Challenge lazy thinking

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.

Resetting Missions – Fifty years behind

As I mentioned before, I recently attended the RESET conference in Arizona. My expectations were probably set too high, as the lead-up was fantastic.

  • Regional dialogs unearthed some really radical ideas, such as a proposal that mission agencies drop their own HR departments in favor of a single non-profit that provides those services. It was clear to all of us that there’s just too much redundancy.
  • The case statement drew from Ramo’s book, Age of the Unthinkable. I’ve blogged enough on that book that the author is still showing up in my tag cloud in the right column of this blog.
  • We knew going in that the two host organizations, The Mission Exchange (formerly EFMA) and Cross Global Link (formerly IFMA) were very likely going to end 50 years of talk and finally merge into one organization representing missions in North America. What a great model for the rest of us!

So those lofty expectations doomed me. I found the sessions somewhat flat in comparison. One tweet resonated with a number of us after a speaker proposed a list of changes for world missions: “This would have been great if we were talking about it 50 years ago.”

Then this week I discovered the speaker who should have been there. To their credit, the organization that introduced futurist Dr. Jay Gary to me was The Mission Exchange, the same organization that introduced me to Ramo and hosted the RESET Conference. Unfortunately, their webinar yesterday didn’t get the platform the conference would have given him. Dr. Gary is a professor with Regent University’s Masters of Strategic Foresight program. Just the name of that degree makes me salivate…

I’m only just beginning to unpack what Dr. Jay Gary recommends for the mission world in his article, “Toward the Great Work.” Here’s an example:

Protestant World Missions practitioners are fifty years behind awakening to this Great Work, and will likely have little leverage in leading our world to safety, contrary to the Wisdom of Jesus. This is a sober fact that evangelism has become reductionist, and merely focused on the after-life, not this life, contrary to what Jesus did for his generation. We must listen to the late missiologist David Bosch and learn how to transform mission.

For those of you who attended RESET, imagine a speaker lineup of Cobie Langerak, Tim Breene and Jay Gary. For those gifted with Futurist strengths, you’ll love the following collection of articles:

Strategic Foresight: Looking to the future to plan today

The future of Business as Mission 

15 Provocations from the future 

Trends and Technology Timeline 2010+ (the London Underground-inspired map above)
I need to go read some more. I just had to get this posted so you could join me.

The petrie dish for innovation

Times of crisis reveal what is and isn’t working. These are the times when obsolete and dysfunctional systems and practices collapse or fall by the wayside. They are the times when the seeds of innovation and invention, of creativity and entrepreneurship, burst into full flower, enabling recovery by remaking both the economy and society.

In The Great Reset, Richard Florida goes on to point out that the greatest periods of innovation in U.S. history were the 1870s and the 1930s. Those two depressions were marked by huge spikes in research for patents and technological progress. Florida says that depressions create a reset for society, acting like a forest fire to clear out the old growth and make room for the new.

Want to read more? Steve Moore, president of The Mission Exchange has written a fascinating case statement based on his reading, research and intuition about the future. It’s the basis for this post and for the upcoming North American Mission Leaders Conference in Arizona.

In a recent post, I referred to Hizb’allah, the terrorist group that Joshua Cooper Ramo characterizes as the most innovative organization in the world. Constant pressure and hardship has resulted in incredible inventions such as the Improvised Explosive Device that, for as little five dollars, can paralyze the lavishly-funded military of the United States. That example leads me to wonder where else we should see innovation thriving. On a political level, I would think the Israeli military would be one place. The persecuted church should be another. Constant threat leads to either innovation or death.

From a historical perspective, I have great optimism for the next few years. World missions needs a reset, and I think it’s happening. The next couple of years should stand out as a period of incredible breakthroughs in strategies, technology, partnerships and ideation. Breakthroughs will happen, many of them outside the world of mission agencies. The question is which organizations will be best positioned to take advantage or to ride the wave? No doubt many who take advantage are not in existence today. But will older organizations make the leap? I suggest the difference in organizations that make the adjustments and organizations that dig in their heels to try to hold onto the past is leadership.

Let me close by quoting Steve Moore’s conclusion:

We need a fresh wave of Spirit empowered entrepreneurial risk takers and mission pioneers who lean in to what God is doing in the midst of turbulent times, seizing what may prove to be unprecendented windows of opportunity that come with a Great Reset moment.

I’m getting excited. How about you?

Democratizing innovation

If innovation is the lifeblood of an organization, then organizations must put a premium on their greatest innovators. Chris Anderson claims in January’s Wired Magazine that “Out of 100 people, maybe fewer than half a dozen are likely to innovate … and their best ideas will come along only every few years.” If he’s right, you don’t want to lose your innovators.

What happens when you do? In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Ramo gives an extreme case study. Head of Israeli intelligence Aharon Farkash concluded in 2001 that Israel was approaching Hizb’allah all wrong. Direct attacks only made the terrorists stronger, forcing them to evolve. Under Israel’s traditional strategy, Hizb’allah became the world’s most innovative organization. Instead of strengthening terrorists, Farkash decided to identify and target the two or three in any terrorist organization who had the skills to help the organization evolve under pressure. The results of the new strategy? Terrorist attacks plummeted, and hundreds of Islamic terrorist groups went out of business.

There are two takeaways from this harsh example. First, organizations of all kinds simply can’t survive without innovators. Second, innovation grows best in hardship. The latter point is worth a blog post in the future, but let’s jump in on the first one.

This is the point where we conclude that an organization should hold onto and — if necessary — protect their innovators, right? Perhaps, but my inclination is rather to de-specialize. Get more people involved in innovating.

Anderson agrees:

Innovation has always been a group activity. The myth of the lone genius having a eureka moment that changes the world is indeed a myth. Most innovation is the result of long hours, building on the input of others. Ideas spawn from earlier ideas, bouncing from person to person and being reshaped as they go.

Michael Farrell describes the best conditions: “throughout history the best creativity has happened when groups of artists, reformers, writers, or scientists connected regularly with one another.” What better place for this to happen than social media? Ideas shared by one group can be improved by another, across more territory and in less time than was possible before. Social media shaves years off the traditional process.

Innovation doesn’t have to be the property of a few individuals. It can be cultivated in a community, diversifying the roles. Simply stated, innovators need support. For starters, the key first follower, the one who recognizes an idea. I shared a video a while ago that made the point that the leader isn’t the most important role in a trend. The first follower “transforms a lone nut into a leader.” In the corporate world, you need to get a boss on board. Half of innovation is the ability of managers to recognize an idea as worthy of support. Anderson adds:

The community needs to contain at least a few people capable of innovation. But not everyone in the community need be. There are plenty of other necessary roles:

  • The trend-spotter, who finds a promising innovation early.
  • The evangelist, who passionately makes the case for idea X or person Y.
  • The superspreader, who broadcasts innovations to a larger group.
  • The skeptic, who keeps the conversation honest.
  • General participants, who show up, comment honestly, and learn.

I see room for just about everyone. Are you over-reliant on a handful of people for your innovations? How can you democratize the process, pulling in others with different roles to participate in, feel ownership of and celebrate innovation?

Getting more specific, an organization that lists Innovation as a core value needs to consider the business side of how to get these kinds of people together. Is it a structural issue? Do ideas have a place to go beyond the chain of command? Do you need to schedule a FedEx day?

Farkash had it right: innovation is a life or death issue. The organization that fails to innovate will not be around long.

Found objects

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.

Who are the leaders of the future?

While wrapping up Brad Smart’s book Topgrading, I launched into the first chapters of The Age of the Unthinkable, by Joshua Cooper Ramo. Both have me thinking about what characteristics to look for in the leaders of tomorrow. Predicting leadership characteristics in a broad view is easier than predicting for any one position, because the requirements for a particular position at a particular point in time are extremely difficult to predict. Organizational priorities and opportunities might require a successor to look very different from his predecessor.

Ramo doesn’t answer the question directly, but he does offer a suggested resume for someone pursuing a career in foreign policy. There are leadership implications in this list:

  • Should be able to speak and think in revolutionary terms
  • Should have an expertise in some area of the world — be it China or the Internet or bioengineering — where fast change and unpredictability are the dominant facts of life
  • Should have experienced the unforgiving demands for precision and care that characterize real negotiation
  • Likewise, should have experienced the magical effect of risk-taking at the right moments
  • Should have mastered the essential skill of the next fifty years: crisis management
  • Should be inclined toward action, even action at times without too much reflection, since at certain moments instinct and speed are more important than the lovely perfection of academic models
  • Most of all, however, we need policy makers and thinkers who have that revolutionary feel for the inescapable demands of innovation. We need early adopters…

Smart meanwhile talks a lot of about the competencies most desirable in “A players.” Number one on his list:

Resourcefulness refers to your ability to passionately figure things out, like how to surmount barriers… It is a composite of many [competencies]: Intelligence, Analysis Skills, Creativity, Pragmatism, Risk Taking, Initiative, Organization/Planning, Independence, Adaptability, Change Leadership, Energy, Passion, and Tenacity.

No wonder Smart refers to it as “the megacompetency.” Do you see the overlap with Ramo’s list? In an era of epic change, the leaders of the future will be resourceful, instinctive and action-oriented revolutionaries, risk-takers and innovators. This goes back to a previous point I’ve made that academic institutions and MBA programs have been training people for a reality that doesn’t exist anymore. There are few existing models for the world these leaders will face. So, perhaps we should add one more to the list: Critical Thinking skills. They need to be able to think on their feet.

Let’s hear it for the other guy!

I heard an interesting description of a leader a while ago: leaders create heroes. Now, there’s no sense in creating heroes out of celebrities. Too many people already do that, to their detriment. Instead, leaders notice the little guy and elevate him to heroic status.

I’ve been fascinated recently with the fact that breakthroughs don’t usually happen to individuals alone. There’s often another person involved, and it’s the synergy of their giftings that creates the breakthrough. Some get headlines together. Hewlett and Packard go together like peanut butter and jelly. Paul and Barnabas are like love and marriage. But they are the exceptions. Most often, one gets all the headlines while the other’s contribution goes unnoticed. Following with my last post on acknowledging those who make silent contributions, I want to spend a few minutes heralding “the other guy.”

The other Steve

A 25-year-old engineer at Hewlett-Packard, Steve Wozniak was using his spare time to design a language interpreter for a new 8-bit microprocessor called the MOS 6502. But even though the motherboard he created was smaller and less complex than other kits on the market, and even though Wozniak gave away the schematics for free, hobbyists still found the board difficult to build. So Woz and his high school pal Steve Jobs, who was working at Atari, decided to sell preassembled boards—which they dubbed the Apple I. They built them at night in Jobs’ parents’ garage, paying Jobs’ sister $1 a board to insert chips. In 1976, they produced 200 units and sold 150 of them for $500 apiece. (From WIRED magazine, courtesy of Creative Leadership by Tony Kim)

The Bible translation promoter

L.L. Legters was a Presbyterian minister who served among Comanche Indians, then on the east coast, and then as an itinerant speaker at church mission conferences. He made trips throughout South America in order to document the spiritual needs of language groups, challenging churches back home to pray and to act on their behalf. In 1921, he spoke to a Cakchiquel Indian audience at a Bible conference in Guatemala. Translating for him was Cameron Townsend. The two men got along well. Townsend told Legters of his passion for Guatemala’s distinct language groups. Legters, in turn, amazed Townsend by reporting about the hundreds of unevangelized language groups which he had seen and heard about in South and Central America alone — none of whom had a single page of God’s Word. He also mentioned the countless unreached groups reportedly living in other parts of the world. The two men talked and prayed about the obvious need for thousands of new Bible translations. By faith, they determined to do something about this pressing need.

Townsend agreed to work on a Cakchiquel translation of the New Testament, keenly aware that he lacked academic preparation for work in the field of linguistics. Legters agreed to promote the cause of unreached peoples and to raise money for Townsend’s Cakchiquel translation project at church mission conferences back in the United States. In the process of keeping his part of the bargain, Legters set up a new organization called the “Pioneer Mission Agency,” the roots of Wycliffe Bible Translators. (From The Network for Strategic Missions)

Both Wozniak and Legters fell to the side as their charasmatic, innovative partners grew in renown. But Apple and Wycliffe could not have become what they’ve become without their solid contribution. So, here’s to the small people!

Efficiency vs. learning

“Stop wasting water!” One of my pet peeves is when I’m busy at something, vaguely conscious that my kids are doing something in the bathroom and then suddenly realize that the water has been running a long, long time. I’m not sure why wasting water bugs me so much. Is it the cost or the environmental responsibility of living in a state with a draining aquifer? I clearly value efficiency when it comes to water. If you have any doubt, just look at my lawn.

I recognize my hypocrisy, however. My kids are simply doing the same thing I did when I was their age. There’s no way to explore without a little waste. I used to love pouring water from one vessel into another, inverting a glass and pushing trapped air beneath the surface, finding the best way to turn my hands into a cup to bring water up to my mouth, or watch greasy water flee from a drop of soap. Water is fascinating, and you don’t learn about it without wasting a little.

The older we get, the more we value efficiency at the expense of discovery, joy and innovation. Organizationally, the bigger we get, the more we value efficiency, too. We love the economies of scale that come with standardizing processes. And in so doing, we squelch innovation.

As leaders, how can we assure that doesn’t happen? First, allow room for dreaming. I recently read a colleague’s summary of Leadership Divided – What Emerging Leaders Need and What You Might be Missing, by Ron Carucci. Here’s an excerpt that caught my attention:

The explosion of enterprise-wide technologies has fueled efficiency and standardization. A negative consequence, though, has been the tendency to approach challenges in terms of process compliance rather than allowing for dreaming. There exists a tension between standardization and innovation as a result. Incumbent leaders often view dreams in terms of precision rather than desire.

Of course, we know the tension that results when dreamers encounter one of these big, immovable objects. Too many  emerging leaders have given up on established businesses, churches or organizations and fled to start their own where they could dream, innovate and bring about the change they long for. But established organizations need dreamers and innovators lest we become dinosaurs.

What’s the solution? I think Carucci hits on a good start: “Dream first, set targets later.” I like that approach to planning. We should include a time for dreaming before getting down to process and rigid goal-setting. Leadership IQ wrote an article called, “Are SMART Goals Dumb?” in which they challenged the traditional view of goal-setting: to create goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. The data shows that there’s a better way to create goals that will be implemented. Make sure they’re HARD:

  • Heartfelt – My goals will enrich the lives of someone besides me — customers, the community, etc.
  • Animated – I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I accomplish my goals.
  • Required – My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.
  • Difficult – I will have to learn new skills and leave my comfort zone to achieve my assigned goals for this year.

Picture the end. How great it will feel. Leave my comfort zone. Not the traditional way we approach goals, but the territory of dreamers. Start with a vision of the future and then set targets toward making it reality.

Second, be sure to leave room in your business model for waste. Experimentation and learning are not always easy on the bottom line. For that matter, it’s almost always easier and more efficient to do things yourself than to pass on your knowledge. But a truly healthy organization is like a family. You have to be passing on and empowering the next generation. They’re going to make mistakes, and they’re going to waste resources as they experiment. Then, one day, they’re going to make a discovery that we “adults” never saw. That’s the way with innovation.

Celebrating failure

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.

The package

We have the idea that the top leaders in an organization have to have “the package.” They have to have well-rounded leadership ability, a lengthy track record of success at every level and a long list of desirable characteristics paired with a very short list of weaknesses. When we look for that kind of well-roundedness, I think we’re playing it safe. Leaders like those are not only hard to come by, but they don’t come with as much upside. It’s about risk management rather than seeking to make huge gains for the kingdom.

The result is that most innovations in a large organization don’t come from the top; they come from risky individuals not trusted with leadership whose ideas are embraced and supported from the top. The way to make that strategy work is to invert the pyramid and have the leaders support those ideas. I’m not saying that is a bad idea at all. But too many leaders shut down the good ideas and the radicals before they get a chance. Consider the movie Braveheart, where the leaders withheld support for William Wallace time after time until he led his own revolution.

Most organizations are founded by radicals and then stewarded by “packages.”

As Eddie Gibbs says in Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture:

It is sobering to reflect that the most conservative institutions in the church today began as radical movements at their inception. Yesterday’s radical leaders become today’s conservatives who are seldom prepared to pay the high price of innovation a second time around.

What if, instead, we looked for people who couldn’t do everything, but would assemble a team around them to cover their obvious blind spots? What if we found roles for single-strength afficionados? What if we interviewed using questions focused on evidence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life and awe at what Christ has done to transform them? What if we looked for failure and loss in a candidate’s life and asked what God had done to redeem those situations? What if we looked for weaknesses through the lens of how Christ has and could show his strength?

I have to admit I’m not comfortable with this way of working. Comfort is risk-averse. I like “packages” as much as the next person. In fact, I desire to be a “package.” And I am afraid of the Holy Spirit. He’s unpredictable and too often challenges my comfort. I think to take bold action with an organization requires a crisis, a point when motivation becomes stronger than resistance or reticence. More and more, I think these are times when bold action is required.