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, 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.

[re-posted from my ministry blog,]

Thomas Jefferson is a fascinating character to me. I used to swallow everything he did wholesale: his beliefs about freedom, life and liberty, his inventive mind and his bent toward states’ rights. He was quite a Renaissance Man. When Becky and I went to the diplomatic reception rooms in the State Department last week, I didn’t expect to find my mind drawn to Thomas Jefferson in particular.

Thomas Jefferson painting at the State DepartmentThis image is interesting to me because, in an era of puffy-cheeked portraits, Jefferson looks a little gaunt. While George Washington took his dentures out for photos, requiring that the artist fill the cheeks back out again with cotton balls, Jefferson seems to have his own teeth. The artist also seems to have wanted to draw a connection between Jefferson and the ancient Greeks, perhaps suggesting esteem for a man he clearly put in the same category as Plato and Aristotle.

There’s also a Da Vinci feel to it, a connection I agree with. Jefferson was absolutely brilliant. And tall. At 6′ 1″, he was a head above his colleagues. As a result, he suffered from a bad back. So he drew up plans for an adjustable-height desk. The double hinge on his creation is remarkable. I could use one of these myself.

Jefferson's adjustable-height deskSo here’s a man whose day job is President, yet he can’t contain the ideas popping into his head regarding botany, architecture (the Jefferson memorial, for instance) and furniture design. As a leader whose primary strength is ideation, I can definitely admire a man like that! On my last flight, I sketched out designs for an expandable round conference room table. Perhaps I can find time to put my weekend warrior skills to work and build a prototype.

Yet Jefferson had clear blind spots. Let me give you a few. In writing the Declaration of Independence, he borrowed heavily from the big three rights hailed by the French: life, liberty and land. He and his subcommittee wanted a clean break from the land-owning aristocracies of Europe, but I’m not sure “pursuit of happiness” resulted in any improvements in the resulting culture.

I also fault his viewpoint on God and the world he observed. He couldn’t get past his logical mind to conclude that there might be such thing as mystery. A few years ago I read an account of Lewis and Clark’s exploration and lost a lot of respect for Jefferson, because of his flat viewpoint of the fantastic discoveries they made. Everything had to be explained. The fact that he made his own edited version of the Bible to explain away or remove the miracles sums it up for me. Sure, he was a product of his times, but he epitomizes the dangers of belief in the supremacy of mankind — our creations and our brilliance.

Jefferson was a complicated man. In laying out the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right, he showed a clear naive optimism in the goodness of man. And yet, in laying out a form of government, he and his colleagues demonstrated a clear understanding that greed and the raw pursuit of power would corrupt any government. Eschewing pure democracy as a form of evil, they instead set up a republic, built on the idea of checks and balances. I may not like some of the opinions expressed by our senators and representatives, and I might despise the extreme polarizing ugliness we’re seeing during the debt standoff, but as I sat in the gallery of the Senate chamber last week, I could see the brilliance built into our system that keeps egos and fringe elements in check. We can thank Jefferson for a lot of the thought that went into the U.S. government.

My sculpture class at Georgia State introduced me to some of the more creative artists at the school. One lady in particular was a practitioner of performance art. One day she piled sand on the floor “just so” in preparation for her presentation, only to find at show time a forklift sitting atop her sculpture. After a stern lecture on art appreciation, the offending construction worker removed his equipment, and the performance went on, complete with wooden railroad ties and votive candles. Part of her performance was the credit given to her generous sources, who seldom knew of their contributions to the art world: unwitting restaurants and construction sites were generous benefactors. Another time she incorporated a beautifully-carved fireplace facade. It’s amazing the art you can create when you steal beauty from other people.

While I have major issues with the particular way she applied the use of “found objects,” over time I’ve become a practitioner myself. There’s some real value in one artist building on another’s ideas. I’m not talking about plagiarizing or stealing your competitors’ ideas; in fact, the best companies and the most creative sorts ignore their competitors completely. Instead, I suggest stealing from other arenas. Let me explain the principle and follow with a well-known example.

An old mentor in my early days as a graphic designer told me not to read design magazines. Instead, read books or magazines about my interests. You will copy what you expose yourself to, and if all you see is other designers’ work, you’ll end up doing cheap imitations. His inspiration was manhole covers. He found ways to use the old European ironwork to inspire his work in paper, paint and wood. So, whatever your industry, don’t read the trade publications. Instead, expose yourself to the broader world around you.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Ramo tells the story of Shigeru Miyamoto, who borrowed a chip from an automobile airbag to create the Wii. He “‘mashed up’ two seemingly unrelated things — an accelerometer and a video game — to create something new.” The Wii singlehandedly transformed the gaming industry, not just in a technological way but by changing the mindset of gaming. No longer was the world divided cleanly into gamers — overwhelmingly male, couch-potato types — and nongamers. Now some of the fastest-growing markets were female and elderly. Wii Fit ridiculously turned all of the stereotypes on their heads.

Mashups capture a sense of creativity that passes established borders, that combines a sort of deep, curious yearning… with a hands-on, practical tinkerer’s spirit. But when these two are wedded, innovation becomes inevitable.

Mashups can be game changers, but it takes a visionary to find the usefulness of one industry to transform another. Leaders don’t imitate. Whatever problem you’re facing, perhaps you need to lift your eyes. Look outside your industry to see how you might apply someone else’s solution to your own problem.

The key to innovation is risk.

It has two key measurables: success and failure. Success seems like a better metric for innovation. But here’s the problem with success: if you succeed on your first, or even your second try, you’ll never know what other radically innovative ideas you never got to. When I was a graphic designer, I knew what to do with my first few ideas. I worked diligently to articulate them, get them down on paper… and then crumple them up and toss them. First ideas are cliché. They’re your mind’s inclination toward laziness — knowing that if you can come up with a quick solution, you can save yourself the emotional and physical stress of actually working hard to find a great solution.

You cannot undervalue those first few ideas. I wasn’t being completely facetious when I said I worked diligently on them. It’s a discipline you have to go through to actually write them down. If you don’t, you hold onto them in some form. The idea is to fail and then move on toward truly great ideas. I’ve seen a lot of recent design school graduates who were never taught the discipline part; they go straight to the computer and start tinkering without taking the time to brainstorm and sketch and get the failed ideas out of their system.

Assuming your organization is somewhat healthy, where you see failure, you’re seeing risk. Where you’re seeing risk, you’re seeing innovation. Therefore, if you want a culture of innovation, you need to take the time to honor failure.

This post is relevant in the context of my last few posts. Taking a risk on someone who has failed before takes courage. To act as if the Holy Spirit has made a person new opens yourself and your organization to failure. Every one of those “projects” will not turn out as a win. The question is whether you’re expecting perfection, or if you’re going in prepared for some failure and taking steps to mitigate the risk.

When’s the last time you celebrated failure? When is the last time you reported it as a key metric for innovation? Failing is not the end; rather, it’s a sign of health.

There’s an interesting article in the NY Times on the subject of business schools acquiring a taste for design. Why? They discovered that many MBA students were trying to apply rigid, pre-planned strategies to today’s challenges, and they just weren’t working. What they need in times of discontinuous change is the ability to think critically and creatively… on their feet. The best thing design thinking offers for the changing world today is agile problem solving ability.

As I discussed in my last post, designers need restrictions. I think this principle applies directly to leadership. I would even go as far as saying that a great leader can’t lead well in abundance. Leaders thrive when things aren’t going as planned. When a leader is forced to deal with a Global Financial Crisis, he sees it as an opportunity for incredible creativity. This economy is a chance for innovation. The shift to postmodernism is a chance for innovation. The handover of leadership from the largest generation to one half its size is a chance for innovation.

No wonder Bill Hybels said last August that he gets an extra bounce in his step when he considers the unique challenges we’re facing right now! We as leaders get to design the future.

One of the hottest trends a couple of years ago is becoming mainstream today: Business school are rolling out classes and entire schools to teach design thinking. As a graphic designer who turned to administration, I love the trend, because my design training has certainly shaped my leadership. But what is design thinking? How does it apply to leadership? I’ll cover the first question today.

Let’s start with an even more basic question. What is design? Isn’t it about making things look pretty? Isn’t it focused on the aesthetic? It’s a lot more than that. I always encourage graphic design students to take classes in illustration, photography, psychology, marketing and journalism so they can bring the broadest possible viewpoint to their work, speak to the core functionality of the piece and affect the desired response of their end user. So, “graphic” is a qualifier for a particular kind of designer. The core of design can be applied to appliances, traffic flow, leadership, production lines, furniture and healthcare programs.

Boiling it down, design thinking is a mindset and a methodology to approach challenges. It’s a process of approaching a problem from multiple perspectives and using trial and error to get to the right solution. It’s about drawing inspiration from a variety of sources and applying them to your particular challenge, resulting in innovation. Believe me, this blog post isn’t going to teach you how to do it. It took me five years of school and thousands of hours of practice to shape me.

Let me give you a snapshot of one aspect: idea-driven design. My favorite designer is Paul Rand. Developer of logos for such firms as IBM, UPS and Westinghouse, Rand is one of the great thinkers in the design field. Here’s his take:

I have two goals. The first is that everything I do as a designer must have an idea: it cannot just look nice. The second is, it has to look nice.

So, what’s an idea? The energy created by the collision of two opposing thoughts. If you give a designer a blank sheet of paper and tell him to make something that looks nice, he will be paralyzed. At the minimum, he needs a topic, a message and an audience. But he needs more than that; great design comes from a seemingly impossible contradiction. Perhaps the impossibility is budget-related. Or the combination of two impossible desires that cannot possibly co-exist. For instance, a financial services client who hates the color green. Can you imagine?!!

A designer needs a contrast to create a spark. In other words, designers cannot operate in abundance; designers need restrictions! Clients, are you listening?

Let me give you an example. David Ellis Dickerson used to write cards for Hallmark. He now has a hobby/business where he creates cards on the fly for people who get in situations Hallmark never anticipated. My favorite: someone contacted him to ask what kind of card she could give to the person whose toilet she broke. Talk about some great design parameters and some dangerous territory! Check out the vlog to hear his design process and his brilliant solution.