The Many Benefits of “Single-Tasking”

It has been a year since I last published a blog post.  A year. As an author, an innovator, and a marketer, it feels almost unfathomable that I could have let this much time pass since last throwing words against the digital canvas.  

Yes, I’ve been busy. At work, 2018 was an unprecedented year in developing new business, new clients, and new practices.  At home, life has been a whirlwind of sporting events, house projects, school plays, and various other family adventures.  Busy… yes.  But too busy to write a 500-word blog post every few weeks?  A blog that I honestly love to write?

The truth is that it is not the “big things” that keep these creative endeavors from reaching their full potential.  It’s the daily grind of clutter.  The constant barrage of meetings, emails, and presentations… not to mention the self-inflicted swirl of mindless cellphone surfing, texts, and tweets.  

How can I possibly be expected to focus on a blog post when I am simultaneously having a creative review, answering an email, checking to see which of my friends best survived the Facebook “age challenge”, texting my daughter about drama rehearsal, and trying to understand why the stars of my beloved Steelers can’t be bothered to show up to work?  Phew.  

Multi-tasking has become such an ingrained habit / addiction / disease that it takes an immense amount of discipline and focus to truly invest in doing one thing well… with purpose, creativity, and depth.  I type these very words with my office door locked, my phone in a drawer, and my email alerts turned off.

This is one of the main reasons that I believe our ideation sessions here at Upstream are so rewarding for our clients.  Teams from around the globe come to our “Think Tank” to utilize our innovation process to solve challenging problems and to produce magical and insightful content. And while our workshop approach may be what guides teams to the output, that team’s success ultimately stems from their deliberate choice to step away from that daily grind and to focus upon nothing but solving the problem at hand.  

As much as I would like to take all the credit for helping teams to make “months of progress in a couple of days”, it is at least equally as important that the teams escape from their office, set their cellphones on stun, and fully commit to collaborating and creating.

The inherent value of single-tasking… of getting your small, dedicated team to:

F  – Forget all other responsibilites for a few days

O – (Escape) Off-Site to isolate yourself from distractions

C – Close your Calendar and fully engage

U – Unplug from the Web of emails, texts, and social media

S – Spend quality time ideating, iterating, creating, finishing ONE thing

… this value cannot be overstated.

My personal commitment for 2019 is to leverage the many benefits of single-tasking and become more disciplined and focused to write regular blog posts.  

…And maybe to start exercising regularly again… once I finish binge watching Black Mirror on Netflix, of course. 

Also check out this great infographic from “The High Cost of Multi-Taking” from

Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash


Confession time. This past week-end, I watched Glengarry Glen Ross (the 1992 film adaptation of David Mamet’s devastatingly scorching Pulitzer prize winning play), for the 20th time.

Known mostly today for Alec Baldwin’s classic “coffee is for closers” speech, there is so much more to it.

I’ve long admired the astonishing logic and cadence to Mamet’s dialogue. It allows his characters to arrive in triumph at the ends of sentences in a way you couldn’t possibly have imagined. All served up with a crackling energy.

My favorite line is actually from Jack Lemon’s character Shelley Levene. He’s a salesperson, schooling the office manager, and he dispenses the following wisdom: “You can’t learn it in an office . . . you have to learn it on the streets. You can’t buy it. You have to live it.”

I love that line because it reminds me that such a huge part of Upstream’s success is due to the individual nerd-fests we all have for ideas.

Our craving for new concepts, experiences, perspectives, and ways of life is a big part of what drives us forward. It serves as the fuel that ignites our creativity.

Paraphrasing Mamet’s Shelley Levene, “creativity doesn’t happen in a cubicle or a conference room. It happens inside the moments of everyday life. It’s experiencing something new (in the streets) that triggers the spark.”

What do YOU do in your free time? Because whatever it is, you can be sure it is shaping your craft one way or another.

I remember once seeing a brilliant Twitter profile that simply said under the name: “Observer Believer.”

Yes, exactly!

It is precisely our job to observe the world . . . and distill what we are seeing, so we can add value to everything we deliver to clients.

But to make sure you never lose touch, the key is to learn from actual human beings, instead of learning from ads. In other words, why trust third-hand sources?

When folks interview here, instead of asking “what are your favorite Brands,” we like to ask “Who are your favorite minds . . . who are your favorite thinkers?”

That’s where the inspiration lives. And that’s why we bring together what we’ve learned in group-settings.

It’s only when there is a blend of your unique thinking and strategy with that of partners and collaborators, that the work begins to exceed expectations.

As we always say in our InnoVision™ Sessions, the point isn’t to have the best idea . . . the point is to get to the best idea.”

How Real Is Your Highlights Reel?

“Social Media is your highlights reel.” That’s a quote from Nick Foles following his Super Bowl victory. Pair that with a recent viewing of Black Mirror (the British science-fiction series in which one terrifyingly plausible episode reflects a world in which your true social status is determined by how many virtual “likes” you receive), and you’ve got the perfect illustration of how pervasive social media has become in our everyday personal and work lives.

Our social personas can also paint a glorious life that’s not quite reality. Good or bad, Social Media has become the go-to way to offer opinions, to connect with friends and clients, and to view funny videos, but it goes deeper than that.

This got me thinking about where you draw the line in your business and personal life when it comes to Social Media. I know many clients personally, and I enjoy seeing their vacations, family pictures, etc. It helps me feel more connected on a personal level.

I still consider myself a Photographer, so I like to post pictures of landscapes, family, travel, and even lost dogs. I have about 40 thousand photos in my camera roll, so I like to share. The down side is that I sometimes get comments like “it looks like you’re always on vacation.” This type of misperception gives me pause as to whether I should continue to post. It also raises questions for me as a business owner.

What is the impact on personal or business relationships when Social Media posts inadvertently create false perceptions about your standard of living or political leanings? Where’s the sweet spot? I can assure you I’m not “always on vacation.” :

I’ve decided that I will continue to post photos or an opinion about a movie or an occasional news article, because that’s the way I see the world. I’ll let the perceptions fall where they may.

These days, politics drives a lot of the content on FB, so I purposely try to steer clear of the negativity (although I may have a weak moment here and there). Does that mean I’m avoiding important issues or selling out my beliefs? Not really. That’s because I never built friendships based on who people voted for, or their income, or if they made a living driving a truck or being a CEO, anyway.

Bottom line, you may think you know someone because of the Social Media profile they’ve created, but if you look beyond, they probably deal with the same day to day issues that you do, and their “highlights reel” may just be a way to reflect a virtual escape from the more mundane aspects of everyday life.

Promises. Promises.

Welcome to February, and the cooling ashes of New Years Resolutions that often go along with it.

I recently overheard someone say “Why set a goal for yourself when you can make a promise, instead?”

This is kind of a kissin’-cousin to the old bromide: “Goals are particulars, but promises are proclamations.”

When you consider your co-workers and client-partners, don’t you think goals more often come across as a little “squishy,” when compared to promises? Or at least “goals” can be more ambiguous with a built-in trap door to escape accountability.

I think that’s why the best leaders don’t just say “Trust me” . . . instead, they say “I will earn your trust through my actions. Just watch!”

The best “Workplace Families” make promises to each other and challenge themselves to keep them, or even exceed them.

What’s better than over-delivering – whether it’s a promise or a weather forecast? And what’s worse than under-delivering on either one?

Yes, with so much to do and so little time to get it done, conflicts can arise and tough decisions have to be made. I suppose that’s why you can lose as much hair as you lose sleep, in any given week!

But when we exceed what was promised for our clients, they become raving fans! And they, in turn become our Marketing Department, by talking us up on Social Media, in the hallways, and around the water cooler.

Have you ever been so loyal that you would drive out of your way or spend extra time in line because that particular place always makes good on their promises? I’ve seen you patiently waiting at the Genius Bar . . . those places you return to over and over again, while telling everyone else all the reasons why they should go there, too.

As long as you’re not the commercial that is better than the actual experience, you’re fine.

Reminds me of the time I took my wife to an over-hyped restaurant for a special occasion, and as I was leaving, the Hostess asked: “How was your meal?” And I said: “My compliments to the menu photographer!”

Let’s all agree to do what we can to ensure that the “meals” we’re serving up, match (or exceed!) the beauty of the photography.

Just think of it as the secret to turning your bouillabaisse into your fan base.

Food for thought. And that’s a promise.

Bon appetit!

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”.

The Resolution Will Not Be Televised.

I begin the year with an apology.

Gil Scott-Heron famously wrote in a 1970 poem that the revolution will not be televised, and here I am shamelessly paraphrasing him to make a point about resolutions.

Did anyone really think I could go 365 days without making a pun?

But Scott-Heron also wrote about looking for a brighter day, so let’s do that, by all means.

Our resolutions for Upstream in 2018 include thinking even more about how we can evolve media to reduce commoditization and continue to produce content that increases engagement and value for users.

With our video expertise, we hope to see even greater innovation on both the story telling and technical side this year.

We welcome better transparency and deeper insights about consumers and customers. Those are always helpful!

At the core of every resolution is the building of trust and meaningful relationships. Because it is ultimately people and not machines that make for successful initiatives and brand building. Yes please, more of that.

And finally, (as is my wish every year), can we all resolve together to refuse creative ideas that involve talking babies and/or animals? Just carefully place them in the file folder marked “1989.”

Naturally, we begin the New Year committed to creating solutions that amaze our Clients, while pursuing social good along the way. And that of course, requires partnership.

So, while our resolutions will not be televised, there is a strong possibility that they will be crowd-funded.


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.

kNOw Sweat. The Six Word Story.

Throughout the month of November, our team at Upstream 360 has 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.” ( 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.

Upstream 360 And The Elephant In The Room

I started my adventure as the Innovation Director at Upstream 360 just over eight months ago and it has been quite a ride.  Partnering with companies, brands, and teams around the world to invent ideas, craft concepts, strategize social media, create copy, and so much more… it has been a whirlwind of strategy, creativity, and agility.  And it has been a blast!

What is interesting, however, is how challenging it has been for me to provide an “elevator pitch” answer to the question, “What does Upstream 360 do?”  It is not that I don’t know the answer… it is that the breadth and depth of the types of work we do make it challenging to provide a concise, pithy, and holistic answer.

See… that last paragraph wasn’t even pithy!

Okay, let me try a parable.  Remember that famous one from India about the Blind Men and the Elephant? Six blind men all chance upon an elephant, and they all end up with a remarkably different take on what they have encountered.  One guy runs into the elephant’s side and experiences a wall.  Another feels the sharp tusk and imagines a spear.  The trunk moves like a snake, the leg stands proudly as a tree, the ear sways softly as a fan, and the tail hangs down as a rope.  All of these represent a part of the experience and are not exactly wrong… but they don’t portray the big picture.

Similarly, as we work with our wide range of clients, we see a diverse range of perceptions.  Some only know us as the innovation experts and “idea people” since we have helped them to discover breakthrough new concepts and product demos.  Others only know us for our design chops, because our 2D and 3D illustrators have brought their product’s magic to life visually.  To some we are only their “production company”, as our directors and production teams produce commercials for broadcast and content for digital in our studio.  Still, others think of us as their  “advertising agency”, developing and executing social media strategy and management.  To another large group, we are a “research firm” as our scientists and engineers study new products, how they work, and what consumers perceive.  None of these notions are wrong, and we are proud of each of these aspects.  They simply don’t quite bring the whole elephant into the room.

This week we have re-launched our Upstream 360 website, and in doing so we are sharing for the first time our complete vision of all that we do here.  Certainly, there is a lot of diversity in our work and we don’t want to lose that.  But we also want to make sure that we portray the big picture and what we stand for along with our key points of difference.  We focus a lot on the “6 Word Story” here… so what are the six words that best describe Upstream 360?

We are proud to present (drum roll, please…) “Ideation to Creation.  All Under One Roof”.  7 words, but we always go above and beyond here!  We believe this encapsulates the creativity, agility, tangibility, and stream-lined nature of our work.  For those that have worked with us in the past, are currently partnering with us, or might walk through these doors in the future, we invite you to check out our homepage, watch our introductory video, and explore our case studies.   Be sure to let us know if you can see the sum of the elephant, as well as its parts!

Mike Thomas is Upstream 360’s Director of Innovation and has a memory like an elephant. He remembers every elephant he’s ever met.  He also authored the unforgettable book, Agents of Change: Unleashing the Innovation of Real-Life Superheroes, available in, paperback and eBook.

Hearing Is Believing

Turn back now before it’s too late. Don’t read another word.

If you prefer uninterrupted thought, the ability to maintain coherent conversations while preserving your sanity, trust me, go no further.

Otherwise, suffer the fate of the dreaded earworm . . . meticulously wending its way, inexorably deeper and deeper into your brain.

Wait. Halloween’s over, right?

Okay, let’s leave earworms aside and talk “ear-cons,” instead. Those jingles you keep forgetting to remember to forget.

We’re not talking slogans (we’ll save that topic for another time), but rather those company mottos set to music with hooks that take up valuable brain space that might be better used for remembering things like the password to your 401(k) account.

But that’s the mind-eating point, isn’t it? In a world of snackable content and :06 second ads, the jingle is making a totally hum-able comeback, and it should. We owe jingles a debt of thanks. How else would we have ever known that our bologna has a first AND a second name. And that was 50 years ago, yet it has over a million views on YouTube, so a new generation can appreciate what makes these tunes classic.

About 15 years ago, fellow University of Cincinnati alum James Kellaris actually did a study of earcons as a Marketing Professor. He was able to subject nearly 600 students to all manner of tunes to explore which ones were the stickiest. The winner? Chili’s Baby Back Ribs.

Ironically, Chili’s not only wants their baby back, they also want their 1986 jingle back, as well. And they just re-launched its infuriatingly familiar toe-tapping rhythm last week with new funkier lyrics about their bigger big mouth burger menu, among other items.

So here’s to ownable, well-loved equity that separates you from your competition, while breaking through the ever-expanding universe of channels and messages.

Some may scoff at jingles as a lower form of art, but bah dah bah bah bah, I’m lovin’ it.