There are three elements of creating meaningful change — whether it’s developing a new product or transforming a government agency or business function. This presentation highlights how to Dream, Discover and Deliver, and gives you a heads up about practices to embrace and pitfalls to avoid.
I’ve heard people rave about the SXSW Interactive, Film and Music conference for years, and never understood why it’s such a cult-like experience. Though I hate huge crowds, long lines, and managed chaos, I found the people and ideas absolutely fascinating in their diversity, honesty and generosity. While I bumped into a couple of people who missed the point and were shilling their companies, most people were there to learn, share, question, and play. No doubt, the playfulness created the conditions for learning much.
Oh brother, after five days I became sucked into the cult. I may never be able to go to a typical business conference again.
Here’s a summary of my SXSW highlights:
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.
Two weeks ago I was leading an American Marketing Association workshop about how to gain approval and adoption of new ideas. We covered the first four items on the following list through a series exercises and then I asked everyone which of #5 – 10 they most wanted to spend time on.
1. What’s at stake?
2. Make the status quo unappealing
3. Use the SCARF model
4. Uncover the hidden motives
5. It’s an experiment
6. What’s the real issue?
7. Move away from drama
8. Befriend the Bureaucratic Black Belts
9. Stay under the radar
10. Know when to quit
People loved #10. I have to confess I was surprised and perhaps not prepared enough. How do you know when it’s time to let an idea go? Or stop trying to get a project funded? Or get people interested in adopting a new way? Or even leave a job?
Here’s what I suggested:
- Rate importance: Ask your boss or client how important a particular project is to them on a scale of 1 – 10. If it’s below six, it’s just not that important. At this point you’ll probably have a hard time getting it to 9 or 10. If they say 7 or 8, ask them what it what would make it a 9 or 10. Then listen very carefully.
- Just ask: “We’ve been talking about this idea for a while, but it doesn’t seem to be moving ahead. I think it helps us (insert important organizational goal). What do you think is holding it back? What advice can you give me?”
- Is the energy waning? Do fewer people show up for meetings about the idea? Is the idea put early on the agenda (probably still interested) or last (if we don’t get to it, no big deal.)? Is it even on management meeting agendas?
- Not performance objective worthy: If you set your annual performance objectives and your boss doesn’t view your big idea as an important for your objectives, he or she doesn’t think the idea is important.
- How much are your colleagues willing to help? If your work friends just aren’t into helping you with the idea, it may signal that they don’t see the value of it. Another sign that it may be time to quit the idea.
- Are you becoming not yourself? If you’re starting to be angry, judgmental or righteous, this might be a sign that it’s time to let go.
Yogi Berra allegedly once said, “If the people don’t want to come, there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”
Sometimes the time isn’t right for an idea. We rebel thinkers work ahead of most people, and it takes a while for them to catch up with our ideas. Sometimes you just need to wait a while and reintroduce the idea.
Sometimes you may need to more clearly communicate the value and relevance of the idea. It’s easy after a while to get so down into the weeds of how a project or idea will work that people have forgotten why it’s such a good idea in the first place. (Go to #1 on the list: show them what’s at stake, what the idea makes possible and how that’s so much better than what exists today.)
Don’t beat yourself up or take on all that failure language or people will begin to see you as a problem person vs. the creative person who knows how to come up with great ideas.
Even if this was the greatest idea you think you’ve ever developed, know that there will be more great ideas. Creativity doesn’t stop.
Unless, of course, you spend all your energy hanging on too long to an idea no one cares about.
When your horse dies, get off.
“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.
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?
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.
Why do rebel thinkers so often feel miserable inside of their organizations?
Three overwhelming reasons. Restlessness, loneliness, and self-doubt.
We’re a restless bunch, always seeing new ways to do things better, easier, faster, better. Yes, I say better twice because we’re wired to keep raising the bar on excellence. Needless to say our ideas and relentless energy often exhaust or threaten our colleagues and bosses. So people often keep us at arm’s length, even those who appreciate the value we bring. This can feel lonely and lead to self-doubt, “Why aren’t they moving now on this idea? Am I off base? Am I not communicating the value well enough? Is it me or is it the idea? Why can’t I just slow down and take it more slowly like everyone else? Do I belong in this organization?”
What value do most rebel thinkers bring to the table?
Rebels have the courage to name the elephants in the room, see new ways to solve problems, bring outside ideas into the organization, and be the first to try new approaches. My research has found that rebels call out problems others are afraid to (92%) and challenge assumptions and sacred cow practices (92%), both of which are essential to real innovation, but often shunned in organizations.
The other overlooked value rebels bring is devotion to duty. Rebels care more about their organizations than most people. That’s why we ask the difficult questions that most people feel more comfortable avoiding, and risk being snubbed for suggesting unpopular ideas. We want our organizations to be the very best and we believe that our colleagues and we have what it takes to achieve more than our competitors.
(see the following chart for more)
We tend to trigger three threats that are wired into every person’s pre-frontal cortex, including those of our bosses. Our ideas often threaten managers’ sense of status, certainty and autonomy.
An overwhelming number of managers believe that they are supposed to create the strategy and have the answers — and employees are meant to execute on those ideas. Not question them. I’m the boss. I’ve got the senior vice president title. Hence, I know more and you should respect me for it. It sounds silly in this day and age of empowerment and collaboration, but protecting our status can lead all of us to act in illogical ways.
We humans are also wired to crave certainty. So when we rebels present innovative ideas that have no best practice precedents or haven’t been Six Sigma’d we trigger fears about certainty. Managers worry, “How will we know this will work? What if we make a mistake?” You get the picture.
The last threat is autonomy. Our managers like doing things their way. To suggest something different is to violate their sense of control and autonomy over what they know and like.
What are the consequences of not engaging with the rebel thinker?
Missed opportunities, a complacent corporate culture, and a talent deficit.
Rebel thinkers see risks and opportunities earlier than most people. This is a tremendously valuable competence in age of such rapid change and smaller windows to seize and capitalize on opportunities. One way to look at rebels is as your “intrapreneurs” bringing entrepreneurial thinking, speed, and competitive instincts inside the organization. They spot ideas and see ways to make them real.
The other consequences are that shutting out rebel thinking sends a signal to the organization that creativity, diversity of thinking and change are not welcome. When that happens, your best talent usually leaves, and the culture becomes complacent. Not rocking the boat. Accepting good enough as good enough. In today’s hyper competitive world, few organizations can survive with a “good enough” approach.
What is most surprising about corporate rebels?
Rebels are not motivated by formal recognition or financial incentives, nor are they “troublemakers.” They’re self-motivated to want to make a difference to their organization and to solve things that are not working as well as they could. My research found that just 27% want formal recognition. What they do want is to be asked their opinions more often and be invited to work on teams to solve specific issues. They don’t want to just talk about ideas, opportunities and problems, the want to make things happen.
The second surprising thing is how many closeted rebel thinkers there are in companies. People are yearning to do more – and they know more about what to do than most executive teams realize.
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.
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.
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?