Archive for August, 2012

Celestial Work and Gravitational Pull

Meeting agendas are a good idea. They make clear what will happen and they’re time bound. (At least good ones.) They look forward in time and shape what will happen.

Meeting agendas are created by the organizer so others follow. It’s strange to think about, but from thin air, the organizer congers magic words on a page that shape direction. The agenda sets the agenda and it’s followed. But in truth, agendas are followed because we choose to follow.

But I want to introduce another schema – the work sets the agenda. In this parallel universe, we don’t choose to follow an agenda; we choose to do work so powerful it sets the agenda – work so dense its gravitational field pulls the organization toward it.

I can hear the moans and groans – we can’t choose the work we do. But you can – if your work is good enough. If your work is brighter than the sun, it’s undeniable and, like the sun, cannot be ignored.

I can hear the next round of moans – we can’t do work that good. But you can – if you think you can and you try. (The only way to guarantee you can’t is not to try.)

And the last round of groans – we’ll get fired if we fail. If you’ll get fired for trying to reinvent your universe, you’re working at the wrong place anyway.

If you like to follow agendas, follow them. But if you don’t, do celestial work, and set them.

Climbing The Branches Of The Problem Tree

The problem tree is big, old, and rugged with a fully developed branch network and the deepest roots. And nestled in its crown, set directly over the trunk, is the hidden tree house where the problem solvers play.

The problem tree has a left and right, with its why branches to the right and why-nots to the left. To the right, the biggest why limbs grow from the trunk then split into a series of smaller why branches which terminate at the why leaves. It’s the same on the left – big why-not limbs, why-not branches, why-not leaves.

To start their game, the problem solvers first agree on the biggest why limbs – the main reasons why to solve the problem. Once labeled, the team asks why again, and builds out the why side of the canopy – narrowing as they go. They continue their hierarchical why mapping until they get to the why leaves – the lowest-level whys. The last part is most tenuous because as the branches get smaller they can’t hold the weight and they sway in the political wind. But as the organization watches impatiently, the problem solvers know they must hang onto the smallest branches and stretch themselves hard to reach the leaves.

Once the whys are mapped the solvers know why they must solve the problem. They know who wants it solved (the biggest branches can have their own sponsor) and how the whys (and their sponsors) compliment or compete. And where the rubber meets the road (leaf level), they know why it must be solved – think manufacturing floor. Like a spider web, the why network sticks the solvers to the right problem.

Novice solvers think their ready to solve, but the seasoned climbers know it’s time swing on the wild side. It’s time to climb where few dare – the politically charged left side – the why-nots. Slowly, carefully, the climbers step from the safety of their tree house and explore why the company cannot, has not, or may not want to solve the problem. There are usually three big why-not branches – constraints, capability, and culture.

When the solvers shimmy out on the constraint branch, they usually find the smaller no-time-to-solve-it branch, with its leaves of – existing operating plans, product launches, other big problems, unfilled open positions, and reduced headcount. Though real, these branches are tough to talk about because the organization does not want to hear about them. And, sometimes, for all their dangerous climbing and shimmying, the solvers are accused of not being team players.

Their climb on the capability branch is challenging, but not for its complexity. There’s usually one branch – we don’t know how to do it, with a couple leaves – we’ve never done it before and we don’t do it that way. The capability branch is difficult because it causes the organization to overtly admit a fundamental gap. Also, it threatens the subject matter experts, who are important to the solution.

The culture branch is toughest of all. Its limbs can be slippery and sometimes have cover names (so it’s difficult for me to list them), but thematically, the best climbers know the branches represent the worn patterns of company behavior. Often, the behaviors (and the climate they create) have not been formalized, and shining a light on them may is too bright for some. But when the solvers find a why-not branch that cuts across one of these worn cowpaths, that’s just what they must do. Because without changing the behavioral pattern, there can be no solution.

With the problem tree fully built-out on a single page, it’s clear why the problem should be solved and what’s in the way (why-not). And when the solvers present it, the company decides if the whys are important enough to overcome the why-nots. If it’s a go, the first step is to prune the why-nots – resources to solve the constraint problems, tools and training to improve the capability problems, and a change in leadership behavior to solve the cultural problems. After those are taken care of, the problem definition phase comes to a close.

The problem tree defines the problem, it does not solve it. But through the process of building it out, the problem solvers (problem definers) help the company clear cut the forest of why-nots. Now, standing tall, standing alone, clearly seen for what it is, solving the problem is a breeze.

Creative Problem Creation

Problems get a bad rap. We’re all clear on the negativity around problems, but we don’t appreciate their positive character. It’s time we use their powers for good.

One of the least popular characteristics of problems is their selfishness. Like the friend who shows up for dinner unannounced, problems, left to their own, care only about their calendar. But to overcome this shortcoming and harness their energy, we can create them to fit our time table.

An important strong suit of problems is their ability to create focus. When the VP has a problem, everybody has a problem. And it’s this persuasive power of problems that focuses the organization on a solution – resources, alignment, and creativity on demand.

I propose we bring problems to life on our own terms to create new thinking; to creatively fabricate problems to generate laser-focused thinking in the direction of our choice; to imagine what could be and create the right problems to get us there. Creativity on demand.

The most provocative and productive problems to manufacture are those that remove inherent goodness of your products or that outlaw their physical fundamentals. Like putting your thumb over a hose, these problems spray high velocity thinking in unpredictable directions. Here are some examples:

  1. Big coffee pot can make only one cup – single-cup brewer industry.
  2. Speedboats cannot carry multiple passengers – personal water craft industry.
  3. Lights must illuminate only a small area – LED proliferation.
  4. Sturdy running shoes must be floppy – bare foot running shoe movement.
  5. Desktop computers must be mobile – laptop industry.
  6. Stiff, wear-like-iron dungarees must be worn out – faded/distressed jean movement.
  7. Eye glasses cannot rest on the nose – contact lenses.
  8. Pencils cannot be sharpened – mechanical pencils.
  9. Laser printers must be slow – home printer industry.

Sure, these examples were reverse engineered. But take a minute to walk back in time and sit in those industries. What if back then you created those problems for yourself? What if you create them tomorrow?

The thinking in the post is strongly shaped by Jeffrey Paul Baumgartner’s Anti Conventional Thinking (ACT).

Not Invented Here

Not Invented Here (NIH) is ever-present and misunderstood.

An operational definition of NIH: Group 1 creates new thinking that falls within the official domain of Group 2. When presented with the new thinking, Group 2 rejects it.

It is said Group 2 rejects new thinking because they’re threatened.   But that’s too high level to be helpful.  To get at the root of it, we need to dig.

First, some NIH:

  • Your new thinking is out of alignment with my priorities. Even if I spend a lot of time to understand it, I’m afraid I’ll fail. I reject your new thinking.
  • Your new thinking is out of alignment with responsibility.  (That thinking should come from me.) If I adopt your new thinking, I’ll look stupid, and I’m afraid I’ll fail. I reject your new thinking.
  • Your new thinking is out of alignment with my knowledge. I’m afraid I’ll fail. I reject your new thinking.
  • Your new thinking is out of alignment with how I do things. I’m afraid I’ll fail.  I reject your new thinking.

Now, some non-NIH :

  • My priorities are out of alignment with your new thinking. Though I already have several good ideas that I don’t have time for, can you give me more details so together we can combine the best elements?
  • My responsibility is out of alignment with your new thinking, but your new thinking is good. Can you give me more details so together we can investigate possibilities?
  • My knowledge is out of alignment with your new thinking. Can you give me more details so we can learn together?
  • My way of doing things is out of alignment with your new thinking. Can you give me more details so together we can rethink things?

The key to NIH reduction is to create alignment. With your new thinking not yet fully formed, ask Group 2 for their input. Better yet, ask for their help. Tell them what you don’t know, tell them what you have wrong, tell them how they have a better perspective because it’s their domain, and ask them to help improve it.  (All this is best done informally and off-line, at least to start.)

One little-known fact about NIH – it’s pronoun sensitive. Take care to replace I, you, and yours with we.

Curiosity Fuels Creativity

Creativity generates things that are novel and useful. Make them successful, and you’ve got innovation. There can be no innovation without creativity.

We associate creativity with innate ability that only some have; with transparent happenings that can’t be codified; with eureka moments that come from the subconscious. If anything defies process, it’s creativity. So let’s not use process to squelch creativity, let’s foster behaviors that spawn creativity.

Curiosity is the kindling for creativity; fan its flames and creativity ignites. There a two parts to curiosity – to see things as they are and to propose what could be.

To see things as they are is to create awareness of what is – awareness of context, or changes in context, awareness of worn paths and anomalies, and awareness at high and low levels of abstraction. It takes a disciplined, uncluttered mind to become aware of a new reality, especially while sitting in the old one. And because uncluttering comes only from slack time, to see things as they are is doubly difficult.

The next part of curiosity is to challenge what is in order to propose what could be. To start, root cause must be understood for the new what is. This requires active rejection of old fundamentals and a deep dive to understand new ones. This is toughest when the old fundamentals have been (and are still) successful. (And it’s doubly tough because it requires slack time.) Curiosity twists, pounds, and bends the new fundamentals into a future reality which culminates with a proposal of what could be. Done right, curiosity’s proposal is borderline heretical.

The good news is we don’t need new people – we have plenty of creative capacity. But here’s the bad news – our process thinking isn’t going to get us there because it’s all about behaviors. It’s time to think about how to change things so we can spend more time on behaviors that generate creativity. But if you must use process thinking, come up with a process that lets us spend more time on creative behaviors

The thinking (and some of the language) for this post came from Diego Uribe, a true thought leader in creativity. Thank you Diego.

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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