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#leadership innovation

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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#leadership innovation 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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#leadership Community Building 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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#leadership innovation

A Good Question

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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?

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#leadership innovation 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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Categories
#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!