Category : Innovation

Supergirl

Myths and privileges

 

I hear a lot of stories talking with people about being a Rebel at Work.

Many people are angry at not being heard. Some are sad that their organizations are on a bad downward spiral, with management rallying around what no longer works. Others have checked out of work and checked into being complacent and “just getting the paycheck.”

For a while the complacent ones got to me the most. To go to work every day and not give a rat’s ass just seems like giving up on life itself.

And the cynicism? Scorching. It would be tough to work with someone with that kind of negative mindset.

But the stories that get to me the most are the people who don’t try to change anything because of the CHANGE MYTH. These people have come to believe — or been led to believe — that if you’re going to try to fix problems you need to be some sort of crusading take-no-prisoners, storm the ramparts hero.

You might imagine the type. A confident Steve Jobs wannabe talking about disruption, not backing down, pushing for “go big or go home.” The kind of person who doesn’t worry about failing, whether that means getting fired or quitting to find the next gig.

How did this change maker myth become so ingrained in our culture?

Has the Silicon Valley “failure is good” entrepreneurial spirit been taken as the way things work at work? Are people with good ideas becoming intimidated about stepping up because they are not Steve Jobs wannabes and they are afraid to fail and lose their jobs?

Last week Jen Meyers sent these two tweets that acknowledged the myth and, more importantly, acknowledged the fact that most people making change are doing so thoughtfully within the rules and corporate culture.

Jen Meyers Privilege jpeg

Because that’s how so much change happens. Bit by bit. Working with our co-workers vs. leaping from tall buildings in superhero change-maker capes.

If you’re a disruptor and get fired, your big idea dies. So much for heroism.

Whereas if you get smarter about working within the existing organizational culture, your idea actually has a better chance of happening. And you have a better chance of keeping your job.

(Because if we’re honest like Jen, we know that most of us can’t afford to walk away from our jobs. It’s not that simple.)

So maybe it’s useful to remember that having a good idea is easy. Being able to work with people willing to do the hard work to shepherd that idea through corporate politics, budget conflicts, and the often-messy roll out is a privilege.

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PS — note Jen’s apt Twitter handle: @anitheroine. Nice

12 things I learned during BIF9

BIF9

There is one week every September where I fully immerse myself  in ideas, possibilities and new people. Last week I attended the Business Innovation Factory’s annual innovation conference. Here’s what I learned and was reminded of:

1. Show up more.  (Or better, always.)

When we lay bare our vulnerabilities and dreams, we connect with people in rich ways. As author and venture capitalist Whitney Johnson said, “There are no regrets when you show up, and when you show up your dreams can find you.  Dreaming is at the heart of disruptive innovation.”

 

2. Good questions start good ideas. 

I’ve attended every BIF conference and have noticed that innovators ask good questions, and those questions get people thinking in new ways. One of my favorites this year were what educator  Angela Maiers uses to challenge high school students as part of the Choose2Matter movement: What breaks your heart about the world?  What can you do about that? What do you need?

 

3. Do the work, the path will appear.

Food geek Scott Heimendinger kept his day job in technology and on weekends and nights wrote a food blog and started experimenting with sous vide cooking.  Acknowledging that it’s OK to be risk averse, which he is, Scott just kept working away on his love for molecular gastronomy as a side project.  Eventually, he found his new path as director of applied research at The Cooking Lab.  Innovators just start without knowing what the outcomes should or will be.

 

4. Nothing is too big to change.

Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, has created a new higher ed approach, aimed particularly for disadvantaged, often marginalized adults who want to get ahead at work. For just $1,250 people can earn an associate’s degree and learn the competencies they need to get a promotion and access the social mobility needed to have a better life.   Rather than tweaking the traditional higher ed model or continuing to engage in side issues  like student loan rates, SNHU created a new model that goes to the root issues: people want to learn competencies in new, affordable ways so that they can get better jobs  FYI: Fast Company has named SNHU one of the worlds’ 50 most innovative companies.

 

5. Oh, God.

Speaking of not being too big to change. Just as Pope Francis’ stunning interview urging The Catholic Cburch  to preach more about mercy and less about dogma was published  last week (Hallelujah!), Rabbi Irwin Kula was speaking on stage about the urgent need to un-bundle wisdom and practices from the people who own them, and to make sure that our moral enhancements keep pace with technological enhancements. “Religion is just a tool box,” he said. “It’s time to consider blending practices from all religions and make love and empathy the source of what we are designing for the world.”  Amen.

 

6. “A network is worthless if you do not give it away.” 

The wise and generous innovation adviser Deb Mills-Scofield reminded people that it matters not how large or extensive your network is if you do not use it for good, sharing it with others to open up possibilities for them.

 

7. The fastest way to change is…

The easiest and fastest way to create more innovation in an organization is to accelerate generation change, said Bruce Nussbaum, former Business Week editor and now professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons The New School of Design.  My thought: how do we help Baby Boomers share their wisdom and transition to new roles so that younger people can step in and create more of the change that is so needed?

 

8. Sleep is not over-rated.

Towards the end of the week after many consecutive 16-hour days of intense listening and provocative conversations, I was reminded of how much I value sleep and quiet think time.

 

9. Optimism is the greatest form of rebellion.

The huge value of empowering the rebels inside organizations seemed to resonate with many, as did Carmen Medina‘s belief that optimism is the greatest form of rebellion and positive change. Rebels at Work see possibilities, not insolvable problems.

 

10.  Oh joy...

Playfulness, joy and unexpected silliness are essential to our humanity. Erminio Pinque, founder Big Nazo Lab, creates big, funky, life-sized foam creatures for parades and for their own special Big Nazo Shows. Erminio told me that the surprise of the creatures and costumes opens people up to being people. While going through airport security recently, the  TSA screeners pulled the foam creature masks out of the suitcase and yelled across to  their colleagues, “Hey Joe. Check this out.”  Everyone in line forgot their frustrations and frantic schedules and laughed together. Like children in awe of the world’s wondrous surprises.

 

11. Digital handshake, in-person hug

Tim McDonald, director of communities for the HuffingtonPost, and I sat together during the conference. As we said our goodbyes he gave me a big bear hug and explained that he sees meeting people via social media as “the real world,” and when he gets to meet them physically he likes to give big hugs.  I love his approach to digital handshake, in-person hug. Talk about connecting.

 

12. Control is for beginners.

 

The life of  Carl Stormer‘s wife was upended when she had a massive stroke at age 43, and they learned to keep going and find meaning in a life that is not what one would choose.  Carl’s wife believes that control is for beginners.  And that, dear friends, was my greatest takeaway of an intense week of learning.

 

 

What a question

Every once in a great while you hear  a question that changes how you look at things, how you approach strategy, design, marketing, innovation, and maybe even your own life. Here’s one that’s rocking my thinking:

“Who do you want your customers* to become?”

 

In his book of the same name, MIT’s Michael Schrage says, “Successful innovators don’t just ask customers and clients to do something different, they ask them to become something different.”

Who do you want your customers to becomeBecause customers are always changing, strategy shouldn’t focus on existing customers but on who tomorrow’s customers will — and should — be, and then designing our offers to help the customer become that person. To realize new attitudes, behaviors, values, and habits.

  • Facebook asks users to become more open about sharing their personal information.
  • Disney helps little girls become princesses. Amazon has asked people to become different kinds of shoppers.
  • Google has asked us to  become impatient searchers who demand speed. Social business is asking us to share and tap into our collective intelligence.
  • My Rebels at Work movement is asking people to stand up and lead change within organizations.
  • Uber is asking us to demand lower costs and easier booking for chauffeured transportation.
  • The Khan Academy is asking us to rethink teachers as tutors and coaches.
  • Bobbi Brown is asking us to keep our make-up simple and easy.
  • FedEx is asking small businesses to consider the world their market, not just their local countries.

Once you articulate The Ask, you can more clearly see what you need to do to help your customers  become someone different. This becomes the strategy discussion.

Schrage notes that few company vision statements address the customer. Most are about the company and provide little direction on how to  add value to the customer.  “A customer vision statement, explicitly identifies the qualities and attributes the organization aspires to create in its customers.”

* Note that you could insert client, boss, donor, citizens, association members and other types of customers into this question. How do you want to transform that group of people? How will they benefit?  Do the benefits offset what they’ll need to do to transform?

Schrage’s short and provocative ebook is available on Amazon for $3.03. It’s a must-read, and its question is a must-ask.

Tight pants

By last Friday afternoon I was exhausted, having worked on an especially rebel-worthy assignment.

This meant I had to maneuver around Bureaucratic Black Belts (BBBs) and move people off assumptions that they were willing to fight (me) for. All very congenial, but intense nevertheless.

It also meant that I had to find ways to help people see a better way, be confident while also being honest about the uncertainties, and remain steadfast and open-minded.

Talk about paradox. Can I also say once again how exhausted I was?

Two themes I find about change: there can be no progress without paradox, and leading change is often exhausting. Not always. But often.

On Friday afternoon a good friend was kind enough to listen to me talk about what had happened, and ask good questions to help me clarify the best next steps.  She also said, “You know, being a rebel is a lot like what Terry Pearce said in his book Leading Out Loud.”

“There are many people who think they want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with two thousand pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar.”

Real rebels are not afraid stay in the ring.

Many of us also take long naps on the weekend.

Facilitating healthy dissent

When we corporate rebels (aka intrapreneurs) disagree, it signals we care about an issue. That we want to wrestle with it to find better approaches. So why do people so often try to shut us down?

Many people think disagreeing means that we’re being unkind and insensitive.  Or impolite. (Egads!) “Let’s take this off line,” they say.

What’s unkind to me is pretending an uncomfortable issue doesn’t exist when everyone knows it does. There’s a tension at work when this happens. Nothing is moving forward, corporate inertia is draining us, and we’re becoming ever more skeptical about the cry for  greater collaboration.

Furthermore, the longer an issue is ignored, the more frustrated and demoralized people become. Even worse, trust and respect among people erode. And when that’s gone, the organization gets crippled.

“When someone comes to a meeting and states an opinion or makes a suggestion that his teammates don’t agree with, those teammates have a choice: they can explain their disagreement and work through it, or they can withhold their opinion and allow themselves to quietly lose respect for their colleague,” says organizational health consultant Patrick Lencioni in his excellent book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.

“When team members get to choose the latter option — withholding their opinions — frustration inevitably sets in. Essentially, they’re deciding to tolerate their colleague rather than trust him.”

More than most, we rebels see healthy dissent as a team sport, where everyone with something to contribute is expected to contribute. If you don’t speak up your silence can be interpreted to mean that you agree and have nothing to add.

We view dissent as a way of together getting stronger, like a team preparing to hike Mt. Everest. All the potential issues are honestly discussed and worked through to increase the likelihood of a successful expedition where no one gets hurt. We’re fed by the positive energy around these conversations. We appreciate and value what our colleagues have to say.

We also listen fiercely and ask frank questions.  It’s about inquiry vs. preaching.  But most organizations practice advocacy instead of inquiry in their conversations, say Sue Annis Hammond and Andrea Mayfield in The Thin Book of Naming Elephants.

“Advocacy is a win-lose form of communication…each person is trying to convince the other that he or she is right and there is only one right answer.  Dialogue assumes people see the world differently…each person assumes he or she can learn something new from others.”

Practices for inviting healthy conflict

So what can you do to move from advocacy to inquiry? To help foster healthy dissent vs. angry debates?  Here are some suggestions.

  1. Establish agreements: set some guiding principles at the start of a meeting and keep them posted on the wall as a reminder. If someone starts to violate an agreement, bring everyone’s attention back to the list on the wall. Here are some guiding principles that I have found helpful:
    • Judge ideas, not people.
    • Focus on solutions and ways forward; stay away from drama and problems.
    • Observations are more useful than opinions.
    • Let each person complete their thought; avoid interrupting.
    • Ask questions that illuminate, not interrogate.
    • Ask questions that are brief and to the point without adding background considerations and rationale, which make the question into a speech
    • Respect other people’s truths.
    • If you want your views to be heard speak now. Not later in backroom side conversations.
  2. Set the tone: Open the meeting by going around the room and asking everyone to respond to a soft but relevant question where there is no right or wrong answer. No one comments on what a person says, just respectfully listens. This helps to put people at ease, build personal connections, make sure everyone’s voice is heard, and get comfortable with listening.  I recently asked a group about  the most creative thing they had done outside of work in the past month. The answers were hilarious, and that laughter set a relaxing, collegial tone to dig into important issues.
  3. Set up what’s at risk: Frame the conversation by succinctly stating what’s at risk and why it’s so important to debate the issue and get everyone’s views.  This focuses the conversation and reminds people why it’s worth their time and honest input.
  4. Make sure you have enough time. Issues worthy of inquiry and debate usually require more than the typical one hour time allotment. One hour meetings are good for updates and touching base.  Strategic conversations where we value everyone’s involvement need more like three hours, maybe a even a day or more.
  5. Facilitate or use a facilitator.  Effective facilitators carefully listen, guide, inject good questions to open up new conversation veins, move people off dead horses, prevent any one person from hogging the conversation, help the group to recover if someone has said something hurtful, and adhere to the meeting agreements. If you are facilitating, know that it will be difficult to participate. As a participant you’re focused on the ideas not the meta conversation. Understand what role you’ll be playing, participant or facilitator.
  6. Ask the wind-down question. It usually gets to the real issues: About 30 minutes before the meeting is to end ask, “What hasn’t been said that should? Is there something you feel we’ve been avoiding?  If we never talked about this issue again, would you feel satisfied that we honestly examined all the important aspects of it? If not, what needs to be said?”  Inevitably someone speaks up and speaks the truth and the real conversation starts.
  7. Close with insights: After summarizing highlights and next steps, ask everyone to briefly respond to a closing question, which further respects views and makes sure voices are heard.  Possible closers might be:
  • How did your thinking on this issue shift?
  • What one thing did you find most useful from the discussion?
  • What was the high point of this discussion for you?

For more helpful ideas on facilitating healthy dissent, read Carmen’s post, “Advice for Managers: Do You Make It Easy for People to Disagree with You?”

A ridiculous 2013 strategy

“Mum, if you’re so interested in this folk metal band, why don’t you come to the concert with me on Friday night,” my 17-year-old son asked as we watched the band’s YouTube videos.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “All that screaming and headbanging and moshing. Do you know how old I am?”

Later that night I thought, why not? What might I learn if I went? Who might I meet and what kind of story might emerge?

The next morning I read a post by Seth Godin, “Ridiculous is the New Remarkable,” in which he wrote:

We can view the term ridiculous as an insult from the keeper of normal, a put-down from the person who seeks to maintain the status quo and avoid even the contemplation of failure.

Or we embrace ridiculous as the sign that maybe, just maybe, we’re being generous, daring, creative and silly. You know, remarkable.

Generous, daring, creative and silly?  Mmmmm.

Then yesterday a big city mayor’s chief of staff called and asked if I could lead a retreat the Saturday after Christmas for front-line city managers who are burned out and frustrated.  “Their jobs are never going to get easier, but maybe you could help them get re-energized and see that they’re part of something bigger.”

Again, my first thought was, “That’s ridiculous.  I planned on taking a week off. I have no time to get my head around this. I don’t know any of these people, and I’d be giving my time away.”

So I agreed to do it.

This afternoon I have a call with a former editor at Random House about editing a book that I’ve been too afraid to push out into the world, and yet feel needs to get into the world.  I’ve decided to self-publish the book, which seems ridiculous. Will anyone take it seriously if I self-publish?   With Guy Kawasaki’s new book  as my guide, I’m going to do it.  (The books is APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur: How To Publish Your Book.)

You see, I’ve decided to make “ridiculous” a strategy for 2013.

When presented with situations that my gut screams “RIDICULOUS!” I am going to say yes. Ridiculous will be a filter for  making decisions on how I spend my time, how I learn, and how I challenge my own assumptions.

Since I made this strategic decision yesterday, the year ahead feels quite exciting.  Perhaps even liberating.

People often ask me how I make decisions about my business and my own professional development.  In fact, last week someone asked about how I make decisions to support my “personal brand.”  I hope I didn’t offend the woman when I burst out laughing and then told her why I think obsessions around personal branding are self-limiting.  Perhaps I should write to her with a more considered response,  “My strategic filter for my career development in 2013 is ridiculousness.”

I don’t know where this adventure will take me, but I am confident I will learn much, laugh much, and become a more creative and empathetic person.

Warmest wishes for a holiday season that’s ridiculously happy and rich in  possibilities.

Lois

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Staying away from drama

Last month I  was in a board meeting that went off the rails.

The two-hour session devolved into conversations about personalities, systems limitations,  approval hold-ups by the legal department,  problems uncovered by market research, frustrations with the sales strategy, and a concluding “why do we keep talking about the same problems over and over?”

People left frustrated, exhausted and angry.  Not much of significance had been accomplished. Such a waste of time.

And no wonder. When conversations get pulled into the emotion of drama and problems our primitive brain takes over and shuts off our higher order intelligence, says Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence.   In other words, drama begets drama instead of any useful ideas on how to accomplish what’s at stake.

Interestingly I was in a recent academic meeting  focused on innovation and creativity that also fell into the rat hole of drama, problems, details, and more drama. Guess how creative and innovative that two hours turned out to be?

Quiet Leadership author David Rock suggests two practices that I find helpful.  Agree in meetings on where to focus the conversation: vision, planning, detail, problem and drama.  Wherever possible, keep all conversations focused on vision and planning. In this positive, low-anxiety mental state we’re better able to think fully and creatively

When you have to discuss detail, focus on one detail in a 10 minute chunk. After 10 minutes, we lose our ability to concentrate on that topic, says  John Medina, author of Brain Rules. “You’ve got seconds to grab someone’s attention and only 10 minutes to keep it. At 9 minutes and 59 seconds, something must be done to regain attention and restart the clock.”

I see another opportunity in staying focused on the bigger picture: it is in this positive frame of mind that we’re more able to disagree in productive, creative ways.   Because  our minds are calmer and we’re focused on shared goals in this mindset, we’re able to  intellectually consider and discuss  alternatives.  There’s a higher order of thinking that’s possible during this mental state, say the neuroscientists.

Once we get into drama and pointing fingers at people and problems, dissent becomes dangerous and unhelpful.

Not to mention that there’s no emotional energy left for compassion or creativity.

I’ve taken a new professional vow: keep the meetings I’m in focused on solutions, and out of drama and problems.  Want to join me?

Find the engine for change

Wonderful insight on change, creativity and collaboration from composer Philip Glass from last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine:

When I talk to young composers, I tell them, I know that you’re all worried about finding your voice. Actually you’re going to find your voice. By the time you’re 30, you’ll find it.

But that’s not the problem. The problem is getting rid of it. You have to find an engine for change.

And that’s what collaborative work does. Whatever we do together will make us different.

Jackson Pollock painting or chessboard?

Most institutions — be they governments, corporations, education or health care systems — try to run things as if they were playing chess, each move orderly, sequenced.

But today’s word is complex, more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a chessboard.

So Independent Diplomat Carne Ross suggested at last week’s BIF8 innovation conference.

In a complex system it’s almost impossible for top-down leaders to create order, hard as they may try. Order emerges in complex systems from the bottom up, said Carne.

This metaphor is quite powerful to me. Are we leaders fostering participatory environments for people to create the change needed to succeed in an increasingly complex world?  Or are we playing chess, with top down hierarchies moving the pieces?  (And with the  implicit assumption that executives know best?)  Are we saying we want creativity but requiring employees to paint by numbers?

Change is a-comin. Are we brave enough to let go of status and certainty and create new participatory ways to work, to innovate, to prosper?

CEO Nancy Schlichting: find the disruptive people

“Find the disruptive people in your organization. They have the ideas that will drive change,” said Nancy Schlichting, CEO of the Henry Ford Health System, a $4 billion healthcare organization with 23,000 employees.

Speaking at the BIF8 innovation conference last week in Providence, RI, Nancy shared what has helped her transform an ailing health care system and create innovations in health care such as a new  $360 million health and wellness facility that feels more like a luxury hotel than a hospital.

Transforming healthcare is all about leadership, she said. Her leadership approach focuses on creating an “incredible” environment for every person to reach their full potential.  How she has created such an  environment:

  • Making a large organization feel small.  When the board approached her about being CEO of the health care system she was reluctant to take it because she likes being involved with people and creating working environments that are positive, personal and open-minded. The board assured her that being CEO of a health care would not preclude how she like to lead.
  • Saying yes to unusual ideas, like an employee who wanted to be able to creating fun drawings  on the disposable gowns worn by the kidney dialysis staff. “This woman creates this amazing designs on her own time on the weekends. On Monday mornings the staff can’t wait to see what she has that week for them.”
  • Helping people who are disruptors. These, she says, are the people with the ideas that can help you change and transform. One example she shared: a surgeon who wanted to put health kiosks in churches in the Detroit community.  Doing so has been a hugely successful way to help people learn about health and wellness.
  • Hiring people in with non-traditional backgrounds to help you see things in new and different ways. “This is essential,” Nancy stressed. One example: she hired Gerard van Grinsven, a long time Ritz Carlton executive to be CEO of the new Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, even though Bernard had no health care experience. His “otherness” has been a significant reason the new hospital has been so successful in its ambitious goals. (Here’s a link to a video of Gerard sharing his story about going from high-end hotels to opening a hospital.
  • Bringing together different thinkers. Creative ideas happen at the intersections, said Nancy. Bringing different thinkers together across silos creates better ideas faster.

Hearing her talk I was reminding of the wonderful poem by Kaylin Haught, “God Says Yes To Me.”  Imagine if CEOs said yes, yes, yes to more of their employees, especially the disruptive corporate rebels?

Not only would organizations be able to innovate and change more quickly, a wonderful sense of joy would permeate the workplace — even in high-stress environments in struggling urban areas, like the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.

 

Autodesk CEO: 3 secrets for fostering innovation, teamwork

When asked by Adam Byrant, the New York Times “Corner Office” columnist, what he does to foster teamwork and innovation Autodesk CEO and President Carl Bass said he focuses on three things:

  1. Find people with different world views who are willing to challenge you.
  2. Create an environment where they can do that.
  3. Go out of your way to tell people that you want to hear their opinions.

In the recent interview, Bass said:

It’s not uncommon in meetings for me to say, when I know something is very controversial and important, “For the next 20 minutes, I want to hear from everybody.”  At the heart of it people have to take on and hold a point of view…I think one of the main roles for a leader is to get as many opinions as possible on the table.

I also appreciated Bass’ views on the need for leaders to set clear visions.

As CEO you’re the one who’s driving the bus. And if you’re erratic while you’re driving, everyone gets pretty nauseous. It’s really important to be as clear as you possibly  can be and not just wake up one day and say we’re going this way and the next day we’re going that way.

 

Mobilizing support by being disruptive

Last week I flipped through the University of New Hampshire alumni magazine when it came in the mail, scanning my class notes to see who died, re-married, got an interesting new job. Another page caught my eye. “Being Disruptive — in a Good Way”  by UNH president Mark Huddleston.

Mark explained that he had heard Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, speak at “The Future of Public Universities” conference — and that speech “wowed” him, and inspired him to begin creating a  disruptive new educational model for UNH. A model that would help more students learn — for less.

What if we allowed online instruction to provide, where appropriate, the foundational knowledge, and directed students’ time on campus toward learning activities that maximize the benefits of these mentor relationships?

As online instruction improves, might we not devote more class time to teaching methods that take real advantage of students’ time together, such as team projects, discussions and critiques?

The article went on to talk about UNH’s new eUNH initiative to identify ways to use online learning to improve teaching and help students progress faster.

Aside from being intrigued with disruptive models, here’s what I liked about Mark’s article. It mobilized me to want to write a check to support the university.

Few of us want to work for — or financially support —  organizations that are plodding along, doing the same things well. We want to be inspired by leaders and organizations that create new ways to support visions we care about.  And who have the courage, leadership skills and discipline to move forward despite often formidable opposition.

(Sadly, last April the New Hampshire chapter of the union American Association of University Professors gave a 129 to 72 “no confidence” vote in his leadership.  The change involved in disruptive innovation inevitably threatens some who would like things to continue as they have been.)

  • If you want to mobilize supporters, do more than more of the same.
  • When a leader has the courage to create disruptive models, step up and support him or her. It’s lonely being a game changer.

Now to write that check…

Safety first

One factor distinguishes corporate cultures where creativity, trust, progress and and expedient problem solving abound.  It’s safe to think differently, voice ideas that challenge the status quo, bring up the elephants hanging around the conference rooms.

If the environment doesn’t feel safe to employees, no amount of team-building exercises, awards for creativity, financial incentives for “employee suggestions,” or expensive organizational culture and/or innovation consultants will make a difference.

None.

As humans our brains are wired to perceive threats faster than our logical minds work. When we perceive these threats we retreat, just as we would run if someone were physically threatening us.  (For more on this topic, check out David Rock’s excellent book “Your Brain At Work.“)

People are afraid to speak up at work. They’re afraid they’ll sound dumb, make someone upset, get in trouble with their boss, maybe even get fired.  This fear not only stymies good ideas it can cause tragedy.

The story of  NASA’s Challenger space shuttle is legendary.  People were afraid to speak the truth. And those brave engineers who did were eventually over-ruled by senior executives whose emotions were tied up around fears about “looking bad.”  There were no ill intentions on anyone’s part. But clearly people didn’t feel safe dissenting forcefully enough to stop the shuttle, and the leaders were listening to logic and not hearing in-between the lines. They didn’t sense the engineers’ fears and concerns.  Listening to someone’s words but not the feelings expressed in those words  is half-listening.

11 ways to create safe organizational cultures

The challenge — dare I say leadership 101 requirement — is for leaders is  to create the conditions for safety, model that behavior, and require all leaders to do so as well.  Easier said than done.  We’ll dive into this in more detail in future posts, but here are 11  pragmatic ways to create safety in everyday work meetings and conversations.

  • Open meetings differently:  To encourage everyone to feel comfortable participating, open a meeting by going around and asking each person to comment briefly about the topic. I often ask people to share their insights and observations in a sentence or two.  No one comments on what the person has said, just respectfully listens as you go around the room (or on a conference call.) Two things happen. Everyone’s perspectives have already begun to be shared, even the shy types among us. By speaking and being listened to people are more likely to contribute again. It feels a bit safer already.
  • Focus on what you’re good at vs. problem fixation: when you convene a meeting or a brainstorm session to talk about problems, everyone comes to the table with a threatened mind-set. After all, if it’s a problem, someone’s responsible for it. In addition, the negative stimulates are threat brain triggers and shuts down our creative thinking. A valuable practice to learn is Appreciative Inquiry, which through a different path of questioning builds on a team or organization’s strengths.  To learn more about AI, check out the Appreciative Inquiry Commons, hosted by the Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. The book “Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Approach to Change” provides a great snapshot of the practice and its value.
  • Data vs. judging: before rushing to judge what a person is saying, stop. Consider the idea or opinion as a piece of data to be examined. Even if it makes your bile rise, there’s something to be understood in why the view is making you angry. Then apply a little empathy. What’s it like to be that person? Why is this important to him or her.  You’ll glean valuable insights by taking this approach. And you’re showing people that they can express ideas without someone dismissing them or biting their heads off. (Know, too  that we can send this “anger” message in our body language even if we don’t verbalize disagreement.)
  • Listen in between the lines for what’s being felt:  How people talk about something conveys more information than the words themselves.  As leaders, listen for the emotion beneath the words. Acknowledge those as real and important pieces of information. Acknowledge that anger, frustration, and other types of emotion are real and part of our work. “You must be getting pretty tired and frustrated from trying to get people to buy into this. What kind of help do you need?”
  • Don’t let titles interfere: people are no smarter or less smart because of their title. Focus on the purpose to be achieved and listen and value everyone’s ideas.  Then focus on the idea —  before worrying whether Mr. Big Title will like it or not.  Also  invite more diverse people and thinking into meetings. Too often meetings are convened for people with the same titles. This is for directors. This is for senior vice presidents. This is for Level 4 professionals. The same groups can get stuck in a rut. Mix it up.
  • Suspend certainty:  This is the cousin of judging vs. data.  If you make it a practice to challenge thinking and explore possibilities, it gets safe for people to think more expansively and creatively. If you don’t have to be “right,” you free up that pre-frontal cortex to make new connections and see previously unseen patterns. This is how insights and “aha’s” happen.  Certainty confines, asking us not to create art but to paint by numbers.
  • Don’t worry about getting through the agenda: Getting through the agenda doesn’t mean the meeting succeeded.  The question for all meetings is “what do we want to accomplish?”  Digressing from the agenda is often the best way to get there. I was recently leading a meeting and after the opening where everyone shared their “insights and observations” from the previous meeting, we had landed on what we needed to do next. The meeting had been scheduled for two hours. We were done in 45 minutes. The only agenda item we covered was “introductions.” Yet real progress was made. Everyone felt good.
  • What hasn’t been said that should? This is a great question to ask at the end of a meeting. Sometimes people are sitting quietly stewing, or feeling afraid of raising a point. By inviting people to speak up, you often get to the real conversations that need to be had.
  • Look at dissent as learning: When people disagree they are not being difficult. They are raising a different view.  Too often our reaction is to shut them down, get back to the nice flow of agreement and gentle progress.  Insights come from dissent. It’s a powerful way of learning. Help make it safe for people to disagree by sharing a few agreements such as, “it’s OK to challenge ideas, policies and opinions but it’s not OK to attack people.”
  • Ask good questions. Good questions guide good conversations.  Good, provocative questions and respectful listening not only create meaningful conversations, they make it safe for more people to participate in those conversations.  A helpful resource is this  booklet “The Art of Powerful Questions,” by the brilliant folks who started The World Cafe.
  • Laugh more. Nothing is more welcoming and indicative of a safe, friendly environment than hearing people  laugh.

 

GE Innovation Barometer: put on the cape

More creative people is the largest factor in spurring innovation, according to this insightful GE Innovation Barometer 2012 infographic. Play with the chart and see what most spurs innovation in different global regions and countries. Yup. Creative people is almost twice as more important than any other dimension.

Where do you find more creative people to help your company grow?  You most likely have the people, but you probably need to adjust your corporate culture and processes to allow them to be much more creative.  Some ideas to consider. None require big budgets, just slightly different ways to work.

  • Ask questions that light people’s ideas. Ask your people one provocative question at the end of the week. Could be by email. At a kiosk outside the cafeteria or in the lobby. People love good questions and they want to be heard. As a leader you’ll learn much about the organization and your people — how to be a good servant leader, how to help them do more of what’s working, how to create a feeling of pride and possibility. Good questions trigger creativity.  To help spur creative thinking, do the heavy lifting of creating good questions that help people start thinking differently. Some ideas:
  • What went really well this week?
  • What surprised you this week?
  • What are you most proud of this week?
  • Who deserves an “A” on our team this week?
  • If this week were a song, what would it be?
  • What else could we have done?
  • What helped you?
  • What did you learn?

 

  • Put on the Cape (or grab a wand):  It takes bravery to bring up topics no one else is yet talking about. It’s scary to suggest new ideas. So as a leader, make it safe for people to suggest new ideas and to do things differently. Maybe occasionally wear a red superhero cape to show that you really value courage and fearlessness. Once as president of a company I walked into the Friday staff meeting not in my Giorgio Armani suit, but dressed up as a fairy queen, with crown and magic wand.  Many years later I still have the wand. That one morning where I acted so out of character broke the ice during a challenging time. People loosened up, laughed, trusted and started to believe anything might be possible. Oh, and they all still talk about that day and what it meant.
  • Put two chairs in your lobby. Four years ago I heard about a Midwest retailer that put two chairs in its lobby with a sign for “topic of the day.” What the ???? But then people sat down, talked and talked about ideas that matter.  Read here for more.  I love social media and Skype but sometimes there’s nothing like a friendly in-person conversation.
  • No PowerPoint in meetings. Ever. Send those numbing slide ahead of time to be read. But when people get together, use that precious time to have conversations that invite all present to share ideas, connect as people in thinking and caring ways, and together talk about how you can do more of what your company does so well. (Note: talking about positive — doing more of what’s great, also creates a better environment for creativity than “problem solving.”)

There’s much more to share. But for now know that you have incredible potential in your organization.  I see untapped magic and talent all the time.  People are waiting to be invited to do more in more new ways. As leaders, help your repressed creative souls break free.  It’s the only way to innovate all the time, in small ways and big.

What one thing could you do next week to make your organization a more welcoming creative place?

 

 

Keep this channel open

Agnes DeMille was talking to fellow dancer and choreographer Martha Graham in 1943, worrying that her recent success with Oklahoma! was unwarranted. DeMille wanted her work to be great, but questioned whether she could live up to her hopes.

The story goes that the generous and genius Martha Graham turned quietly to DeMille gave her this advice.  Advice that perhaps all we innovators, rebels and passionate professionals should take to heart.

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.

And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions.

It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.

You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you.

Keep the channel open.

Why leaders subconsciously reject change

When our brain senses that our status is being threatened, our thinking shuts down.  We avoid the person or situation making us feel so uncomfortable, and we often stay away from any activity or idea about which we’re not confident. Worse, we label the other person as “wrong” so we can be “right.”

We don’t necessarily do this consciously. It’s just our brains’ natural response when our status is under attack, say the neuroscientists.

So when  corporate rebels and mavericks challenge an organization’s status quo and executive decisions, leaders’ brains go on high-alert. Their decisions, their plans, their position feel threatened and under attack. The neuroscience research says this threat to status activates the same brain regions as physical pain.

The leaders’ knee-jerk reaction is often to label the people with the fresh new ideas as troublemakers. Or not having enough experience to really know what they’re talking about. And jeez, that kid isn’t even a manager, what could she  know? (See how put downs can make you feel better and restore your status?)

Guess what this reaction does to people with the fresh ideas that you need to lead? They run for the hills. Maybe they try to approach you or another executive again, but you’re likely not to welcome what they have to say.  Through words, tone or body language you broadcast the message throughout your organization: your ideas are NOT WELCOME.

And then you wonder why the culture isn’t more innovative and creative. Why too few people speak up with substantive comments at meetings.  Why it seems like you’re the only one with the answers.

Time to get your brain in line and recognize your “threat” triggers so that you can control them —  instead of them controlling you.

Who needs to change their ways: leaders or rebels?

Some executives have told me that “rebels and change agents need to learn how business works. You can’t just disrupt things and expect everyone to change.”

But should the corporate rebels be the ones to have to adapt their style? Or should leaders find ways to better understand how to control their threat triggers so that they can create a safe, welcoming climate for new ideas?

To me, this is the responsibility of the leader. All people can benefit from understanding and managing what trips them up. But with the prestige and financial compensation of being a leader comes the responsibility for first and foremost managing oneself. So your head is ready to be in the game of leading.

Humility and reappraising

This is why so many great leaders are humble. Humility reduces the status threat. It puts people at ease talking with you. It clears the leader’s mind of emotion so that he or she can really understand what people are saying.

Another way to manage the brain is to reappraise situations that start to trigger your emotions. What’s  the other person’s perspective? What does he want me to understand? What does she want me to do and why?  Look at what’s being said as data and nothing more.

Economic and competitive threats are relentless, causing their own set of threats and associated behavioral responses. But to succeed companies need new ideas and the best ideas are likely to come from the rebels and mavericks inside your own organization.

As a leader, help those people who can most help you succeed. Even if they make you uncomfortable. Maybe especially because they make you uncomfortable.

Help yourself by seeing challenges to the status quo as possibilities not attacks on your position.

Effective corporate rebels turn to one another

People who change the world in small and big ways, rebel FOR change they believe will make a difference.  They are also keen observers and want to work with others to make the possible real. Over the holidays I had the luxurious pleasure of re-reading author and leadership activist Margaret Wheatley’s book Turning To One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future.

Here’s an excerpt that captures the behaviors of those with a desire to lead.

Turning to one another

Ask “what’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?”  Keep asking. Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

  • Talk to people you know.
  • Talk to people you don’t know.
  • Talk to people you never talk to.

Be intrigued by the differences you hear.

  • Expect to be surprised.
  • Treasure curiosity more than certainty.

Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.

  • Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
  • Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.  Real listening always brings people closer together.

Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.

Rely on human goodness. Stay together.

Margaret Wheatley

Social IT revolution calling for new ways to lead

New York Times columnist and author Tom Friedman had a fascinating article in yesterday’s paper about the United States’ two current revolutions — Wall St. and Silicon Valley. In the article Friedman includes Marc Benioff’s description of the IT revolution, which he calls SOCIAL.

  • S = speed
  • O = open. “If you don’t have an open environment inside your company or country, these new tools will blow you wide open.”
  • C = collaboration. “This revolution enables people to organize themselves within companies and societies into loosely coupled teams to take on any kind of challenge — from designing a new product to taking down a government.”
  • I = individuals. “People are able to reach around the globe to start something or collaborate on something farther, faster, deeper, cheaper than ever before — as individuals.”
  • A = alignment. “The power of social media is that it is easier than ever to both articulate, and reinforce, the vision and values that create and inspire alignment.”
  • L = leadership. “In a SOCIAL world leadership has to be a mix of bottom-up and top-down. Leaders need to inspire, enable, and empower everything coming up from below in a company or a social movement and then edit and sculpt it into a vision from above into a final product.”

From my observation working with large organizations, the greatest opportunity — and challenge — for companies is the Land the A. The I’s seem to be quickly  adopting the S, O and C.

As companies plan to roll-out internal social collaboration platforms like Sharepoint, Newsgator and Jive, they worry a lot about putting rules and guidelines around what employees can and cannot do.  Many fear what might happen if employees can connect freely. How are we going to prevent “them” from saying or doing inappropriate things, they ponder.

The bigger question to me is how is social changing how we lead? 

  • How are we going to help and recognize managers to do and say more appropriate things that will make a difference to business outcomes?
  • What new competencies will help managers tap into the extraordinary potential value?
  • What traditional management practices are no longer as relevant — and what is emerging as more relevant?
  • What might be possible if leaders were more passionate, and less fearful about SOCIAL?