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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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#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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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.

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Wednesday Whimsy

Listen Twice as Much as You Speak

Are you listening? Or waiting to speak?

Focus on listening over speaking is another adage with as much power as the last Whimsy, Hustle While You Wait that was posted last week.

I was asked by a major bank CEO to help them win the coveted Baldridge Quality Award. My assignment was to document how they were a great learning organization. I decided to sit in on a wide variety of meetings, many with the senior leadership team. I defined two columns with tally marks for the number of statements made and questions asked at each meeting.

I then reported to the CEO that I was not successful.

What I had found was a ratio of about 100 statements—participants asserting things to others—for every question asked. My reflection was that learning is not separable from curiosity and inquisitiveness. Both come from questions.

A longer blog post will soon look more deeply at the power of questions to guide thinking by others in ways that statements cannot do. Meanwhile, ask someone to use a tablet to keep the same tally I did for some meetings in your organization.

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Wednesday Whimsy

Hustle While You Wait

Last night I was re-reading a few sections of Stephen Covey’s classic 1989 book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and came across an intriguing four word sentence.  It came in an example of a personal mission statement and said:  Hustle while you wait.  I love divergent thoughts, which as prompt me to question conventional wisdom. In this case the convention comes from adding an adverb:  Wait Patiently. Beyond raising the question of when patience helps or hurts comes the question of how I can hustle while I wait.  I am resolved to try these steps:

  1. Accelerate intentionality.  Shift from distress to a good look at what I will accomplish in the rest of my day.  My body at rest is distinct from my mind at rest and most forms of intentionality help me to settle down.
  2. Observe. If I am in any form of waiting room or line, use the time to see how the organization is supporting waiting and what it could do better to reduce agitation.  Insights from what I see and hear may well come from the times when I have little else to do.
  3. Reflect.  So what is going on that defines waiting?  For me, reflection often leads to an understanding that what I glibly see as an external factor causing my wait is actually something that I can at least to some extent control.   While it is easy to say that the ball is in someone else’s court, the reality is often that I am waiting on myself.
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Uncategorized Wednesday Whimsy

Never the Twain

It’s tough to learn from mistakes you never made.

Mark Twain

While I spend hours tapping out prose to make and amplify thoughts, I keep finding that short zingers like this one get to the point far more quickly.   Further,  the best are actionable without further ado.   Suggestion:   think of or discover a quote that you like.  Ask yourself what you could do to express its core meaning next week.  If you can’t think of anything, try a new quote.    Email me if you want a good batch that I have found not just wise but useful.  My way of expressing this passage is to require myself to identify one screw up a week to ask what I will do differently next time.    They are all different. Never the Twain shall meet.