Brian Tolle

Brian Tolle
organization development consultant
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 23 July 2009
Temperature: 65 F
Ceiling: rain
Ground: Douglas Fir porch boards
Wind: W at 5 mph

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TT with HD: Brian Tolle

[Ed. note: The consultancy operated by BT, which is mentioned below, is The Tolle Group. Other entities mentioned below: The Ann Arbor Chronicle and The Workantile Exchange.]

HD: Let's climb aboard.

BT: [laugh] It takes me back to--who's going first?

HD: Well, you know it's a collaborative endeavor.

BT: I like this view. The street is so great.

HD: It's not bad. [Photography ensues. HD encounters problems with the high-tech camera.]

BT: Technology is not my strong suit.

HD: Oh, that's not true, I know that for a fact. Well, I think I know that for a fact. So, welcome to the teeter totter!

BT: Thanks, Dave.

HD: Now, when you say that you don't know anything about technology, that's simply not true, right? I know that.

BT: [laugh] Because I'm holding an iPhone?

HD: That would be one piece of evidence. The other evidence is that you, your consulting company, provides consulting services to technology companies, right?

BT: But not on technology. On the people stuff.

HD: Really.

BT: Yes.

HD: So what does it take to qualify as a "technology company"? For example, is the Ann Arbor Chronicle a technology company? We use cutting edge technology--the Internet and the whole World Wide Web! Is that enough to qualify?

BT: Not everyone knows what WWW stands for! No. When I say "technology company"--if you hire a lot of engineers or scientists things like that, that's where I come into play. Because the work that I do is helping those folks who have a lot of training on the technology side--whether that's science or IT--to help them be better managers of people. A lot of times there is a disconnect between being really good at being a biomedical engineer: "But don't make me a manager--because this people stuff is very confusing!" I make it far less confusing.

HD: So, you supply training for people on how to become a manager?

BT: Yes.

HD: And as a part of this training you have classes?

BT: A lot of my work is in the classroom. Most of it is sponsored by a company versus a public function. And I also do one-on-one coaching.

HD: So do you need a place to do this sort of thing? So you have some sort of space that you call your offices?

BT: No. I work out of the home. And most of the time when I'm in a classroom, it is the space provided by the client. So either they have rooms, or I also collaborate with a business school in Chicago--they have space.

HD: So what would you do if you found yourself in a situation where someone said, Well, you provide the space. Or maybe a company, say in Detroit, said, "We'd like to avail ourselves of your services, we can come to you." I mean, you'd prefer that, right?

BT: [laugh] I would have to cut the grass in the front yard!

HD: Right, but you wouldn't want to have these people hanging out at your house, right? You're not set up for a conference room, you don't have a chalkboard in your living room, do you?

BT: No.

HD: No white board.

BT: No.

HD: No conference table.

BT: No. [laugh]

HD: So what would you do then?

BT: That's why God created hotels!

HD: Hotels?

BT: Because they have a lot of public space, breakout rooms. So a lot of my work over the years has been in hotels. That has changed with the economy, because that's an added expense. If the company can do it on their own premises ...

HD: ... so how much space would you need? I mean, how many people are typically in a class--are we talking about 150 people or more like 12?

BT: More like 20.

HD: Okay, so here's where I am headed with this. I am a member of something called the Workantile Exchange ...

BT: ... yes! I've been there! I met--it's too early in the morning--who is the guy who is kind of the ...

HD: ... Mike Kessler?

BT: Yes. I met Mike.

HD: So one of the things that they tout about the space is the Training Loft is what they call that space for classes and whatnot. And if you want a more intimate setting away from the noise of the public parlor down below there is a fairly sizable conference room. I think if you had 12 people you could absolutely do it in there.

BT: There's the Training Loft that I saw, which was very appealing to me for what we are talking about. But did you just say that there is another space?

HD: It's not nearly as big as the Training Loft, but it has a door that you can close and it has a big conference table and it has a chalk board.

BT: And is that on the lower level?

HD: It is right under the Training Loft. And then there is an even smaller conference room. And then there's another one which is the smallest size, it's for making telephone calls. I mean it's bigger than a telephone booth, but ...

BT: ... I don't remember if Mike said this. How is it hooked up with a video screen, or if I brought in my laptop with a PowerPoint--the projector is already set up?

HD: I don't believe they currently have a projector in-house, I think you would have to bring your own projector, I think. But I don't know. It's the kind of thing that I believe they plan to add as membership allows. Actually, they have articulated a certain series of benchmarks for membership levels that once they get to a certain benchmark they will be able to add such-and-such an amenity. I don't have all the details in my head. Because for me, I don't really think of it as a meeting space per se. I like it for the symbolic value of sitting in the front window with a view to Main Street, writing the news. That just seems right to me. It feels right.

BT: [laugh] Yes! As it's happening sometimes.

HD: So, speaking of the news, it's all over the Internet this morning, today is the Ann Arbor News' last day of publication. It's like people are surprised somehow.

BT: Well, I was hoping we could talk about that.

HD: Well, then let's!

BT: Just to give you a little bit more background about the work I do, the field I'm technically in is called "organization development."

HD: Uh huh. But nobody knows what that is, though.

BT: No, no. One time I explained it to my mother and you know, a very nice woman, but she kind of looked at me and said, People pay you to do this?? But it is based on the premise that organizations or companies can be healthy, productive creative places to hang out, be successful and so forth--so that's the positive side of organization development.

HD: So you're imagining that the Ann Arbor News as an organization maybe didn't quite fit that description?

BT: [laugh]

HD: Is that where you're going with this? [laugh]

BT: We might go back there, hold on for a second. Now, the dark side is an understanding and acceptance that things change.

HD: Only if you let them. [laugh]

BT: Well, let's put it this way: Some people will say organizations are mechanical things, all right? My training and the field that I'm in says ...

HD: ... they're organisms?

BT: They are organic. And thus organic organization. Which means that I tend to take what would be more like a medical model. What's going on with the organization? And when you take that model, all of a sudden you start using the same language: Blindness--they didn't see it. What's causing that blindness? That's where I am not the most empathetic person--so when it was announced that the Ann Arbor News was closing, my first reaction was: Not entirely surprising given all of the technology trends--things like Craigslist taking away all the classified ad work and so forth.

Now what worries me about an organization is when they are blind to those trends, and in the worst case scenarios, they are dismissing them as a fringe element--it won't impact us for a long time. And then all of a sudden they are really there.

HD: Yeah, you know there is a guy--I'm grasping for his name--who wrote a column for us today who reminisced about ...

BT: ... Outliving the Ann Arbor News.

HD: Exactly. He wrote about the introduction of computers at The News years ago and he said at that time, "Oh, we are doomed." And in a way, yeah, he was right, I guess. But take classified ads, I suppose you could still go ahead and offer them, but to try to compete with a free product like Craigslist, is just ...

BT: ... it's not a good long-term strategy.

HD: Right. It's not a good long-term strategy to say that we'll try to compete with that, because they are just doing it so super well that it doesn't really make much sense to say, "Well, we've got a beef up our classified advertising!" Well, no. Any effort you put into that is lost. Why not just concede that revenue stream to Craigslist basically, and let's not put any effort into that and let's think of a different way to get money.

BT: I think what the healthier approach to take then is to sit back and say, "Well, why should we be in existence? What value do we have that these other places, and other mechanisms don't?" And the answers aren't always straightforward. And they can be very scary, because a lot of times, people's gut reaction is: We don't deserve to survive, I mean, I need my job, but the world has changed so much ...

HD: ... so we have to bail out of it completely, as opposed to becoming fitter and stronger by doing push-ups?

BT: Right. Now what I say, though, is that if you keep pushing that conversation, you do start to find different ways of bringing your value to your customer. And it may not be straightforward. Let me give you an example. I talked to two different people around this Ann Arbor News closing. And they're both from the Detroit area, so the actual newspaper impact is not going to happen--but the Detroit News, I guess, it's going down to two- or three-day delivery?

HD: One of those two papers is cutting back dramatically, I think. But they are at least keeping the name of their paper as far as I understand. Not to be too pointed about it!

BT: [laugh] Sidenote: The Ann Arbor News--it's going away to become the the paper version masthead going to be

HD: That's what I understand.

BT: So I mentioned [to these people], you know, our paper is closing and so forth. And they said, I'm really bummed about the Detroit News situation as well. And I go, Why? And one of them said, Because I really like to relax on a Sunday morning, and the Sunday paper is kind of my indulgence with my cup of coffee and so forth. And I said, Well, how much do you read that paper for the actual news and information exchange? She's like, Not much, it's kind of an additional piece of how I unwind. And she goes, I'm going to miss that.

So I ask, Is there an argument to be made that a Sunday-only paper that's designed to be that luxurious--kind of like the New York Times, where you just can't even get through it, there are too many interesting things to read in the morning. Is there an argument to be made that maybe a newspaper needs to focus on that--you don't know if that's a big enough market.

And then my other friend, he made a similar comment--which one is the morning paper in Detroit? I can never remember.

HD: Oh, I am the wrong guy to ask.

BT: Anyway, he goes, You know, they're going to stop home delivery, or it's not everyday and so forth. And I go, What are you going to miss about it? And he said, he's got four kids from 12 down to six, let's say. And they have this morning ritual--the entire family of where they all get together at the kitchen table to have breakfast before they go off ...

HD: ... so, every morning?

BT: Every morning. Not just Sunday, every morning. And he says it's a great tool to have a family gathering, without having to talk. Because they just had dinner together the night before, there is only so much you can talk about the next morning. So one of his sons is the first one downstairs, he goes and he looks at it fast, especially in the warmer months to see--I guess they have a rule where if they have a certain temperature he gets to wear shorts to school.

HD: Wow.

BT: So he immediately looks at the weather.

HD: That would be quite a household to live in!

BT: So that's his use for the newspaper. He brings it into the kitchen and people start coming down, sections are tossed around and so forth. And so there's a community aspect to it ...

HD: ... so, are things read aloud?

BT: There might be some, Oh, this is interesting! but there's almost like an unspoken rule: No conversation. And not so much like they don't want to talk to each other, the understanding is you don't need to expend your energy this early in talking. Everybody's cool with being around the same table, separating the newspaper. And he says he can't find a replacement. You know they've tried to do the Morning News, but that's very "We are giving you the news in the sequence ..."

HD: ... when you say the "Morning News" you mean?


HD: So TV doesn't work, how about radio?

BT: Same sort of thing. I think he said what doesn't work for radio and television is that he is given news, he is being fed news, not in his way. Taking a newspaper, you can go to the business section right away, go to sports, go to the front page.

HD: Yeah, there is also a certain chunking that the physical paper provides, even beyond sections. So even though those stories I'm sure are written and edited and prepared on a more or less rolling basis--I mean they get slotted in and finished, they don't wait to declare all of the stories finished at the same time--but they publish them all at once. But we publish stories as they get done, we're not to wait until the following morning ...

BT: ... you were talking about The Chronicle?

HD: Right, yeah. So there is no sense of an "edition" or a collection of stories that we are calling that day's edition. Actually we have a little link on the left side bar that says "Today's front page" which is meant really ironically. The sequence of stories there is presented in the order of publication, most recent on the top.

BT: So it's not necessarily important in your mind, from an editorial standpoint?

HD: Right. We're committed to the idea of chronology. So the sequence of stories, reflects simply the order in which they were published--the one on top doesn't reflect that we think it's the one that's most important at any given time. If we happen to have a couple of stories coming ready for publication around the same time, we might give some thought to which one would we like to have on top.

Case in point, this morning. We had the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting report from Tuesday night and this column about outliving the Ann Arbor News. Well, given that today is what it is, it was important to say Let's press the "publish" button on the AATA story first, and then the Ann Arbor News column second, because we wanted that to sit at the top for most of the day. We don't have anything else in the queue that's likely to be published today, so that'll sit there for most of the day, and that seems appropriate. But it's relatively rare, that we have the option of doing that.

But back to how it relates to this breakfast ritual, there's a certain necessity for their ritual to work that it be chunked in a way that we [at The Ann Arbor Chronicle] don't do it. So it really wouldn't work for their ritual for everybody to just have their own laptop. Because the chunking needs to be handed back and forth in a physical way in order for it to succeed. It wouldn't work for everybody to have their own laptop, it wouldn't work for there to be a screen projected on their kitchen wall, so I was just noodling through the fact that it is something about the physical paper ...

BT: ... and the chunkiness of it. So those are glimmers of a future version of a physical newspaper. And who's to say how big the buying population is, given those demographics. Part of my work is also around innovation--and not so much that I come up with innovative ideas, but I teach people either how to break down some mental barriers, or to see patterns in the business world that repeat enough that you can plug into them.

So one example that we have been experiencing over the last few decades, is this fragmentation. What used to be a printing press for a newspaper can now be done probably at Kinko's. Because there's probably some Hewlett-Packard printer someplace that can reproduce it. So I think, using this as an example, it's not the most extreme thought to say, Well, why couldn't Kinko's get into the newspaper printing business? Maybe not the reporting ...

HD: ... but the printing business.

BT: Right, the printing business of the newspaper. So it has that physical changeability. You have lower overhead. So these are the sort of things that I am fascinated by. But if you talk to certain people, it is very terrifying to them. Especially if you have spent your career working on printing presses. So getting back to the original thought, organization development people tend to be able to handle these situations with a lot less emotion. So I have to be on the lookout for when I am getting too excited about change, recognizing that some people's lives are severely disrupted by the change.

HD: Let me bounce an idea off of you related to creation of a printed version of the paper--Hey here's our plumber, he's going to give us a new toilet.

I'm sure he's puzzled at this point.

So you can imagine this family with their daily ritual getting a printed version of the paper from their inkjet printer.

BT: Yes.

HD: It would maybe need to be a specialized ink jet printer, but we've seen innovation in the inkjet printer industry to adapt that hardware to various specialized purposes. For us [at The Chronicle], the simplest adaptation would be the ability to feed a roll of paper. We are rather notorious at this point for writing really long stories, and I think the easiest way to handle that is just to print in on a really long piece of paper, as long as it needs to be. So you can imagine--and I think there already are such printers, Epson has one I think--a roller-fed inkjet printer. So you print the thing out and you have the unwieldy mess of this thing--so let's embrace the old-school technology of the scroll.

BT: Okay!

HD: So you've got this very long piece of paper. The easiest way to manage it would be to have rollers at each end. So I'm imagining a piece of hardware that someone would have to innovate and design that would essentially be a tablet-sized thing.

[to the plumber] I really appreciate you taking care of this on such a short time frame. [to BT] I won't give you details of my morning.

BT: I'm sure you have nice neighbors.

HD: [beat] Oh. You were suggesting that I would borrow the bathroom of a neighbor?

BT: Yes.

HD: I thought you were suggesting that my neighbors would be nice enough to turn a blind eye to what I might undertake in the backyard.

BT: [laugh] No, I had the first thought.

HD: It's interesting how our two minds work.

BT: A different perspective.

HD: So anyway, the device to be innovated, it would be something--it would need to be no muss, no fuss, you wouldn't have to fool around with it--but you would take this role that comes out of the inkjet printer and you plop it in and it would auto feed itself. So it would load the story onto the two rollers and it would have a little motor in there that would allow you to interact with this very long sheet with by scrolling physically. And what I like about this idea is the irony, first of all. The word that we use for the Web to talk about ...

BT: ... we scroll down, yeah!

HD: Right. to get from the top of the page the bottom you use the scroll bar. So maybe you could brand this device as the scroll bar or the scroll something-or-other. Even though the idea is half tongue-in-cheek, it's only half tongue-in-cheek. It's the kind of thing that I would hope somebody might put some energy in to prototyping it, how it might work, what would it actually feel like.

BT: But that is only the beginning of testing that out. Because the more that you do the kind of market research that isn't about, "Why do you use a newspaper?" It's more, "Are you going to miss your newspaper?" And if they say Yes, then you need to start asking, Well, why? How do you use it?

HD: Will this thing work as a substitute?

BT: And I think that's fascinating, because most of the time when you take a different approach--and it's kind of based on this philosophy out there in the market research world that people "hire"--air quotes ...

HD: ... yeah, I'll put in the air quotes.

BT: They hire products or services to help them get a job done. So let's go back to my friend with the family and the morning breakfast. He hires a newspaper--he buys a newspaper, subscribes--to help him have a family interaction without talking. So they are connected through this product without having to talk. We helped him get that job done, and he knows it's an important job, because he's feeling the pain of no replacement now that that product is going away.

You wouldn't get that if you asked him traditional questions like, What news are you interested in? What sort of formatting do you like? Do you like a lot of pictures? Local news? More local news?

And when you take that approach, of "What are you hiring this product or service to do?" it gets to a much more emotional level--not to be too "mad scientist"--but once you have tapped into someone's emotional needs around a product or service, then it gets very fun from a business standpoint of: It sells itself. You know if you can tap into that it's a lot less about, "Let me tell you why you want this!" and becomes more "I think you want this and here it is."

HD: So the idea is essentially that the traditional kind of market research questions about newspapers, involve the assumption that what you're reading the newspaper for it is news and information, which is probably not the case always.

BT: It might not be.

HD: I think a lot of people look to the local paper for affirmation.

BT: Of?

HD: That the way they see the world is basically the right way to see it. So they want to see editorials run that confirm that the way they see the world is the right way to see it. They don't want to subscribe to a paper that runs editorials constantly that they disagree with, that conflicts with the way they see the world, because that's not very comforting.

BT: Are these the people who read the letters to the editor? To try to get that sense of how the community is jiving with their worldview?

HD: I don't know if I would say that they read the letters to the editor, but I think that they place great value on the idea that there is an editorial stance presented by the paper on the important local issues of the day, and national issues probably. I mean, the most frequent comments I hear about why people didn't like The News, was the endorsement of Bush twice. So that was clearly upsetting to people, which is understandable, but the degree to which it was upsetting is really fascinating. What they expect another local newspaper is some reflection of their own personal way of seeing the world.

Well listen, we are starting to creak pretty good. The creaking began earlier than it usually does, but that's usually a sign that we should wrap up.

BT: Okay!

HD: Anything else you want to get off your chest and onto the teeter totter?

BT: No. Just wondering am I on the teeter side or the totter side?