 6 person planning team who assisted the Department of State at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, to rapidly develop contingency plans as a result of the 9.0 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. In addition, he served as the Director of Operations and Logistics, for the Third Marine Expeditionary Brigade during Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief Missions in the Sri Lanka in 2009 and the Philippines in 2009 and 2010. Connect with Raphael on Twitter: @Raphaeleads