08 April 2011

The Smell of Artistry?

My wife ate at this really neat restaurant last night called the Mongolian Grill. The concept is kind of "Asian cuisine meets Subway." Diners walk through a series of stations to fill a bowl with the ingredients for their creation. They pick from an absurd number of meats, vegetables, sauces, starches, and other toppings, then hand their collection to a cook who turns it into something edible.

With the correct (incorrect?) choices, it was proven to me, one can create a culinary pungency that is illegal in 16 states. The smells of garlic, ginger, and (presumably) pickled opossum jowls radiated from her skin throughout the night. Even this morning, as she got out of the shower, I could smell traces of the concoction she so proudly created at the restaurant.

I wouldn't have mentioned this story here had it not been for the fact that an hour after she left for work, I caught a whiff of garlic on my shirt sleeve. I didn't even eat at the place, but now I smell like it. (Editor's note: I also mention the story here because my wife doesn't read my blog - shhhh!).

Want to know something odd? Even though I hated the smell and the type of food she ate, I liked being reminded of her. Our tastes for things like food, exercise, politics, and entertainment are as divergent as possible, but it works. It works because we're both collectors. She's a collector of exotic experiences, and I collect exotic ideas. We're better together (she may dispute this) than we are apart.

A good friend's grandfather used to tell me "if you hang around shit, you start to smell like it" (I suppose the same is true for Mongolian restaurants). What happens, then, if you hang around the virtuous, the challenging, the inspiring, the adventurous, the creative, and the intelligent? I believe who we all become is a direct result of the people with whom we surround, associate, and engage ourselves. This doesn't mean that we should seek out only those who are like us. Rather, it means that we should seek out those who can help us become who, and what, we want to be.

I was reminded of this point by a recent post a friend forwarded to me by Austin Kleon called "How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)". He suggests, quite wisely, that artists are collectors, not hoarders:

"...there's a difference: hoarders collect indiscriminately, the artist collects selectively. They only collect things that they really love."

While there's nothing artistic about that awful concoction my wife created, it's part of a collection I wouldn't trade for the world. What are you collecting? Who are you associating yourself with personally or professionally?

I promise you it makes a difference.

09 March 2011

Why Just Block Charlie Sheen?

Because the Internet is magical there is now a Charlie Sheen browser blocker. This Firefox extension redacts all mentions of the fallen actor from appearing on your screen so you can go back to being your productive self.

Build a bank browser blocker in the name of saving consumers money. It would be better than tiger's blood.

14 February 2011

Couch to 5K and Financial Literacy Education

There are good gifts and bad gifts.

A Christmas gift I got for my wife qualifies for the latter. You see, she's a dedicated and talented runner. I am the exact opposite. Time after time after time she has asked to me run with her. Just as often, I have said no.

In a moment of weakness I saw an ad for a "Couch to 5k" training class, and decided it would be a good idea for me to join. After the 12 week program, I will supposedly be able to run a 5k race with my wife. So, instead of spending $135 on another Christmas gift she would return (and give me the stink eye over), this would be my opportunity to spend the same amount on a (albeit delayed) shared experience.

Tonight was the first class. The takeaways were powerful...and had little to do with running.

1. Free is Forgettable. During warm up walking (it's couch to 5k, OK?) two ladies behind me mentioned that even though $135 was a lot of money to pay for something like this, it was the only way they would force themselves to go through it. If they hadn't paid, it would be much easier to skip classes.

2. Accountability (Guilt) Creates Results. Each class, you are required to sign in and sign out. You perform each exercise in front of your peers. One lady I talked to said that she totally didn't want to go tonight, but she didn't want to let her friend down.

3. We're Terrible at Grading Ourselves. "Couch to 5k" clearly targets novice runners. While I saw many people who looked like they honestly pulled themselves off of the couch, Doritos crumbs and all, to go to the class, there were plenty of seasoned runners in the class as well. My take? There are people who need help and ask for it, and those who enjoy opportunities to feel like achievers. Both groups need attention.

4. Just Because It's Obvious (or Simple), Doesn't Mean Someone Else Is Offering It. Another conversation I had was with a guy named George. He was an experienced runner, but pays for and attends the classes because "no one else offers anything like this." A lady jogging next to me drove 50 miles each way to participate. Anyone could launch a program like this, but only one group did.

Forget I'm talking about running for a second and think about your credit union's financial literacy education initiatives. You have a gift to give. You just have to decide to give it.

10 February 2011

Jim Blaine on Thomas Paine (and CUs)

A good friend of mine shared the following video with me today of North Carolina State Employees' Credit Union CEO Jim Blaine speaking at the National Community Tax Coalition's 2009 Annual Meeting. While I'd encourage you to watch the entire video, I particularly want to draw your attention to his closing story that starts at the 21:07 mark.

09 February 2011

Fear of Success

Matisse once said that “If you want to be a painter, cut out your tongue." To be sure, it's much easier to talk about doing something than it is to actually do it. But why do we continuously find ourselves sitting on (or talking ourselves out of) ideas?

I'm sitting on two ideas that I've built all the way up to inches from launch. But still I wait. I stall. I hesitate.

I used to blame things like this on a simple fear of failure. What happens, after all, if you put your name and reputation behind an idea that ends up being a dud? What does that mean the next time you try to sell an idea? This risk is omnipresent when exploring innovation.

More and more, however, I'm starting to chalk up "failure to launch" to the fear of success. Think about it. What happens if your idea is a hit? Will you have time for it? Will it take your energy and time away from things you are already doing that you love? Things that pay the bills? Things that feel comfortable?

We talk about ideas because it requires no attention. Blurt it out. Heck, you can even build it out. But until we bring our creation to life, all we have done is create another distraction.

Linda Stone writes about something called Continuous Partial Attention to describe the modern worker's hyper-connected, always on, and always distracted way of life. The amount of work most of us do on a given day is astounding. How much of it, however, is accomplished with 100% focus? Imagine if you could do half the work, but do it twice as well...

In credit unions we battle regulatory issues, financial performance, member service, the economic environment, and a million other challenges each and every day at work, and every other waking hour on our smart phones, web browsers, and weary minds. It's little wonder that we see new ideas as impossible undertakings. It's a zero sum game, after all.

My take? We need to find a way to turn things off. To disconnect. To free our schedules from the hooks of today so we can focus on the future. We'd fear success a heck of a lot less, after all, if we could fit it into our schedules.

24 January 2011


I've studied, written, and presented about innovation methodologies, making ideas happen, and inspiring positive change for long enough now that I realize there are many out there who are just fine with things the way they are. That's OK.

Change isn't always good.

Progress is.

The definition of progress, however, is usually in the eye of the beholder. Political discourse in this country is often just one huge, heated debate about what progress is and what it is not, what needs change, and what doesn't...and how to pay for it.

And as ugly as these conversations have gotten at times, they are the pinnacle of civility when compared to the the nasty things being written in the blogosphere. And it's not just political discussions. A trending (meaning thousands and thousands of people wrote about it) topic on Twitter just today was making fun of a woman's physical appearance. Two Florida teenagers were charged earlier this month for posting fake nude pictures of a classmate to Facebook because they got mad at her. Comment threads on every news story I've read in the past few months, regardless of the topic, have been filled with some of the most hateful, ignorant, and harmful language I have ever read.

Trolls, it seems, are everywhere. Worse, because they speak with the loudest and most repetitive voices, trolls make it seem that their viewpoint is shared by the masses.

Trolls, you see, don't like rational debate or progress. Trolls crave emotion. Trolls crave reaction. And because it's much easier to generate an emotional response by being the proverbial turd in the punchbowl than actually creating meaningful, positive dialogue, this is how trolls operate. On the Internet, trolls thrive because it is there where one can be completely anonymous. The nastier (and more unfounded) a comment is, the more likely it is the commenter conceals his/her identity.

Luckily, credit union blogs have steered pretty clear of these types of exchanges. There have been exceptions (comments on the Unrealized Losses blog were nasty at times), but for the most part the people who spend time sharing their thoughts about credit unions online have done so because they honestly want to help credit unions succeed. Sure, there are disagreements, but they have almost always been civil.

Still, our blogs are not immune to trolls. I've seen several just in the past two weeks rear their ugly heads. It's disappointing.

The worst thing for me is who is often targeted by trolls. Usually, it's the writers who have spent (volunteered) the most time helping credit unions who become victims. The people who share the most of themselves become the subject of the most ridicule.

It's all part of the game, I suppose.

I've made a point on this site (and many other bloggers I know have done the same) to publish all comments that are submitted by readers, regardless of their content, as long as they aren't SPAM. I plan on sticking to that. Still, I wonder what the point is? I'll move mountains to find an audience for productive debate on credit union issues. But why afford trolls unmitigated entry into adult conversations?

Credit unions were born out of dissent...from people who dared to challenge the way things are. So, challenge things. Challenge ideas. Challenge the people behind them. But as soon as trolls go personal, as soon as debate becomes attack, and as soon as the intent of a comment is not to enhance the conversation, but to incite anger...they don't deserve a forum.

04 January 2011

Helping Members Make Better Purchase Decisions

I've spent the past several weeks researching cars on the internet. I've used Edmunds.com and consumerreports.org quite a bit. I've also spent quite a bit of time searching Honda, Toyota, Ford, Jeep, and Nissan corporate sites. I guess I'm a cheapskate, but I want to make sure that I make the best purchase decision for my budget and family's lifestyle.

I'm a member of two credit unions and spend most of my waking hours writing/thinking/talking/researching about the industry. As much as credit unions depend on auto loans, why isn't my credit union's website the first place I'd go for unbiased buying advice?

23 December 2010

My Year in Review

This year has been one of the most hectic, rewarding, tiring, and exciting of my life. As I have a moment to reflect, I thought I'd share some of my proudest moments and biggest regrets of 2010. (Author's note: there's a 100% chance that I've left something important off of both of these lists.)

Proudest Things:
1. The birth of my son, Sullivan Cort Davis on January 5. The lost sleep, uncertain finances, hectic schedules, and almost overwhelming responsibility associated with welcoming home a child pale in comparison to the joy he has brought.
2. My Amazing Wife. All she did this year was give birth to a child, run like Forrest Gump, kick the GRE test's butt, work full time, and essentially be a single mother when I was on the road. I clearly don't deserve her.
3. The CU Water Cooler Symposium at FORUM Conference Center in Fishers, Indiana. This event proved what can happen when 20-30 like-minded people commit themselves to thinking differently and creating something special. The list of people to thank for this event is endless, but should start with the CU Water Cooler editors, FORUM Credit Union/FORUM Solutions (Cameron, Kristi, Leah, Jen, Andy J., and Amanda in particular), an amazing lineup of speakers who traveled from all over the continent, and the 140 or so people who decided this event was worth attending. At the very top of the list, however, has to be Tim McAlpine. No one put more passion or time into this event than Tim, and no one is more thankful for that than me.
4. Working with the Filene Research Institute. Few organizations on this planet, especially from within the credit union system, would be able to stomach my relentless focus on challenging status quo. Filene embraces that. I have learned so much this year from George's unassuming sagacity, Denise's endless creativity, Mark's relentless drive, Brent's magnetic quirkiness, and Ben's modest brilliance. But what's blown me away more than anything else is the ability for the people behind the scenes (Josey, Dan, Andrea, Monica, and Mallory) to keep our eccentric personalities on track.
5. Debt in Focus. The first i3 idea I was assigned to with Filene was an anonymous financial assessment tool called Debt in Focus. I love this program, and couldn't be more proud that it's already helped 250,000 consumers, many who have always been intimidated by traditional financial counseling, get the help they need to regain control of their debt.

Biggest Regrets:
1. CU Water Cooler Hasn't Gone Mainstream. The idea was pure, and the support I've gotten for the site has been heartwarming. But I haven't spent the energy (and money) necessary to put this site in front of the people we created it for. To break out of the credit union social media echochamber, we must find new ways to get the word out. This means giving current readers more ways to participate and more reason to spread the word about this resource, and finding the resources we need to take it to the next level. Changes are coming, but I waited too long.
2. "It's Time to Rethink Credit Union Conferences." I stand by what I wrote in this op-ed piece I wrote for the Credit Union Times (see the unedited version here). I should have known, however, that it would be misinterpreted. This piece actually wasn't directed at conference planners. It was written to credit union professionals, volunteers, business partners, trades, and membership organizations. We all need to be more efficient - with time, money, and the choices we make. My experience with the CU Water Cooler Symposium taught me how tough it is to create a quality, affordable event. We can only do that if we all learn what's important in an event, and what's not. This opinion piece was greeted warmly by readers, but often not for the reason it was written. I wrote a challenge for us to do better, not a condemnation of what is.
3. Not Taking a Bigger Leadership Role. I've stayed uncharacteristically quiet about some of the major developments in credit unions this year (corporate situation, mega mergers, NCUA actions, financial reform, etc.) This has been a conscious decision, and largely a good one. I haven't wanted to give commentary about this stuff because talking time is over. My regret is that I haven't been able to create solutions that well help credit unions deal with these changes. I'm trying, make no mistake, but I simply haven't made it happen.
4. I've Neglected this Blog. I've never been known to write very frequently on this site, but it seems like I'm writing less and less. I'll do better...I promise.

Thank you all for being such great readers for so long. I wish you nothing but the happiest of holidays, and hope Santa brings you everything you wanted for your stocking. What am I asking for this Christmas? Simple. At least 4 more wins for the Colts, 2 smiling sons, 1 happy wife, and the comfort of knowing I have friends like you out there.

Merry Christmas.

It's Time to Rethink Credit Union Conferences

(Originally published and edited by The Credit Union Times, November 17, 2010. Note: This has unfortunately been interpreted as a condemnation of all credit union conferences. The intention was to draw from my personal experiences at conferences and highlight what does and does not work. Even more importantly, I wanted to refocus credit union people on efficiency. Professional education should be less about latitude, longitude, glitz, and glamour, and more about driving credit unions toward better, future-focused performance.)

Over the past eleven months as a contractor for the Filene Research Institute, dozens of credit unions, state leagues, and national associations have blessed me with invitations to speak in front of their audiences. This has been an amazing opportunity for me to meet credit union professionals, share my stories, and inspire positive change in our movement. Likewise, this experience has given me remarkable perspective on what works, and what doesn't work in credit union education. Here's what I've discovered:

Location matters...but it shouldn't.
Most conferences take place in gorgeous venues -- beautiful resorts, exotic locales, or exciting vacation spots with access to top golf courses, casinos, entertainment, and sight-seeing. This is a great way to drive attendance, but some events have made educational content a side show. I helped organize and host an independent credit union conference in Fishers, Indiana, last month called the CU Water Cooler Symposium. Indiana is gorgeous in October, but it's certainly not a vacation destination (with all due respect to my fellow Hoosiers). So, instead of attracting attendees who wanted to sunbathe, golf, or gamble, we hosted 140 credit union professionals who cared about one thing and one thing only: improving credit unions. The point is simply to say that location isn't the only attendance driver. Lead with content, and you won't have to be so concerned with expensive venues.

We need to improve access.
If you have the budget to attend a conference and can get away from your desk for a few days, you have access to conference education. If you can't pay, or can't find time to attend, your access is extremely limited. As a believer that credit unions are still a cooperative of cooperatives, this situation drives me nuts. If ideas are worth learning, they're worth sharing. We must improve access by lowering prices, facilitating knowledge sharing, allowing redistribution channels, and improving efficiencies.

I love how CUNA Mutual designed its Virtual Discovery Conference to improve access. Registration was free. Content was terrific. Sessions were recorded for later consumption. Speakers participated remotely. That model works. Similarly, the CU Water Cooler Symposium live streamed all of its content through the Credit Union Times' website. Didn't pay to attend the conference? No sweat. We still want you to be able to learn from it.

I still don't think there's a total replacement for the face-to-face communication and interaction that comes with being in the same physical location as other credit union professionals. Accordingly, I don't believe that giving away content will be the end of a sustainable conference business model.  Declining accessibility in the form of high prices, inconvenient travel, prohibited redistribution and relationship exclusivity, however, will.

Sponsors are not second class citizens.

You've seen it. At many conferences, sponsors (vendors) are herded by the dozens into remote exhibit halls, hoping that the thousands of dollars in sponsorship, travel, and swag expenditures will yield any discernible amount of exposure, sales leads, or (gasp) appreciation. Sponsorships are sold to anyone willing to pay for them. Regardless of their relevance or how much they dilute a business partner's chance for success, the number of sponsors (and subsequent revenue) is a key performance metric for events.

This is wrong. Conference planners would do attendees and their sponsors a huge favor if they were more selective about who can sponsor, and how those sponsors are integrated into the events. Taking a page out of Finovate's book, the CU Water Cooler Symposium handpicked sponsors with interesting and new products, gave them eight minutes on stage to talk about their product/service, and then hosted a thoughtful Q&A session for the crowd. This session was well-received because of the attention we paid to sponsor selection. When you do that, you're able to bring value to both the sponsors' and the attendees' conference expenditures.

Talking at people is so 1995.
Credit union professionals are an intelligent lot. They are living and breathing the challenges and solutions that most conference speakers are simply observing. So, why do most sessions have so little interaction? The most interactive conference I attended this year was the Texas Credit Union League's New Ideas Conference. Each speaker gave a thirty minute talk, followed by a thirty minute facilitated Q&A session. Hats were passed around to accept questions for attendees too afraid to speak up, and independent facilitators asked the questions everyone was thinking but didn't want to say aloud. This format works. Attendees aren't just students, they're experts. Educational events should be as much about allowing attendees to share information as they are about absorbing speakers' content.

At the CU Water Cooler Symposium, we created expert panels from the crowd to do sessions of their choosing. We also assigned well-known credit union personalities to facilitate lively Q&A sessions after each talk. We did this because the best content often comes as a result of casual conversation, not premeditated rhetoric. Find a way to dig deeper into the topics by getting your attendees more involved.

My colleague, Brent Dixon, organized a grassroots movement of young people called "Crash" to help young people get better connected to the credit union system's largest events. At Crash the One and Crash the GAC sessions were casual. Speakers sat among the attendees, gave informal remarks, shared from the heart, and forever changed the lives of the young attendees. Humans want interaction, not to be talked at. Let's figure out a better way to make this happen.

Moving credit unions forward requires rethinking the traditional credit union educational experience. Our time is too valuable, issues are too complex, budgets are too tight and stakes are too high to settle for status quo. Rethinking the way our system approaches education doesn't mean what we are currently doing is completely broken, it's just a way to channel the posthumous urgings of our organization's namesake, Edward A. Filene. "Progress is the constant replacing of the best there is with something better still."