January 2016


The leader whose thinking is constrained within well-worn ruts, who is completely governed by his established passions and prejudices, who is incapable of thinking either gray or free, and who can’t even appropriate the creative imagination and fresh ideas of those around him, is as anachronistic and ineffective as the dinosaur. He may by dint of circumstances remain in power, but his followers would almost certainly be better off without him. (Dr. Stephen Sample, Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership)

In my last blog post that spelled out what I call leading as an art director, I promoted the idea of gaining buy-in and then letting an idea go. Letting go doesn’t mean the leader can’t continue to feed the idea. He or she needs to do this by challenging lazy thinking and by destroying natural constraints to thinking. Here are four ways to do that:

1. The threshing floor. I love the concept of the threshing floor, where ideas can be tossed in the air to see what solid nuggets of wheat fall to the ground while the chaff blows away. I am a proponent of “thinking out loud.” Until an idea is stated and turned over a few times, you don’t know its value. I believe everyone has something to contribute, so when a meeting ends and someone never spoke up, I wonder what held back. I’m convinced introverts could solve most of the world’s problems, but they’re happy to take their solutions to the grave!

2. Design thinking. I can’t articulate the concept of design thinking as taught at Stanford’s d.school, but I learned the concepts the hard way, through five years of undergrad training and nine years of practice. One basic tenet is that the ideal is not ready-aim-fire as much as ready-fire-aim-fire again. In other words, don’t analyze something to death before you ever move. Trial and error is the best way to develop an idea.

Another tenet drummed into me at Georgia State is that your first ideas are likely worthless. However, if you don’t get them out on paper and then intentionally throw them away, they will limit your thinking. Push yourself to come up with at least one more viable idea. Many leaders talk about the trap that results when everyone in a meeting is in agreement, and they intentionally push someone to argue the other side or challenge group think.

3. Thinking free. Former USC Chancellor Stephen Sample articulates this practice in a fabulous leadership book called The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. It’s a process where a group of people intentionally remove all constraints to their thinking for a period of time so they can break out of their ruts. It goes way beyond brainstorming, allowing anything to be considered and sometimes exposing a simple, obvious solution no one has ever seen before. Sample explains the idea in the second half of this essay:
Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership

4. Fresh eyes. When someone is new to a team, a company or initiative, their most important asset for the first three months is their ability to see with fresh eyes. I try to meet with them in the first week to empower them, encouraging them to ask silly questions, challenge our thinking and point out anything that doesn’t make sense. Without encouragement, they will keep these observations to themselves because of natural desires to assimilate.

Dr. Sample offers an excellent rationale:

It’s well known among engineers that the most important inventions in a particular field are often made by people who are new to that field – people who are too naïve and ignorant to know all the reasons why something can’t be done, and who are therefore able to think more freely about seemingly intractable problems. The same is true of the leadership of institutions: It’s often fresh blood and a fresh perspective from the outside that can turn an ailing organization around.

5. Courageous questions. It takes a secure leader to encourage radical thinking and invite questions. We must always have the courage to ask the right questions, even if we don’t want to go where the questions might lead us. If the questions lead us back to where we are, then we have greater confidence in the direction we’re already moving. Or they might expose the absurdity of our current path and open the door to new possibilities.

The point of these exercises is that inertia creates laziness, and leadership is never about going along with momentum. If, as Gary Hamel put it at Global Leadership Summit 2009, “It’s so easy to mistake the edge of your rut for the horizon. We have to learn to be contrarians.” There are some proven exercises that can help you forcibly break out of your own thinking or lead a team to release the constraints that bind their imaginations for what could be.

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I’m a graphic designer. Non-practicing, I’ll grant you, but a designer nonetheless. There are no former graphic designers, just as there are no ex-alcoholics. I’m a designer, and I always will be. It’s how I see the world. It’s the way I think. It’s the way I operate, no matter what my specific job responsibilities are at the time. Let’s take non-profit leadership, for instance.

I lead as an art director. I paint a picture for my team of a preferred future or the direction I think we should go, and then I invite them to bring their best to help make it happen. Because people are creative, with experiences and vantage points I’ll never have, the result is almost always better than I ever imagined. Of course, the more diverse those vantage points are, the stronger the result will be.

The leader’s job is to inspire and motivate, but not to hold his idea too tightly. The ideal is to achieve buy-in and then let go. Of course, buy-in requires that a team has been given significant opportunity to speak into and even sway the direction we’re going. The more the team gets excited about the idea and brings their best, the more alternatives and improvements they will propose, and the more momentum the concept will gain.

The key for the leader is to decide ahead of time what the non-negotiables are going to be. What is the deadline? What elements must be included? Just as a kite will not stay in the air if it is not held in tension with the ground, creativity is impossible if there are no parameters. A graphic designer cannot get the first mark on a page if there aren’t some ridiculous tensions that generate sparks: the name of the company, the fact the client only likes green, the minuscule budget and the unreasonable deadline. The designer might grumble at the constraints, but now she has some material to work with.

Leading as an art director means there will be compromise. Any gathering of creative people will include passion, tension and rabbit trails. If the project is drifting too far from the intent, does the team need firm direction or is it okay to let them run with it for a while? Is the drift in fact an improvement over the original idea? Perhaps my dream was too small, and the team is seeing new opportunities to expand the idea. Perhaps the new direction is in fact the creative foundation for another project. 3M has made a killing, when the proposed solutions didn’t solve the immediate problem, by allowing employees to persist in the belief that they’ve solved something (they just don’t know what yet) until it becomes viable. Consider the history of the sticky note.

In some cases, the idea just doesn’t work. The leader must then have the courage to shut it down. If the project fails or leads to bad results, there are a few possible reasons:

  • I failed to adequately describe my vision.
  • I didn’t fully pass the baton. I didn’t achieve the buy-in I was shooting for, or I held onto control unnecessarily.
  • I didn’t pull in a diverse enough team to add their strengths.
  • It wasn’t worth doing, or it failed. Some ideas just aren’t robust enough to stand on their own. Others are risks that may or may not survive.

A few years ago I heard an old leader muse that most leadership books try to boil down a leader’s experience into a formula that won’t work for anyone else’s context, and wouldn’t even work if that leader tried to apply his own formula again. Perhaps that’s why I’ve found it so difficult to articulate my instinctive leadership style. Multiple times I’ve tried to put thoughts to keyboard and then given up. I’m still not satisfied that I captured the essence of the way I lead.

So perhaps this methodology is best left as a blog post fleshed out just enough to paint a picture, and allowing readers and leaders to bring their own creativity to the practice and make it even better.