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innovation leadership Sparkplug

Vitality Rediscovered

We just sold a house. Many of you have the same experiences in moving that my wife Pam and I did. Much of the pain was about book decisions. Thousands of volumes one or both of us found indispensable, often surviving previous moves.

In conducting the necessary pruning, I had a chance to revisit many books read over the years. I am an inveterate underliner and turned pages until I saw something I once thought important. In this toil, I came to a 2004 book called Vitality…Igniting Your Organization’s Spirit. The authors, Chuck and Mary Mead Lofy, are well known for their many years of research on vitality in corporations. I came across two underlinings I had made.

The first followed the authors’ observation that rather than to dissect the inherent meaning of the term, it is best to focus on how vitality is seen and heard in an organization. The first underling I saw was the first entry in a section called “Markers of Vitality”: Spontaneous leadership. This occurs when people assert leadership regardless of their position in the organization. This one stuck with me for the connection between vitality and spontaneity. People are much more likely to pitch in and take leads when they can do so without formal designation in a plan or a structure. A culture of vitalness brings out widespread engagement borne in energy not requirements.

The second underling is very short: He left his spirit at home. This was the explanation for an executive that fizzled. He fell short not because he checked his knowledge or skills at the door. It was his spirit that was left out. The Lofy’s connect vitality with spirit and with energy more than with systems or processes. Before you can be powered by data you need to be powered by vitality.

Years ago, I wrote an article called “Character in Organizations.” My premise was that while many organizations have characteristics, few have character. I described how valuable it was to apply personal traits, values, dispositions, and other factors we use to form a clear view of a
person’s character to organizations. Vitality holds up well in that translation. You can see it in persons. You can see it in organizations. And it is at the core of success in both places.

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Community Building leadership Wednesday Whimsy

The Result View of Trust

My colleague Robyn Faucy-Washington just emailed me the new Give.org Donor Trust Report produced by the Better Business Bureau.  Based on surveys, it looks at changes in trust factors that influence charitable gifts.  The top-line finding: “The importance of financial ratios as a signal of trust has declined steadily, from 35 percent in December 2017 to 18.6 percent in August 2020.  Meanwhile, third party evaluations (36 percent) and name recognition (34 percent) have become relatively more significant than accomplishments shared by the organization (30 percent) or financial ratios (19 percent.)”  The report also noted a finding that younger generations attribute less importance to trust before giving and that overall, the importance placed on trust has dropped from 73 percent to 63.6 percent.

While these findings are interesting in their own right, the article renews my question: Just what is trust? I can for example, trust a group for money, time, or other form of relationship because:

–it spends all its money in legal ways.

–it offers the programs it says it does 

–it is fully compliant with all local, state, and federal requirements

–it is led by people I know and admire

–it has a wonderful mission, vision, and values statement

–the community considers it a valuable resource

–it has won awards from groups in which I have confidence

What’s missing in this list? Accomplishment! In my view, the most important factor is a trust that the group will achieve strong results for those it helps.  That trust is earned by behavior. I either get a report with clear evidence of high accomplishment or I do not.

As with most subjects, establishing trust becomes simpler, faster, and more accurate in a result frame.  An example comes from my work at The Rensselaerville Institute using a self-help approach to community revitalization.   We started with a tool that let the community—and us—assess level of capacity and readiness for the major work involved in this approach. In the Appalachian small village of Stump Creek, Pennsylvania, we met with the residents not long after a national foundation had been in town pitching a leadership development program. In that program, several Saturdays were devoted to “trust building” among residents and between the village and the town and county governments.  The residents declined the program. We arrived and were asked if we had a similar approach. No, I said.  We like to boil this down a simple question: Do we keep our promises to each other?  If each group pledges to do something before we meet again and then does it, we will trust each other. If one of us says, “so sorry we did not get around to doing that” we will not.

These residents were mighty tired of drinking unsafe water from shallow wells and two persons promised they would spark a survey to see how many residents would commit to giving at least 50 hours of time and pay up to $20 per month for good water from a central supply.   We promised we would talk to the Appalachian Regional Commission about possible grant support. We both kept our word. Not only did we have trust, but we also had emerging commitments to make the project happen.  In a results frame, trust is about what you do more than what you think.  

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innovation leadership

A Good Question

ask blackboard chalk board chalkboard


My colleague Les Loomis had a comment that I found so useful I post it here as a blog entry. Following a highly successful career as teacher, principal and superintendent, Les has helped over 60 New York State school districts to significantly increase student achievement. Thanks, Les for making a big difference for thousands of students. And for writing this blog response which you call A Good Question.


In Hal’s blog post, “Listen Twice as Much as You Speak”, he tells a story of tallying the responses in senior leadership team meetings. “I found …a ratio of about 100 statements — participants asserting things to others — for every question asked.”

Don’t you find that to be true? People are happy with their own words and comfortable in their old habits. Well, do it the same old way — get the same old results. Through my work in guiding students and schools toward greater achievement, I discovered the power of questions. Asking the right question outshone all my best tips.

In leading seminars for middle school students a single question could drive a 90 minute discussion toward lasting learning. Like this question on Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail: What justifies direct action in the face of an unjust law? The nature of the question caused the kids to take it to heart and get excited about finding their own answers.

Working with teachers, I asked them to design their own prototype project as an early model for far greater student gains. Their own ambitious goal and this question caused them to uncover new solutions that led to some amazing results: What can I do differently to lift my students’ learning?

I brought Hal’s results approach to teams of superintendents, principals, and teachers in high poverty school districts in a year-long process to reach aim high student achievement targets. The focus on a handful of simple questions generated the most significant progress. What are the results thus far? What’s working? What isn’t? Why? What few next actions will yield immediate results?

So what’s going on here? Good questions lead to Insight. Questions caused students and educators to pause, to listen, and to look. To see into the situation and to see a solution.

What’s your good question? In your work? In your life?

Categories
innovation

Prompting innovation

Apologies for two weeks off. Now to pick up on the practical work of promoting innovation I mentioned at the end of last posting. First three principles:

  1. Innovation is not about what is new. In a result frame it is about what is better. Novelty without improvement is of very limited value.
  2. Innovation comes from individuals and small teams far more often than from committees, plans, or budgets. In particular, innovations almost never come from consensus. When all persons are on the proverbial same page, they all think alike. Literally, no one thinks differently.
  3. Innovation is different from creativity. Creative musings are common. People who put them to use are not.

So, here’s the good news. You do not need structure or process to become an innovator. You just need to answer three questions:

black and white blackboard business chalkboard
  • a) Do you see something in your work or work context that does not work well? Best if a pain point you personally feel.
  • b) Can you think of a better approach? Best if quite different from what you now do rather than a small refinement.
  • c) Can you devise a small scale test project to test (not prove) whether your approach will outperform present practice? Best if short and as simple as possible.

The first response makes you a critic. The second makes you a suggester. The third makes you an innovator! See the Results1st website for the article called “Assumptions for Innovation”.

While innovation is about the use of suggestions, it is very helpful to create a culture of inquiry. It begins with the question “What if?” This leads to a constant flow of ideas generated by persons that see a problem or an opportunity and a way to deal with it. Research shows that high achieving companies have a constant flow of ideas from each employee available for consideration and testing. A book called Ideas Are Free by Robinson and Schroeder summarizes the evidence and the practice.

Individuals are the best instruments of innovation. They lead change by example. See something that does not work well? Go for it!

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innovation leadership Wednesday Whimsy

The Path of the Calf: Part 2


In my last entry, I shared Samuel Foss’s poem, the Path of the Calf. It is cited by me and others who seek innovation as its opposite: getting in a groove and staying there. This week let’s turn that coin over to look at the limits of more free-form traveling.

First, consider the value of staying on a path long enough to really learn it. Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers sums up the remarkably congruent reflection of persons world class in many fields. They tend to agree that about 10,000 hours of practice was needed to make them great. That practice was assuredly repetitious. Whether playing basketball or carving stone or wood a craft is typically built by digging deeper. Comparative advantage is won by increments far more than breakthroughs.

Second, consider that the volition to follow a path does not mean you were compelled by outside forces to do so. We can choose clearly marked crooked paths as well as straight ones for good reasons. The French novelist Marcel Proust wrote that “The voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but having new eyes.” Enrichment and novelty are not equivalent.

OK—I think I have pushed the limits of quirky thoughts. Next week, we shall hit the ground with some practical thoughts on promoting innovation in yourself and your organization.

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leadership Wednesday Whimsy

Follow the Cow?

Listen to this excerpt from a wonderful poem called “The Path of the Calf” by Samuel Foss:

One day, through the primeval wood,

   A calf walked home as good calves should.

But made a trail all bent askew,

   A crooked trail as all calves do…

The trail was taken up next day

   By a lone dog that passed that way,

And then a wise bell-wether sheep

   Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,

And drew the flock behind him too

   As good bell-wethers always do.

And from that day, o’re hill and glade

   Through those old woods a path was made.

And thus, before men were aware,

   A city’s crowded thoroughfare.  ..

A thousand men were led

   By a calf near three centuries dead.

They followed still his crooked way

   And lost one hundred years each day.

For thus such reverence is lent

   To well established precedent.

Foss died in 1911.  Not all insights are new ones.

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leadership Wednesday Whimsy

Questions and Inquiry

I just read Doing Justice by Preet Bharara.  Here is a passage by this highly regarded former federal prosecutor:

People are forever using acronyms they can’t expand, spouting jargon they can’t translate, trafficking in concepts they don’t grasp.  They parrot shallow talking points and slogans and other people’s recollections. When you take at face value everything said to you—even from supposed subject matter experts opining with great confidence—you are at risk of perpetuating everyone’s superficial understanding of the matter at hand.  There is no shame in asking basic questions, in virtually any context.  In fact, it is essential to your personal understanding of any issue.  ….find the person in the new job who asks the fewest questions and there’s your problem.

We think of prosecutors as at the high end of conviction (pardon the pun).  Preet speaks of the power of simple questions to unseat certainty.  How many do you ask each day?   I find it highly useful to differentiate questioning something, which typically starts with a viewpoint, and asking questions where you are open to different answers.

Quick aside:  this book also reflects the power of examples.  The author uses actual incidents not just illustrate his points but to make them.  Examples and questions—vs. generalizations and assertions.  Let curiosity reign! 

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Uncategorized

The Gap vs. the Continuum

Like many others, I am drawn to gaps. In wealth, we have the rich and the poor. In technology, we have those who connect and those who do not. In social justice, we have those with privilege and those without. 

The contrast that exists is, of course, made possible by the anchors. Hans Rosling in a respected and provocative book called Factfulness points out that what he calls the “gap instinct” is made possible by a false view of reality. He provides a ton of data to make the case that most people are somewhere in the middle of virtually all distributions. In income levels, for example, he divides the world into four levels and shows that few people are at levels 1 and 4 which anchor the gap between the haves and have nots. Most people are at levels 2 and 3.

One reason to look closely at what lies between is to understand present circumstances. While the vision of achieving food security is clear, it matters whether the best money goes into getting grocery stores and farm markets into a food desert or providing transportation for persons to get to resources that already exist. From the view point of those living between extremes, Rosling speaks persuasively on how how small increments of progress can matter a great deal. 

The other reason for looking at people, families or other units distributed between end points is to understand present degree of movement. A child static at three grade levels behind needs different and more help than one at an equal point but gaining two grade levels each year. The logic of gaps can mask important increments of change. 

In some areas there may be only be two choices. Can a person be a partial racist or is it one or the other? Even if the latter, some path forward probably describes progress better than a one-time, lasting conversion. Few of us change overnight.

The trickiness, of course, is to see the reality of  progression or regression while not losing the power and urgency that gap mindset conveys. With equity, diversity, and inclusion we must live in two worlds. As the British tube station announcement puts it, “Mind the Gap.”

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Wednesday Whimsy

Empowerment

There’s a nice word. Presumably no one is against it. But the term does not readily lend itself to verification, especially if gradations are involved. Just how will we know if a person is more “empowered” as a result of this or that program? Or is the question irrelevant? Could empowerment be an all or nothing proposition?

The question I like to ask of this word and other nice but abstract terms such as “collaboration” and “self-esteem” is just what is it that an empowered person does and achieves that an un-empowered one cannot? I often take this further to ask what you see and hear that reflects empowerment in a person or team.

An example of a great response comes from a nonprofit with which I worked at the request of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. The group wanted money for its program to empower at risk youth. I asked my questions and a program leader said that empowerment to them meant that a person had and made choices. I liked that. Nothing much happens without intentionality. We rather quickly looked at the areas where they wanted to see a sense of choice and of choosing and devised two questions for each of their programs:

  1. I see that you did ______ (a behavior related to program goals). Why did you do that?
  2. What other choices, if any did you think you had?

The nonprofit found that it took little time to establish the extent to which empowerment by this definition was present. The young person either said that they could of done x or y and chose x. Or he or she said “What else was I going to do?” Sometimes we make things too complicated.

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innovation Wednesday Whimsy

Innovation Comes from Immaturity

This assumption is based on a limit and on a rediscovery. The limit is the concept of growing up, which implies acceptances of convention and tradition that innovators avoid. Indeed, the designation of “immaturity” is frequently applied to innovators of all ages who constantly question the rules. To be mature is to become habituated to life’s prevailing norms, values and habits. In many cases this is the definition of mental health as well as of progress in cognitive, social and other domain where scales anchor in “age-appropriate” behavior.

Some writers see this as a progression from toying with many possibilities to an acceptance of probabilities to an accommodation of certainty. Innovation cannot thrive with this context. Certainty precludes options.

The rediscovery part of the assumption moves from the conformance of progression to the enthusiasms of childhood. How many times do children ask “why” and remain unsatisfied by our answers. And consider ideas. Having one as a child does little for the ego. But building one…and then using it—there’s the fun. Childhood projects often begin with a preference, a whim, an impulse. Calculations come later as the route unfolds. Surprises abound while zigging and zagging. Correlations and causalities are in suspension. For adults, the itch is to try something new and build on what works.

“Act your age” in conventional thinking is a blessing. For innovation it is a curse. This is a realm in which childhood’s end is another beginning.