Posts Tagged ‘Creativity’

The Leadership Trap of Flat Earth Thinking

Posted on: January 22nd, 2013 by Keith Coats 3 Comments

earthIt was 16 February 1600 and a crowd had gathered to watch Italian friar, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer Giordano Bruno being burnt at the stake having been condemned as a heretic. To go against the ‘truth’ as the church defined it was to run the risk of being labelled a heretic. Copernicus was also condemned as a heretic and met a similar fate as that of Bruno – also in 1600. It seemed to be a busy year for the church!

Their crime? They proposed ‘new truths’ about the universe and how it worked at a time when the church believed the earth was both flat and the centre of the universe. Of course we now know that both Bruno and Copernicus were on the right path in believing what they did, but that counted for little when stacked against the prevailing status quo – the  ‘truth’ of the day.

Recently I was having breakfast with a mentor who has been a constant source of encouragement, challenge, resource and example when an interesting conversation unfolded.  It started with me asking him what he thought represented today’s ‘flat earth thinking’. When the future looks at our current era and context, what will they consider to be our ignorance in the light of what they already know? It is the kind of question (and discussion) that immediately tends to suspend the present and allows one to look from the outside in as it were. It creates a different perspective and can lead to some interesting debate and discussion. It certainly did in this instance.

Flat earth thinking flourishes in every era. One of the more important leadership responsibilities is for leaders to identify such thinking and be able to lead their organization away from the precipice that inherently comes with a flat earth belief. This is easier said than done. The forces invariably opposing any new thinking have marshalled in their corner the majority, the status quo and conventional wisdom.  It is a formidable array of weaponry to have at one’s disposal!

There is no silver bullet when it comes to changing a business. Change processes are a dime a dozen and certainly there is no shortage of resources when it comes to embarking on any change initiative. Today, change is big business. Certainly this is justified when considering the context in which businesses operate – it is one of ubiquitous, non-linear and constant change. Turbulence is the new norm and leaders had best learn to fly in such conditions if they are to succeed going forward.

Flat earth thinking flourishes when the current dogma goes unchallenged. Dogma can be described as ‘perceived truth’. Calling out ‘perceived truth’ is risky business. Certainly it is likely to have career inhibiting consequences and as a result, there seem to be few willing to run the risks involved in challenging current ‘wisdom’ and the prevailing worldviews, whatever they may be. But if we are to move forward this is precisely what we have to do. As Abraham Lincoln said to the American Congress in the December of 1862, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As the situation is new so we must think anew and we must act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves if we are to save our country”. 

Decoupling or ‘disenthralling’ oneself from favourite methodology, pet theories or simply well worn traditions that have outlived their usefulness and purpose, is never easy. Yet this is what the work of challenging flat earth thinking entails. In furthering this discussion with a client from a major law firm, he added a valuable insight into why it is that dogma is so difficult to let go of or to challenge. “It becomes dogma because you live it. You don’t choose it at the outset, it becomes such over time as you come to defend it and so start to live it” he said. He is right.

There are three things that leaders can utilize to counter flat earth thinking. 

  1. Curiosity. I believe the enemy of dogma – of flat earth thinking, is curiosity. The presence of curiosity will always mean that things that are taken for granted will be challenged. Children are born curious but then as then enter formal education that natural gift that is curiosity is educated out of them. Educator Ken Robinson has a wonderful TED Talk on the subject and it is hard to argue with his point that we in fact steer our children away for their inborn curiosity in the pursuit of educational objectives. Smart leaders look to nurture and foster curiosity within the DNA of their organisations. Smart leaders understand that well directed curiosity can lead to wonderful things and so they actively encourage such, believing there is always a better way to do things. Here might be an interesting exercise for you to conduct: at your next team meeting, count the number of questions asked without telling the participants what it is you are doing. It might be worth recording the actual questions asked and then categorising and evaluating them. Questions for the sake of questions aren’t always helpful. Learning how to pose the ‘right’ question is the art that needs developing. This might take time but one has to start somewhere in the quest for quality questions as a natural ingredient in your meeting mix.
  2. Courage. If you are going to be curious, courage will be required. Courage means that you are willing to live with the consequences of where your questions and subsequent actions might lead you. Courage means you are not prepared to play the political games that characterise many work environments; courage means that you are willing to be wrong; courage means that you value authenticity; courage demands values – values that serve to anchor your curiosity and that provide reassurance to others who choose to follow you into the unknown, into the unchartered territory.
  3. Commitment. Leaders need to be committed to the process that challenging flat earth thinking will require. We live in work environments dominated by programmes and quick fixes. There is often little appreciation or patience for things that require process. Commitment means an appreciation for processes and the willingness to see things through – even though it may take time and no small amount of effort. To challenge prevailing wisdom and turning that into a new way of seeing / doing / being is seldom instantaneous or done easily. Disruptive processes are the lifeblood of innovation and newness and what such processes look like requires wisdom, perspective and…commitment.

Curiosity, courage and commitment may not seem the ideal ‘how to’ tools to add to your leadership toolkit. However if you are willing to start with curiosity you will quickly discover the need and importance of courage and commitment! You might well have further suggestions to assist you in your quest to identify and challenge the flat earth thinking that marks your environment. I hope that next time you are in a meeting that you will start to filter the conversation and ask yourself whether or not what is being said is representative of flat earth thinking. Identifying the presence of flat earth thinking within your team and the willingness to challenge it might just be your GPS to navigating the future!

The Business Book you should read, but probably wont

Posted on: November 1st, 2010 by admin-kablooey 2 Comments

I’ve recently finished reading ‘Orbiting the Giant Hairball‘, by Gordon MacKenzie. I was given the book to read by Che Mckay, the Head of Grayston Prep’s Pre-Prep. She also teaches Thinking Skills at the school.

I must be honest, I’ve had it for a while and based on the title and what the book looks like, I kept avoiding it. It just didn’t jump out at me and shout “Read Me”.

Last week I had to go to Swaziland for a presentation and took the book with me. Glad I did. I was hooked and finished it within days of starting it.

David Rouse (on Amazon’s site) describes it as follows:

There is no denying the creativity of someone who can persuade one of the 50 largest private companies in the U.S. to create a position for him called “creative paradox,” or someone who can convince the accounting department of that same company to write off to the company art collection the purchase of more than a dozen roll-top desks to be used in his “creative lab,” or someone who could come up with such a goofy title for a book. MacKenzie worked for the Hallmark greeting card company for 30 years, first as a sketch artist and eventually as an upper-level manager, until he escaped the “hairball” by creating his own niche. A corporate hairball is an entangled pattern of behavior or a mess of bureaucratic procedure that discourages originality and stifles imagination. A consultant for the last seven years, MacKenzie tells what he knows about creativity and what he learned about the creative process in a corporate setting.

It’s a bit of a messy book. That works for me. But over and over you’re left with some really simple yet profound thoughts and questions around how on earth we’ve allowed our businesses to carry on in the manner in which we do? MacKenzie’s main focus is on how to avoid killing the creativity within our people and our businesses, and just how well the way we think and arrange ourselves has done just this.

If you do end up reading it, good luck. I’m not sure there are many businesses, large and small, who have the courage to engage in this type of thinking, and then carrying out the necessary activity to begin to change paradigms, structures, and ultimately who we are, and how we engage with life.

I’ve ordered a few copies for TomorrowToday. I’ve been tasked with the responsibility of the business for the next 3 years. I’m now going to give it my best shot to use this book and these thoughts to influence who we are and how we go about arranging ourselves and engaging with the community around us. Check back in three years and let me know how successful I was : )

I’ve typed out the majority of the last chapter in the book. It’s a great conclusion to a great book, and a fantastic challenge for a full and exciting life….

“Before you were born, God came to you and said:

Hi there! I just dropped by to wish you luck, and to assure you that you and I will be meeting again soon. Before you know it.

You’re heading out on an adventure that will be filled with fascinating experiences. You’ll start out as a tiny speck floating in an infinite dark ocean. Quite saturated with nutrients. So you wont have to go looking for food or a job or anything like that. All you’ll have to do is float in the darkness. And grow incredibly. And change miraculously.

You’ll sprout arms and legs. And hands and feet. And fingers and toes.

As if from nothing your head will take form. You nose, your mouth, your ears will emerge.

As you continue to grow bigger and bigger, you will become aware that this dark, oceanic environment of yours – which when you were tiny, seemed so vast is now actually cramped and confining. That will lead you to the unavoidable conclusion that you’re going to have to move to a bigger place.

After much groping about in the dark, you will find an exit. The mouth of a tunnel.

“Too small,” you’ll decide. “Couldn’t possibly squeeze through there.”

But there will be no other apparent way out. So with primal spunk, you will take on your first “impossible” challenge and enter the tunnel.

In doing so, you will be embarking on a brutal no-turning back, physically exhausting, claustrophobic passage that will introduce to pain and fear and hard physical labour. It will seem to take forever, but the mysterious undulations of the tunnel itself will help squirm you through and finally, after what will seem like interminable striving, you will break through to a blinding light.

Giant hands will pull you gently but firmly, into an enormous room. There will be several huge people, called adults, huddling around you, as if to greet you. If it is an old-fashioned place, one of these humungous people may hold you upside down by the legs and give you a swat on the backside to get you going.

All of this will be what the big people on the other side call being born. For you, it will be only the first of your new life’s many exploits.

God continues:

I was wondering, while you’re over there on the other side, would you do me a favour?

“Sure!” you chirp.

Would you take this artist’s canvas with you and paint a masterpiece for me? I’d really appreciate that.

Beaming, God hands you a pristine canvas. You roll it up, and tuck it under your arm and head off on your journey.

Your birth is just as God has predicted, and when you come out of the tunnel into the bright room, some doctor or nurse looks down at you in amazement and gasps:

“Look! The little kid’s carrying a rolled-up artist’s canvas!”

Knowing that you do no yet have the skills to do anything meaningful with your canvas, the big people take it away from you and give it to society for safekeeping until you have acquired the prescribed skills requisite to the canvas’s return. While society is holding this property of yours, it cannot resist the temptation to unroll the canvas and draw think blue pale lines and little blue numbers all over it’s virgin surface.

Eventually, the canvas is returned to you, it’s rightful owner. However, it now carries the implied message that if you will paint inside the blue lines and follow the instructions of the little blue numbers your life will be a masterpiece.

And that is a lie.

For more than 50 years I worked on my paint-by-numbers creation. With uneven but persistent diligence. I dipped an emaciated paint-by-numbers brush into colour No. 1and painstakingly painted inside each little blue-bordered area marked 1. The onto 2 and 3 and 4 and so on. Sometimes, during restive periods of my life, I would paint, say, the 12 spaces before the 10 spaces (a token rebellion against overdoses of linearity). More than once, I painted beyond a line and, feeling embarrassed, would either try to wipe off the errant colour or cover it over with another before anyone might notice my lack of perfection. From time to time, although not often, someone would compliment me, unconvincingly, on the progress of my “masterpiece.” I would gaze at the richness of others’ canvases. Doubt about my own talent for painting gnawed at me. Still, I continued to fill in the little numbered spaces, unaware of, or afraid to look at, any real alternative.

Then there came a time, after half a century of daubing more or less inside the lines, that my days were visited by traumatic events. The dividends of my noxious past came home to roost, and the myth of my life began horrifically to come unglued. I pulled back from my masterpiece-in-the-works and saw it with emerging clarity.

It looked awful.

The stifled strokes of paint had nothing to do with me. They did not illustrate who I am or speak of whom I could become. I felt duped, cheated, ashamed – anguished that I had wasted so much canvas, so much paint. I was angry that I had been conned into doing so.

But that is the past. Passed.

Today I wield a wider brush – pure ox-bristle. And I’m swooping it through the sensuous goo of Cadmium Yellow, Alizarin Crimson or Ultramarine Blue (not Nos. 8, 13 or 4) to create the biggest, brightest, funniest, fiercest dragon that I can. Because that has more to do with what’s inside of me than some prescribed plagiarism of somebody else’s tour de force.

You have a masterpiece inside you, too, you know. One unlike any that has ever been created or ever will be.

And remember:

If you go to your grave
without painting
your masterpiece,
it will not
get painted.
No one else
can paint it.

Only you.

What CEOs really want from their top leadership team

Posted on: June 1st, 2010 by Graeme Codrington No Comments

If you ask CEOs what they really want from the people they lead, their answers will indicate the imperative of the age in which they live. If you’d asked that question in the 1950s, for example, they’d probably have answered “technical genius in their field of expertise”. In the 1970s, it was possibly “loyalty and dedication”. In the 1980s, they’d probably have been looking for “driving ambition and competitiveness”, the 1990s was probably about “vision”, while the 2000s were likely about “ruthless efficiency and management discipline”. What do you think?

I was interested to read the results of a recent survey from IBM’s Institute for Business Value. Can you guess what one leadership competency was valued above all others?

The answer bears important consequences for a company’s stakeholders, since the qualities that a CEO values most in the company leadership team will set a standard that affects everything the company does, and contribute directly to its long-term success (or failure).

And the answer is… CREATIVITY.

Conducted through in-person interviews with consultants from IBM’s Institute for Business Value, less than half of global CEOs believe their enterprises are adequately prepared to handle a highly volatile, increasingly complex business environment. CEOs are confronted with massive shifts new government regulations, changes in global economic power centers, accelerated industry transformation, growing volumes of data, rapidly evolving customer preferences – that, according to the study, can be overcome by instilling “creativity” throughout an organization.

More than 60% of CEOs believe industry transformation is the top factor contributing to uncertainty, and the finding indicates a need to discover innovative ways of managing an organization’s structure, finances, people and strategy. The CEOs interviewed told IBM that today’s business environment is volatile, uncertain and increasingly complex. Eight in ten CEOs expect their environment to grow significantly more complex but only 49% believe their organizations are equipped to deal with it successfully.

“Coming out of the worst economic downturn in our professional lifetimes — and facing a new normal that is distinctly different — it is remarkable that CEOs identify creativity as the number one leadership competency of the successful enterprise of the future,” said Frank Kern, senior vice president, IBM Global Business Services. “But step back and think about it, and this is entirely consistent with the other top finding in our Study — that the biggest challenge facing enterprises from here on will be the accelerating complexity and the velocity of a world that is operating as a massively interconnected system.”

Sir Ken Robinson – 30 minutes of inspiration about learning and the future of education

Posted on: May 24th, 2010 by Graeme Codrington 1 Comment

I am a huge fan of Sir Ken Robinson. He has spoken twice at the TED conferences – once in 2006, and again earlier this year. His two talks follow on from each other, as he talks so brilliantly about education and how we can help the next generation access their futures through creativity in education.

He is a remarkable speaker. I have embedded both videos below so you can watch them in sequence:

Book review: Orbiting the Giant Hairball

Posted on: May 17th, 2010 by Graeme Codrington No Comments

I am becoming increasingly interested in company structures that are trying to use quantum mechanics (as opposed to Newtonian science) as the basis of their design. The simplest versions of these are linked to the concepts of cloud computing and virtual organisations.

Probably the most insightful book I have read on this to date is Malone’s “The Future Arrived Yesterday” (buy from Amazon.co.uk or Kalahari.net). This book has been reviewed by one of my business associates, Pete Laburn – read his excellent synopsis here.

But then, on Saturday, I was meeting with John Reynolds, the Executive Vice President of Azusa Pacific University, and he recommended a book that is written by a “been there, done that” CEO. Gordon MacKenzie ran Hallmark for many years, and implemented many of the concepts of a “Protean organisation” while he was there. The quirky book title refers to concept of a central idea/hub/node, with lots of orbiting people/business units/functional areas.

I haven’t read the book yet, but it appears to have a growing cult status. You can buy it at Amazon.co.uk or Kalahari.net, and I have copied a detailed review from Amazon’s site below. Looks interesting, and is on my “to read” list.

(more…)

Right Brain people will be a-head in the future

Posted on: May 14th, 2010 by admin-kablooey 1 Comment

Ted.com is one of the best internet resources I’ve ever come across for short, powerful and interesting inputs on a broad cross-section of topics that loosely fall into the categories of Technology, Environment and Design (TED). Most inputs have a future focus, and one of the themes I’ve often picked up on has to do with what we’ll need, as human beings, to compete in the future. Interestingly it’s not going to be only each other we have to compete against, it’s also going to be technology.

This is not unprecedented either. Over the last 200 years or so, many countries around the world have seen their workforce move from Industrial type activity to Service orientated activity. One statistic I’ve seen has the US population moving from a 98% industrial type workforce (1820) to just 2.5% (2000). There’s no doubt that technology’s new focus is in the service industry, as computers and machines take over roles people have filled. Call centers, processing departments, flying planes, medicine, education, tourism (think GPS and augmented reality), etc, etc.

So how do we compete? What will we do when technology replaces us once again? The response of many is that it will never happen, but it has before, and there’s no reason to think it wont again.

Dan Pink is a contributor at TED.com. If you’ve seen him on TED then you’ll know his talk on re-thinking rewards and motivation. I was recently alerted to another short input of his on YouTube, via a friend on Twitter (@MJH1004)

In this input, ‘Education and the Changing World of Work, Pink suggests that left brain activity has dominated the way in which we’ve worked up until now. Of course, those of us with dominant left brain abilities have succeeded in this particular paradigm. Technology, however, is stepping into left brain spaces, leaving a massive need for right brain abilities (it will be all that’s left for us to do). It’s our right brain that is creative, sees opportunities where our left brain doesn’t. People with dominant right brains are the most valuable in this new world of work, suggests Pink.

Dan Pink isn’t the only one suggesting this. Another great TED input (my favourite) is by Sir Ken Robinson (recently released his book, The Element) talking about whether Schools Kill Creativity. He makes similar points.

Of course all the right brained people smile a little at this thought. They’re the ones who struggled at school and university. They’re the one’s who’ve battled to get ahead in traditional business models. They’ve been on the fringe for a long time. Labeled as outsiders, the weirdoes, the dreamers, the impractical, the nice-to-haves when you’re smoking a doobee, but the not-so-nice-to-haves when you’re trying to run the world. The idea of an about turn on who’s valuable into the future is an attractive fantasy for right brain dominated people. Let’s hope they dream less about that day, and instead work out how they’re going to capitalise on it : )

Here’s Dan Pink on Education and the Future World of Work.