Get addicted to curiosity

Feedback is dead. Long live feedback! Here’s some feedback for you: feedback is a red herring. Feedback is an elusive, somewhat repulsive, and sometimes destructive tactic to direct employees towards higher performance. Managers have been schooled for the past 25 years to make feedback a central aspect of their people practices, under the great intention of helping workers see where their efforts are on track and where they are not. It’s often presented under the guise of “development” where employees grow and improve in their careers by knowing what they are not doing right. For the most part, I believe these efforts are intended to help people perform better, but I think the whole concept of feedback is a wild goose chase… a fallacy built on outdated concepts of people and work.

Feedback is a machine language

The root of the problem is that most companies are designed in the industrial model of work where they don’t care much about what their people think of them. Henry Ford (who will serve as our poster child) is famously attributed with the quote “Check your brains at the gate” because he supposedly wanted people to simply follow established procedures and not mess up the assembly line. This worked really well back then to get consistency, scale, and efficiency but has some serious downsides for current organizations that depend on knowledge, creativity, and communication.

We’re now clearly beyond the Industrial Age and smack in the middle of the Idea Economy. And since ideas come from people (not machines), we should adjust our language and use better terms to describe how people behave while working together.

Feedback is for robots

According to Marshall Goldsmith, the top guru of the executive coaching world, there are only two problems with feedback: 1. People don’t want to hear it, and 2. People don’t want to give it. Well, that explains why we have formal processes and lots of rules to make sure feedback is given in a typical company. In his book, What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, Goldsmith provides lots of good advice and useful tips on how to manage feedback successfully. In it, he agrees that the term “feedback” should be changed, so he suggests we use “feed forward.” (Pardon me, and I mean no disrespect, but there’s got to be a better term.)

Feedback is not a human word—it’s a machine word. It emerged as a verb in the mid-1860s in descriptions of mechanical processes and in 1909, Physics Nobel laureate Karl Ferdinand Braun used the term “feed-back” as a noun to refer to undesired coupling between components of an electronic circuit. It jumped into the language of business organizations in the late 1970s as systems thinking began to influence management practices.

You might think it’s just semantics, but to get a more human and less robotic understanding of this situation, let’s start with the terms we use to describe key roles people play at work in a typical industrial organization: executive, manager and employee. Executives set direction, managers direct implementation, and employees accomplish tasks. This is a “top-down,” or hierarchical structure, that works exceptionally well when a market opportunity is clear, a product is established, and execution at scale is the primary function of the corporation. Feedback is what happens when a manager tells an employee that his work is not aligned with the plan. This is a method of control and mimics the operations of a mechanical process perfectly (i.e. a thermostat is a feedback mechanism for a furnace).

In business or life situations where creative output is required (i.e., direction is unknown or ambiguous, a sufficient answer has not been found to solve a problem, or existing tactics are no longer working effectively) a mechanical process is ineffective because there is nothing to control. These situations require human power to discover and invent a path forward—or create.

Curiosity is a positive addiction

So here’s another analysis of feedback. There’s only one problem with feedback: it doesn’t describe what creative people do at work. Creative people are curious. In fact, they are addicted to curiosity. They never stop asking questions and they use what they find out to explore the world, to learn and to grow. They can’t help themselves. As a direction is being laid out they get antsy and before you know it, their hands go up and a question blurts out. Growth is exciting and releases positive chemicals in your body that amp you up. Often the effect comes from a simple question like, “Why?” In a hierarchical organization, this is shut down and the person is considered a problem because they are challenging authority. In a creative organization, questions fuel forward progress.

Being curious is an easy thing to imagine yourself doing. Being concerned about doing a good job, helping others, and making a difference in the world comes naturally to most of us because they are fundamental desires of being human. On a more basic level, being curious about how you are perceived by others is key to social survival.

Here are some examples of questions curious people ask: What do you think? How can we make these things happen? Do you have any suggestions for how I could do this better?

Curiosity is something that is innate to everyone; it’s an attitude, a mindset, or a drive to explore and discover. However, being effectively curious does take some focus and practice.

Being effectively curious

First, recognize that you can be curious along a spectrum, from immediate to long-term, and the types of questions you might ask are different for each end of the spectrum. Immediate curiosity is “in the moment” and long-term curiosity is more reflective and periodic. In the moment, you ask very specific questions and explore options for next steps as a result of an immediate action. A question as simple as, “How does this feel to you?” will bring you new insights from others in the same moment. Or you can play a little game called “likes and wishes.” What do you like about this? What do you wish about this? The intent behind these types of questions is to explore and expand, not to confirm or deny. That’s being curious versus being defensive or obsessive.

Occasionally, you step back to see if you are making progress toward a longer-term goal by asking questions about patterns in your experience. This is the long-view about big picture things in your life or business. In this mode, you are asking, “Is this really what I should be doing with my time?”

Second, you need to make it easier for others to satisfy your curiosity. Nobody responds well to sharp inquisition or challenging questions without a little context. A question like, “Why’d you do that?” Can actually shut somebody down and provoke an answer like, “None of your business!” When you ask a question, help people answer you by expressing your goal, desire, or intent. This converts people to collaborators who are helping you solve a problem versus give you the answer. It also ensures that the advice you get is aligned with where you want to go. As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” Without some intention, you will get such a broad array of input from others that you can’t make sense of it.

Finally, recognize that sometimes people are shy about sharing their thoughts because they aren’t sure why you really need their advice, and there’s some social risk in their sharing critical opinions. What if you get offended and your relationship is damaged by their critique? What if they get a reputation for being a jerk? Or perhaps they haven’t noticed any issues with your approach, and they can’t think of anything to offer. So it’s very helpful to provide an invitation to the discussion. This serves as an opening in your own thinking and encourages others to offer more than a platitude like “looks good!”

You’ve probably heard someone ask, “How am I doing?” only to get a simple response like, “Fine!” This is not a valuable learning exchange, and the burden to improve it is on the asker of the question, not the provider of the answer. Curiosity drives you to a more involved exploration. If you want to know how you are doing, you have to help someone share her opinion in a sequence that leads to a meaningful exchange:

1. Express intent (I’m trying to…)

2. Disclose a concern (but I’m concerned that…)

3. Invite input (can you help with this?)

4. Explore with curiosity (how would you do it?)

Do this with several people and you’ll have a rich set of ideas to help you make good decisions and accomplish your goals, which will lead you to an ever-stronger addiction to curiosity.

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Grow or die

This is the irrefutable lesson of open systems, and an important key to understanding trends in your life.

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Open systems

First let’s establish the basic parts of an open system so I can easily refer to them throughout this post. An open system is any complex thing like a plant, animal, or organization. In each of these systems, there are sub-systems that interact among themselves (like breathing and blood flow, the sub-systems have components that do stuff (like lungs pulling oxygen from air), inputs to the system (like air), and outputs of the system (like bad breath). Inputs frequently have an impact on the outputs (like eating garlic), but sometimes are unrelated.

It’s important to remember that the environment surrounding a system changes over time, causing the system to deal with those changes by either adapting or ceasing to work. This circumstance is the basis of the statement, “grow or die.” Other words for growth might be adapt or evolve, but growth has the nice connotation of positive change and forward progress, so I like it better. What might be a good source of supply to a system today could totally disappear tomorrow, causing a complete breakdown of the system (like how jumping into a pool removes access to air for your lungs).

Or perhaps the inputs contain elements that are good and necessary (like oxygen) but also contain things that are harmful (like cigarette smoke or asbestos). Our lungs are able to process the good things and keep our bodies functioning well, but gradually the bad things reduce that capacity or grow into negative subsystems like cancer. Oxygen helps our bodies grow in size and capacity, but the negative elements reduce or limit that growth in trade-offs between good and bad.

So now let’s consider the idea of growth over time and science (i.e. the study of millions of open systems) gives us the S curve.

Growth curve of a bacteria colonyThe S-Curve is often referred to as the Growth Curve because the vertical axis represents the change in size, volume, or some other capacity as time moves forward on the horizontal axis. Consider this chart showing the growth of bacteria in several phases. In many open systems the stationary and decline stages stretch out over a long period of time and look more like a wave. There are alternating periods of growth and decline as the system adjusts to environmental changes like food or some other important input.

Humans can grow in so many different ways it’s hard to keep track of them all.  Our bodies grow physically from birth to adult maturity and ultimately death.  Our relationships grow from inception (did she just wink at me?) to maturity or demise.  Our understanding of the world grows from simple pattern recognition as babies begin to understand speech to complex reasoning and philosophical imagination as graduate students or senior researchers.  Together these aspects of being human combine to indicate our growth as a person.  A simple way to group them all is Mind, Body, and Spirit, remembering that these categories are interdependent, not operating on separate tracks.

Learning is growing

It’s pretty easy to understand how the growth curve applies to the Body aspects of our lives.  As babies, we start out tiny and grow exponentially, rather quickly until we get adult sized.  Then most of us alternate between being fatter and skinnier for the rest of our lives as we struggle with our food intake and exercise (output).  It might be harder to notice, but this same scenario plays out in our Mind and Spirit aspects as well.

The learning sub-system of us humans has components like your brain, your senses, and your emotions.  It has inputs like data, knowledge, information, advice, opinions, and sensory stimuli (like heat, texture, etc.).  And it has outputs like behavior, action, habit, opinion, advice and insight.  None of these examples is a complete list, but hopefully you get the point.

As babies and children we learn rapidly by taking in billions of data points and bits of information through their eyes and ears.  Then as students we read and listen and study to take in facts and information to deepen our understanding of the world.  Even as young professionals we still have to learn quickly to develop practical skills and insights about our chosen area of work.  Then after decades of constant learning we start to stabilize and gradually decline as our experience gets stale and the world around us starts to move on to new ideas and practices that we haven’t kept up with along the way.  We even call this aging process being “over the hill” which I think aptly describes tipping over to decline phase on the curve.

For nearly 800 generations of human history (about 60,000 years), our lifetime learning curve mapped pretty well to our lifetime body curve.   As we got older and started to decline physically, we could also retire and decline mentally.  The world around us wasn’t changing all that much so we didn’t really have to “relearn” anything in order to be at the top of the curve in a relatively stable phase.

But not any more!

According to Alvin Toffler in his seminal book, Future Shock we passed an inflection point in the rate of change in human culture towards the end of the last century.  At that point, people had to start relearning things and adapting to changes in our world or start falling behind rapidly.  Past the inflection point of technological change, we can no longer count on things we learned in childhood being true anymore.  We have to recheck things as science and technology advance human understanding and practices to new levels at an increasing rate of speed.

When my grandmother was born, people couldn’t fly.  When she died, there had been men on the moon.  When I was a kid, there was a planet called Pluto.  Now it’s not a planet.  The periodic table I memorized in high school had 106 elements, now it has 118.  My own kids have already seen unbelievable environmental changes in their lives resulting from mobile phones morphing into powerful computers with cameras.  My mom has an iPad and is the most active person on Facebook I know.  It makes her life better to connect with friends and family scattered all over world.  She doesn’t have to sit in her kitchen and wait for people to stop by, they can play Words With Friends together in different time zones and she can dial them up on video chat to see their smiling faces.  Instead of wishing for the “old times” and falling behind, she has learned new ways to interact and grown healthier as a result.

Toffler called the problem of relearning “shock” because adults were not prepared for rapid change and felt we would suffer in our reactions to it.  The adults of the Baby Boom may have been shocked, but I think people coming of age today are ready for constant change.  Our great ability to understand the world is a natural and agile open system.  The inputs may have changed, but our ability to process them into creative outputs is very resilient.

Breathe!

When you jump in a pool you have to hold your breath while you are under water or else you will drown. But if you realize you are stuck in the pool you come up for air and start to swim (or quickly learn how!).  This sink or swim reaction is a perfect example of grow or die.  So don’t hold your breath and hope the world will stop changing, take a breath and engage with all that is new around you so you can move up the curve not down it.

Sink or swim!

photo from Flickr: TX Erickson Family

 

 

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How to avoid the busy trap

 

Sand trap

Humans thrive when we get stuff done. But not just any old stuff, stuff that matters. People are born to create. And to accumulate results into a body of work they can be proud of. Conversely, we get depressed when we are simply “going through the motions” with repetitive or mundane tasks that just keep us busy. You’ve probably heard of “make work” which describes pointless tasks that keep someone busy but do not result in any progress towards something valuable. While keeping busy appears a lot like working, the lack of progress on anything meaningful is dispiriting.

Progress is the single most important event leading to positive inner work life, according to the Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School. She describes a positive “inner work life” as the continuous stream of emotions, perceptions, and motivations that people experience throughout their workdays. And we all know that a positive attitude leads to better efforts and better results.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who get paid for being busy, meaning their output is measured by activity not by value created. Busy people come in earlier, stay later, and never have time for chit-chat in the company kitchen. They are often admired for their work ethic, and praised for their heroic commitment to the company.

But being busy is a trap… as you put more and more effort into something you steadily get less and less out of it. And as you get less out of work you get bored, overwhelmed, sick, and tired. Working a 70-hour week is an amazing feat, but it doesn’t signify any sort of progress. This is a problem that is plaguing American businesses according to a recent study by Mercer consulting that noted, “Diminished loyalty and widespread apathy can undermine business performance, particularly as companies increasingly look to their workforces to drive productivity gains and spur innovation.”

Funny, I just realized the term business, is actually busy-ness.

Business is often managed with policies that force people to work during certain hours and count their vacation days, yet don’t acknowledge the evening or weekend when the employee has dedicated “extra hours” to complete a project or prepare for a big presentation. Business requires such policies because people don’t like to perform make-work.

But much of the work businesses accomplish is not make-work; it’s real work, just not that interesting or challenging. It’s routine, mundane, and predictable. And there’s not a lot of autonomy provided in routine jobs, which is another source of frustration. So are we supposed to submit to “the man” and punch the clock, work for the weekend, and find our joy outside of work? That’s not what successful people do.

A quality frame of mind comes from vision and focus

In order to get meaning out of work, you must have vision and focus. With vision and focus, every moment becomes a quest for quality. A quality frame of mind sparks your energy to engage in the difficulties of real work. As observed by Robert M. Pirsig, in his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, A person who sees quality and feels it as he works, is a person who cares.

The quality frame of mind is approached from another angle by Victor Frankel, who illustrates the power of personal choice in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. If a prisoner of war can find joy in a daily routine despite his most terrible circumstances, then I believe it’s possible for anyone to avoid the busy trap or become a victim of a bad job.

But how do you “see quality” as Pirsig suggests? First you have to know what you want from your work. Is it to pay bills? To learn something? To prove something? To fulfill an ambition or desire?

Simply “being present” in a work setting will not result in real work being accomplished. Answer this question and you will have an end in mind, which is habit #2 of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. But with the end in mind, you still must have the discipline to focus on only the things that carry you toward that vision.

Despite the value I find in Covey’s Seven Habits, I think for most people there’s still something missing. Vision and focus are necessary to meaningful work, but they are not sufficient to sustain long efforts or overcome difficult circumstances. There’s another more fundamental trait involved here called grit, which I’ve described before. And Jonah Leher of Wired magazine has a similar post.

In reading that post, I discovered a point I hadn’t noticed before in the U.Penn study, which is that many people find deliberate practice not fun. They have a hard time sticking to their planned routine and suddenly find themselves bored or tired, and ready to quit.

So even with a clear vision of what they want to accomplish, and despite great focus on doing the right things to get there, most people still end up in busy mode, going through the motions of routine tasks, but not making any progress (sigh).

Play it out!

According to play expert Brian Sutton-Smith, “Play (is) a kind of transcendence. Play is not just fun, not just pleasurable for its own sake. Play makes it possible to live more fully in the world, no matter how boring or painful or even dangerous ordinary reality might seem. Play is not the opposite of work it’s essential to work.

The successful people I know always say not to do things unless you are having fun doing them. And if you look closely at successful people, they do a lot of stuff that doesn’t seem very fun. So the secret here is not in picking fun work, it’s about making work fun. A grand vision is important to spark greatness, but for many people it’s too far away, too big, and too abstract to keep them energized through routine, repetitive or physically draining activity. A playful heart to go along with your quality mindset brings fun into any routine.

Playing while working is about having small goals built into routine tasks that lift your energies and light your soul. Craftspeople take pride in the precision of a cut, the straightness of an edge, or the smoothness of a surface. This is vision and focus at work. But having the grit to complete a huge floor with hundreds of cuts and thousands of repetitive arm swings takes playful energy.

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Play can simply be about practicing fundamental skills that will help you be a better person. Or it can be more like a game you play with yourself or a work mate to see who can “one up” the other. With a quality mindset and a playful heart, you can dig a hole for no other reason than to dig straighter walls and move bigger shovel loads at a faster pace. When you set parameters and add constraints to challenge yourself, boring work feels like fun a game.

Personal growth is a natural result of meaningful work

When you zoom in to the moment with a quality mindset and play it out during deliberate practice, even the dullest of activities becomes fully engaging, as every new cycle is slightly better than the previous one. You feel real progress and get better results. As I learned through my experience at IDEO, working in this way is a form of prototyping. And prototyping is a great method for discovering breakthrough ideas.

Prototyping yourself leads you to discover things about yourself you’ve never noticed before. These new discoveries are what I learned to call “Blinding Flashes of the Obvious” (BFO’s ) when I worked the ropes course circuit. In these unexpected moments, you catch yourself being yourself, which is the first step in personal growth.

This is an added bonus to avoiding the busy trap. You get better results in your work, but you also get a better self. And it’s fun along the way? What are you waiting for?!

ADDITIONAL NOTES:

Work:
English Wircan “to operate and to function.” Action involving effort or exertion…negative connotation has stuck with the word throughout the history of the word.

Also: a noun describing good deeds, a literary or musical composition.

Play:
Dutch Pleien “to dance, leap for joy, rejoice”… English plegian, “to exercise/frolic”
Amuse or divert. Carry out or practice, perform or execute a movement.

Fun:
Middle English fonnen “befool”… trick, cheat, hoax

Main point: Focus + Vision + Play = Meaningful Work

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Being Successfully Controversial

In a recent social media frenzy, I stumbled upon a great insight: the link between controversy and innovation. I had just finished my post about how innovation is a natural result of being human, and Lisa Kaye tweeted a quote from actress Eva Le Gallienne, stating that “Innovators are inevitably controversial.”  When I think of controversy, I immediately think of courage.

That same day, innovation guru Diego Rodriguez posted a TED talk by Bryan Stevenson encouraging us all to be courageous.  In his talk, Bryan touches on how we are all inspired by people who are the first to stand up, speak up, lead the way, draw a line, or refuse to budge on principle.  Rosa Parks was an icon of courage for civic innovation and equal rights.  John F. Kennedy was an icon of courage that spurred innovation in science and technology.  Ronald Reagan was an icon of courage for global unity.

Kennedy Space Center (Photo from Smalling Studios)

To make change, it is essential that we stand up for what we believe is right. Courage is one part vision of what could be and one part frustration with what is. Courage is the spark that ignites change and inspires others to join the process and tip from old to new.

Linking controversy and innovation makes it sound like innovation is a struggle against resistance.  Which gets me thinking about resistance as a strengthener.  People do push-ups, lift weights, carry medicine balls, or use elastic bands to build muscle.  You push against gravity to improve yourself.  So it makes sense that pushing against normal is a great way to improve the world.

Courage is only half of the equation

I’ve learned through many, many, many failed attempts, that courage is necessary, but not sufficient in successful innovation.  Courage is only half of the equation.  With only courage, you can come off as righteous, contrarian, or antagonistic.  A thorn in the side.  You face immediate rejection by the established way.  Succeeding only at creating more resistance. It’s really something to speak up, but not enough to leave it at that.  Controversy can end with polarization and gridlock (take the U.S. Congress… please!).  Or controversy can be the beginning of a better world.

The other half of the innovation equation is creativity.  By creativity, I’m not talking about the Crayola-artsy-black-turtle-neck type of creativity.  I’m talking about the well-that-didn’t-work-so-let’s-try-this type of creativity.  Lateral thinking that produces a never-ending stream of ideas and alternatives to test and explore until the right thing happens.  The way Thomas Edison tried hundreds of filament-gas-tube combinations to get the light bulb.  The way Abraham Lincoln tried running for office multiple times before finding his way to the Presidency.  They were successful innovators because they had both courage and creativity.

Against means together?

For most big problems, there is no silver bullet. No single invention.  Innovation is an unfolding, iterative, extended effort that takes place against the normal way of doing things.  So innovation is inevitably controversial, requiring us to act with both courage and creativity to achieve success.

As you may already know, “contra” is a Latin root meaning against.  And “verse” means turn. Literally, “turning against.”  Being interested in linguistics and natural human behavior, I poked around the origins of contra and found that the prefix con- is a variant of com– which means together.  This makes sense if you consider against in this usage: The ball is resting against the wall (they are sharing the same space together).

So perhaps controversial really means, “turning together.” And we humans are designed to work together and constantly improve our condition.

Bottom line: to be successfully controversial, consider your mission as a strengthening exercise you do with a bunch of other people, not a war against the other side you must win (or else!).

 

 

 

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Innovation is a natural result of being human

Our world is faced with a never-ending list of problems we’d all like solved. Some are massive public health and environmental issues that overwhelm us with their complexity. Some are daily nuisances that require simple adjustments in order to put things right. Big or small, complex or simple, when someone makes an improvement to a process, practice, tool or service, he/she is being innovative. Innovation is a natural result of being human. We humans are well-designed to solve problems and adapt to changes in our environment by actively “messing” with the resources we have on hand to improve our condition.

Caught in the rain (Darrell Wong/Fresno Bee)

Watch anyone adjust to an unexpected weather “situation” and you will see what I mean about innovation being core to human nature. People make hats and coats out of plastic bags or newspapers, wrap odd things around them to keep warm, and are suddenly willing to lose major style points when caught unprepared. One time my daughter came home from school and was locked out of the house. The day had been warm and sunny, so she had no coat, just a t-shirt and shorts. As the sun went down and it got colder, she got pretty uncomfortable. By the time I pulled into the driveway after work, she was huddled in a beach towel she had scrounged from the clothesline, and had buried herself under the cushions of our patio furniture. That’s making the most of the resources around you to improve your situation!

Another kid might have been curious about “alternative home entry methods” and found that the second floor porch door was unlocked. But in order to implement that strategy, she would have to be confident in her climbing abilities and weigh the discomfort of being cold against the risk of falling and getting seriously hurt. Given the low threat of hypothermia (her condition was uncomfortable, but not life threatening) I think she made a wise choice with the cushions and towel approach.

Innovation is not about making wild bets on the future or being a whacky creative who dreams fanciful ideas. It’s a careful assessment of where you are versus where you want to be, followed by a series of actions to close that gap. It doesn’t hurt to inject fanciful imagination (I’m sure my daughter was dreaming about a big warm fire or a fluffy comforter wrapped around her), because in those dreams we find the seeds of ideas we can actually implement.  Check out my previous post for a definition of these core skills.

Children are a great source of insight on our natural propensity for innovation. With less concern for negative social consequences, they are built to imagine and explore, and they do it all the time. My son plays with LEGOs on a near constant basis, and it’s amazing to watch his deep level of engagement as he sorts through hundreds of tiny plastic pieces to find just the right one for his latest project.

He’s built many LEGO models by following the prescribed approach in the instructions (he calls the booklets “maps”). His experience with those pre-built models has given him many core components to build on as he invents new structures. He knows how wheels go together, where a driver might sit, how to build a wing from scratch, and how to make a tower that won’t fall down. Mixing and matching these underlying components is a great way to jump-start a new idea or accidentally discover that there are more ways to build a spaceship than the “maps” tell you.

The keys in his natural innovativeness are his willingness to explore and his quick adjustment and continued effort when things don’t work out as imagined. When a structure is not built to handle real play, the feedback is immediate… it falls apart! His natural desire to play out-weighs his frustration with poor construction, so he keeps going.  But there are many times when he gets stuck, and in those moments the “magic” ingredient of innovation comes into play.  Humans are social, and we have a natural desire to help each other, so it’s not surprising that he asks for help almost immediately when he is stuck or frustrated.

The magic ingredient of innovation: asking for help

Sharing your problem with someone else when you are “stuck” brings new ideas and a renewed sense of excitement about what “could be”. When my son can’t figure out how to connect two awkward structures he asks his older sister (or basically anyone who’s within his vocal range) for help. At this moment he is ripe for coaching (motivated to complete his vision, frustrated by his own abilities to pull it off). I call “asking for help” the magic ingredient of innovation because it contradicts the dominant belief that invention (and subsequently innovation) result from a “lone genius” focusing on a problem nobody can solve. Surely, intense focus is a necessary component of complex problem solving, but it is rare that the answer comes from an isolated person devoid of input, discussion, or coaching.

The really big problems in our world require us to work together, applying our different perspectives, styles and modes of thinking to overcome their complexity.

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Be well. Work better.

When I think of wellness, I get images of Richard Simmons and Japanese workers in matching sweats during corporate exercise programs. Too bad. Unfortunately, wellness wound up marginalized as a silly fad in its first big corporate movement during the 70’s and hasn’t really recovered.

Not an inspiring image of wellness for most people!

Sure, there are lots of companies touting the value of perks in today’s world (my favorite is BetterWorks). But most people still shy away from the term wellness.   Well I think it’s the best word to define this successful human condition, so as Bono says, “I’m stealing it back.”

Physical health is only part of the equation

One of the big problems with wellness is that it’s so closely associated with physical health. But true wellness is a multidimensional issue involving your whole self, not just your body.  This is of course, not MY idea, but I’m focusing on it here because it’s such a misapplied aspect of being human by so many of us, and it’s so critical to sustainable high performance.

Abraham Maslow was on the right track with his Hierarchy of Needs, showing us that some needs are more fundamental than others, and that humans are motivated to get beyond the basics and become creators of good things in the world.  And it’s likely that people have explored the holy trinity of mind, body, and spirit from the beginning of time, but even that extension beyond “body” is incomplete.

Somehow in modern America we commonly reduce wellness to physical health, and make that a personal responsibility to take care of in isolation of work and family.  You go to a doctor when you are “sick” and he/she tells you what you should do to fix your body to regain health.  I don’t think many doctors prescribe social remedies, but the now famous Framingham Heart Study, effectively shows that health is highly dependent on social interactions.

A complete model of wellness

Based on discussions with thousands of people via research at IDEO and the YMCA, I’ve developed a simple way to evaluate wellness in a holistic way.  The model was developed from patterns that emerged when people were asked, “What makes you feel well?” Their responses were captured, and then categorized into these dimensions of wellness.  For another complete view of well being check out the Gallup model.

User defined dimensions of wellness

  • Wellness is individually defined (there is no prescribed “best state” for everyone).
  • Wellness has rhythm (sometimes you feel more well than others).
  • Wellness is about balancing choices (not applying a routine or formula).
  • Wellness is about control (for some it’s “in” and others it’s “out”).

A first principle of human centered organizations

From a business standpoint, employees with low levels of well being are far more expensive than those with high levels of well being.  But this “loss of work” cost based approach doesn’t even consider the “opportunity costs” of not being on top of your game on a regular basis.

Gary Hamel is leading the world to reconsider their fundamental models for organizing and leading people with his Business 2.0 Challenge.  He suggests that this process starts with rethinking principles, and I fully agree.  Furthermore, I’m suggesting that a fundamental principle of business success is individual well being, and it is a primary element of successful leadership to be well and to lead others to wellness.

So my call to action here is that businesses need to rethink their fundamental relationships with the people who work there.  If a holistic model of wellness is critical to high performance, then issues that are often considered “private” or “personal” in our traditional models of management become essential in employment relationships.  Much of this will be discounted as “coddling” employees with yet more benefits and perks, but in today’s world of business where creative thinking and critical problem solving are often the source of competitive advantage, I’ll bet on wellness as a strategy.

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Familiarity breeds innovation

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but familiarity breeds innovation (See my recent post for the difference).  I was fortunate to have that thought quoted in a recent Fast Company interview about inspiring innovation with radical trust, but I think it deserves even more detailed attention.

I’m not sure why this concept is so hard to grasp for business people. So I looked it up and found that the Latin root of familiarity is intimacy.  Ah ha!  After a quick search on that term, it’s clear that most people associate intimacy with sex.  Which made me think of the famous Annie Leibovitz photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.  She’s a living legend for pushing our comfort zones with her art.

John & Yoko Rolling Stone cover by Annie Leibovitz

So I think we should get back to the real definition of intimacy and get more comfortable with how it is so essential to innovation.  For the record:

Familiarity: close acquaintance or knowledge (Latin: familiāritās  intimacy.)

Here’s what I mean by familiarity:

1. Love your customer. Think about when you have a crush on someone. You can’t stop thinking about her and you want to know EVERYTHING about her. To innovate in business, you must obsess over your customer’s behavior and pay close attention to what they do (and don’t do) in their lives surrounding your product or service. If you don’t create intimacy with them, you end up playing “whack a mole” with your new ideas, missing most of the time because you are just guessing.

2. Engage in healthy debate: I like the word debate because it implies that you know both (all) sides of an issue and are fluent with them. Fluent enough to play with them versus trying to win over or kill the other ideas. This level of familiarity is critical to “higher order” breakthroughs because playful interaction with multiple perspectives leads to unexpected connections and the blending of ideas into new concepts.

3. Work with you best friends. Years ago the Gallup Organization found significance in the statement, “I have a best friend at work” in their research on employee engagement. Innovation powerhouse David Kelley is famous for starting IDEO as a place where he could work with his friends.  In the Fast Company article, Greg Ferenstein underscores this point by saying, “You don’t BS friends. And they don’t blow smoke and rainbows when you share with them your crazy ideas.”  Friendship is the embodiment of trust, and trust is foundational for innovation (which is loaded with risk).

For many people in the working world, the ideas of intimacy, playfulness and friendship are against their very conception of work.  But there is more than sufficient evidence linking these types of familiarity with high performance and creative production so things are starting to shift.

The potential for creative greatness in any person is there… but us humans are social beings and fulfilling our potential requires healthy, holistic, intimate relationships.

 

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Goals are a natural part of work

You can’t score without a goal.  But, compared to other high performance environments (like sports), typical work environments don’t provide enough clarity or focus.  This ambiguity causes people to conserve effort and/or waste energy on the wrong things, leading to lower engagement and lower performance.

 

GOAL! (from wikimedia commons)

Psychologists have discovered much about how our brain handles goals.  One of the defining traits of the human species is our ability to choose what we will do and how we will do it… that is, to create goals.  Goals are central to grit, which leads to greater happiness, which in turn is a source of high performance.

Goals are simply a way to clarify expectations and keep track of agreements about your work, and can help answer these critical performance questions:

  • Am I doing the right work?
  • Is the work I’m doing good enough?

You should use goals to discuss the potential of your work and the progress you are making (or not) towards them.  In their best form, goals are not administrative or bureaucratic processes.  Rather, they are vehicles that help you carry work forward.  An individual or a leader may initiate a goal, but in either case, both people should be invited into the discussion.  In fact, goals can serve as a “boundary object” to engage several people with different perspectives as your advisors, creating the basis for a continual 360 degree dialog.

You can increase transparency and efficiency in your organization by sharing goals, and you might gather them together for a “roll-up” to create a big picture of how everyone is working together.  But keep them lightweight and flexible, as they are most useful in the form of a natural conversation about what you are doing and how you are doing it.

Don’t let goal processes and templates (like SMART goals) overcome the natural simplicity of goals.  They can be written on post-its, scribbled on a napkin, or entered into a web service like Rypple.  The key is that you think about and discuss what’s important in your work and capture it in a very simple statement that has meaning to you.

Key questions for generating goals:

  • What is needed by the business/client?
  • What am I prepared (ready and able) to do?
  • What will I need to accomplish this work properly?
  • Who is impacted by this work and what are their needs?
  • How will I know it is complete?

Goals make it easier to gather feedback:

Think of goals as a “prototype” of the future you can use to gather feedback.  You can ask three kinds of questions about a goal to help you deliver high quality work that others value:

1. Focus- use one or more goals to ask your boss, client, and colleagues if they think you are working on the right things.  Compare them to expectations set out for you by company level mission/vision statements and job level requirements like a job description.

2. Advice- use a goal to ask others for input on how they would approach the task.  When you do this before you act, you make it easier for others to give their full opinion about the “right way” to do something.

2. Critique- use a goal to ask others their opinion on your results.  It’s easier to get feedback if you show what you were hoping to accomplish (with a goal), as it allows people to focus their opinions on the gaps between your intent and the actual results.

For more on this topic see my post Set homerun goals.

 

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Set homerun goals

This is not about setting big hairy audacious goals, which are great for inspiring groups over the long haul. This is about working with a natural efficiency in your brain when it comes to having too much to do and not knowing which things to get done.  In every day life, smaller goals are more useful as a way to keep you motivated and on track with the most important things.  A BHAG in this post would be to win the World Series, while an effective short-term goal would be to hit a lot of homeruns along the way.

Most of us have too many demands on our energy, time, and commitment.  This is great because when you are well networked you are more likely to accomplish more things.  But setting goals against every demand can be overwhelming.  You have important things to do at work, and more to do on the home front, and aspirations for your career and health, and of course you’d like to contribute to society, and well, you get the picture.

By the time you list a separate goal in each area, there’s no time to get everything done, and you end up doing nothing but react to things as they come your way.  There is a way out of this mess: Psychologists believe that we are more likely to accomplish a goal that satisfies several (if not all) key demands at one time.

For pure efficiency and survival, we are naturally attracted to activities that satisfy multiple goals.  That is, we’d rather do things that “kill two birds with one stone.”  So the best goals are ones that satisfy many needs.

Homerun king Babe Ruth

Now, let’s get back to the baseball analogy as a reminder to set better goals.  There’s nothing wrong with a base hit… it puts a runner on base and if you get additional hits, that runner could advance to score.  But it’s much more efficient to hit a long ball and get several bases in one hit, and best to knock it out of the park.  In one swing, you clear the bases and get multiple points.

Four types of goals:

  1. Do what needs to be done for the business/customer.
  2. Do something that helps me learn and grow.
  3. Do something that improves our way of doing work.
  4. Do something that’s good for your family, society or the planet.

Take the time to consciously build connections across the many demands you are trying to satisfy in your life.  When you do something at work (a single), look for ways to tie that work to your professional development (a double). Better yet, look for ways to improve the way you do that work while you’re doing it (a triple).

And best of all, be clear about how that work will be good for your family or make a positive difference in the world (a home run!).  When you explicitly attach all of those outcomes to your actions, your brain is more likely to keep it at the top of your consciousness and in the busy part of your thinking.

Which means you’re more likely to get it done.

For more on setting effective goals see my post Goals are a natural part of work.

 

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It’s a thin line

It’s a thin line between love and hate. This is a great quote to underscore the inherent challenge of delivering excellence or managing to very high quality standards. Recall this great song by Annie Lennox in case you need a soundtrack in your head while reading this.  It’s easy to point out what’s wrong with something, but a much bigger challenge to make it better.

Walking the Tightrope, source: unknown

It’s like walking a tight rope… if you believe high quality is essential to achieving your goal.  On the one hand, you can take the demanding boss or snooty patron approach and simply demand better/more.  This might get you an immediate response, but often elicits such a negative reaction from the people around you that you lose their authentic trust, loyalty, and commitment.

One the other hand, if you tip towards forgiveness and understanding, you actually get less in the moment and hope that next time things will be better.  This might engender fonder feelings from those around you, but fails to set a higher bar, push the envelope, surprise and delight.  It is simply fine (given the circumstances).  Unfortunately, over time, “simply fine” leads to mediocrity.  Eeew.

It’s a difficult competing commitment: be a kind generous human being (like Jesus Christ) or be an innovative bearer of high standards (like Steve Jobs).  Can’t you be both? Sure, and to do so, vision, vigilance, and veracity come to mind.  Introducing the V-3 method of leading for quality!  It helps you walk the line of pushing for mo’ betta, while accepting the inevitable influence of variables, unexpected interruptions, and, well reality taking things back to the lowest common denominator.

  1. Vision: paint a compelling picture of what could be, so others are inspired to act.  In fact, paint is insufficient, you must craft it in Technicolor, no THX.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  Powerful imagery has proven impact on individual motivation by “priming” people with impressions about what is possible and how it will make a difference.  More importantly, a great vision helps clarify a choice and “allows” others to achieve versus forcing them to respond to a command.  A clear and compelling vision attracts people who desire the same things as you, making achievement at very high levels of quality more sustainable.
  2. Vigilance: don’t let there be exceptions and don’t let there be distractions from the highest priority aspects of your quality mission.  Allowing exceptions and distractions lets people off the hook before they achieve mastery, and may negatively effect their desire to try next time. See more on this concept in Why Chinese Mothers are Superior by Amy Chua.
  3. Veracity: use facts and present them in ways that inspire continued efforts to try harder.  Providing feedback on progress is essential in support of persistance and high achievement.  But the facts must be relevant and presented in appropriate scales.  One study on goal achievement compared weight loss on a wide scale of 25 pounds versus a narrow scale of 5 pounds and found that participants needing to lose 4 pounds were more likely to slack off in the wide scale (because 4 is small compared to 25 while it’s huge compared to 5).

It’s a thin line between engagement and overwhelm.  One last tip:  if you tell someone something is “not good enough” the next action on your part is to pitch in and help make the situation better.  This is a doubly-good thing because mimicry is a powerful social motivator and it’s energizing to have fresh legs in the face of a difficult challenge!

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