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innovation Wednesday Whimsy

“The End of Average”

This is the title of a provocative book by Todd Rose. He makes a compelling case for the variance among members of any category– whether animal, vegetable or mineral. From the introduction:

In this book, you will learn that just as there is no such thing as average body size, there is no such thing as average talent, average intelligence, or average character. Nor are there average students or average employees—or average brains, for that matter.

His logic rests on math, not ideology about uniqueness. Study after study cited shows that when a set of factors is used to derive an average among items that no specimen is average on more than one factor and most are average on none. This led Rose to speak to the “Jaggedness Principle” to define the weak correlation among factors when arrayed on a continuum.

Now to the merger of beliefs and statistics much later in the book:

But now we know there is no such thing as an average person, and we can see the flaw in the equal access approach to opportunity: if there is no such thing as an average person then there can never be equal opportunity on average. Only equal fit creates equal opportunity.

two people sitting near cliff

I think of the old adage “If the shoe fits…” The variation in fit is determined not by the shoe but by where I am going and have opportunity to go.

Categories
innovation leadership

Strategy & Tactics

I was sipping coffee with my friend Bruce late last week. When he works with groups, he has one key question:  What problem are you trying to solve?  On the one hand, I love any focus that brings concentration and intentional thinking to an organization, and problem solving does that.    On the other, I see all the literature on being driven by assets rather than barriers.  

I asked Bruce if he thought problems and opportunities belonged at opposite ends of the same continuum.  He said he did not think so and that problem-solving was strategic while opportunity response was tactical.  That really prompted me to think deeper.

I get his logic.  Problems are long term and durable. We need strategies to solve them.  Opportunities are often fragile and short lived. You must take the tide before it has gone out and see where it takes you. This, for me, elevates the term “tactics.” It also frees me from the bromide observation that “every problem is just an opportunity in disguise”.  This is such a limiting proposition as it suggests beginning with problems.  To find and harness opportunity, I do not need to start with a problem or a strategy. Something looks like it could add value and I jump to try it.   This is innovation, which is a superb method of planned change.   

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As I think about it most methods are tactical.  When I hear organizations proclaim that their strategy is innovation, I typically find little experimentation. They have located trying new things at too high a level. Drop down to the level of what is spontaneous and generate both heat and light.  Who has an idea for a new approach that will outperform a present practice? Good tactics may sometimes precede rather than follow good strategy!

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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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.