The CARTWHEEL EFFECT of Innovation- Perception versus… Perception

Cartwheel Effect

My oldest daughter is an amazing kid.  She is extremely clever, very graceful, and more daring than any 8-year old girl I know (if I do say so myself!).  She is also entirely independent (stubbornly so) and can sometimes possess very little awareness, and frankly minimal concern, of the perceptions of those around her (I can’t imagine where she gets that…).  While this independent streak can be frustrating at times as her parent, I truly hope that she always maintains this spirit and continues to prioritize her own expectations and desires over those placed upon her by society.

I took some creative license with the following story, but the point holds true… A while back, my amazing daughter started to take a Gymnastics class at the YMCA.  This was not a competitive program by any means, but a chance for her to exercise, meet some kids, and to get out some of that endless supply of energy.  One of the first moves that she practiced was a basic cartwheel, and one evening she came to me excited and proclaimed, “Dad, I just did a perfect cartwheel!”  So, as the proud Dad that I am, I followed her into the basement and sat back and waited to witness perfection.  She vaulted herself forward, put her hands on the mat, and went head over heels with legs bent, flailing with a unique “twist” as she spun, in a move that vaguely resembled a cartwheel… “See Dad, I did it!”.  It was extremely cute and, being the ever supportive and “helpful” father and coach, I smiled, praised her effort, and offered her some advice.  “Hey, kid, that was awesome, BUT… next time why don’t you try and keep your legs a little straighter?”  She looked at me with what I first thought was disappointment but then recognized as defiance, “Dad… my legs were exactly how they were supposed to be- that was a good cartwheel.”  After a short and unproductive back-and-forth, she walked away disgusted that her Dad had no concept of what a cartwheel was supposed to look like, and I walked away thinking she needed more practice.

Some form of this conversation happened periodically over the coming days, until eventually she stopped asking for my advice and I stopped giving it.  Finally, one evening I had the “brilliant” idea (if I do say so myself) to take a video so that she could see for herself what I was trying to say.  “Hey… you’ve probably never had a chance to actually see yourself do a cartwheel.  Would you like me to take a video?”, I offered slyly.  “Yeah, Dad, that would be awesome!”, she exclaimed with a big anticipatory grin.  So she set up for a cartwheel and I whipped out my iPhone.  A few seconds later, we sat together and watched the video, and for the first time she had recognition that her cartwheel was not being executed in reality as she had perceived it in her own mind.  The video “data” showed her conclusively what I was trying to say and allowed her for the first time to internalize the feedback.  So she went back to the mat, launched herself into a cartwheel and kept her legs much straighter.  “How was that, Dad?”, she anxiously asked.  “That was much better,” I said, “that was the best cartwheel you’ve ever done!”.  Now, newly confident in my coaching abilities I decided to offer her another bit of advice, “Now, this time you can try to do it with a little less of that interesting twist so that you land straight ahead”, I said, trying to paint a picture of my view of the perfect cartwheel.  “But Dad,” she said, “I am trying to do that twist.  I don’t want to do a cartwheel exactly like everyone else… I want to do it my way!”  And with that, I realized a fundamental flaw in my approach.  I had been focused so much on what I perceived to be the “right way” to do a cartwheel from my perspective, that I never took the time to understand what she perceived the “right way” to be from hers.  The communication gap was not only that her perception has failing to match up with reality, but further that her perception was failing to meet up with my perception.  While I was trying to illustrate to her that her results were not matching the objectives, I failed to realize that my objectives for a “perfect cartwheel” were different than hers.

Thus the “Cartwheel Effect” was a recognition that there was a gap in:

  • My objectives versus her objectives
  • Her perception versus her own objectives
  • Her perception versus my perception, and
  • My perception versus my own objectives

This “Cartwheel Effect” extends beyond my basement, and into innovation teams and organizations.  Conflicts both within teams as well as between teams and their management often arise due to misalignment in objectives and perceptions.  Managers might feel the need to micro-manage due to teams delivering against the “wrong” objectives.  Teams might feel a lack of empowerment and accountability as managers’ demands do not match their vision for the work.  Teams can end up in an endless cycle of re-work and swirl as no one seems to ever being rowing in the same direction.  To overcome this “Cartwheel Effect”, teams need to communicate, collaborate, and coordinate their objectives and perceptions so as to maximize results as well as the journey in obtaining them.

5 Steps to Overcome the “Cartwheel Effect”:

  1. Align on the definition of the Desired Objectives at the onset.  Make sure that all teammates and managers are very clear, transparent, and aligned on the objectives of the project.  While this seems obvious, it is often overlooked.  At the beginning stages of a project, all key stakeholders should invest whatever time is necessary to define all of the goals and get them on paper.  Have the debates and hard discussions at the start to drive focus and to minimize “swirl” moving forward.  Essentially, make sure everyone had the same understanding of why you are attempting a “cartwheel”, who is playing what role, and what a successful “cartwheel” would be.
  2. Get clear on the measures for Project Success Criteria.  Once the team has aligned on what a successful cartwheel should look like, they should next get clear on how they will measure it.  “We are what we measure,” and thus driving clarity on aligned criteria will help make decisions more pragmatic than emotional.  Getting everyone’s perceptions out in the open and assigning quantitative (or even qualitative) measures around success will be key in insuring that objectives are being broadly met.
  3. Define “hard points” versus “soft points” for Innovation Design, particularly as the team works with their management on how to deliver against success criteria.  Essentially, what specific executional elements are mandated by management and which are optional, so as to give the team degrees of freedom in which to deliver the project goals?  Using a hypothetical example from my daughter’s case, maybe her Gymnastics coach expects a successful cartwheel to involve good form and a perfect landing, but will allow creativity in her “twist”, tempo, and expressiveness.  My daughter can then focus on delivering the base criteria that must be met to satisfy the Coach, while owning the creativity and agility to design and deliver in the way that she best sees fit.  This will drive accountability, ownership, and creativity, ultimately leading to a better overall solution.
  4. Make all of the various perceptions visible and tangible by “Bringing the Tiger in the Room“.  I’ve talked a lot previously about the benefits of “bringing the tiger”, i.e. taking a verbal or written debate and bringing it to life in a real way that is interactive and obvious.  In the example about my daughter, we debated fruitlessly until we actually had  video proof that we could both react to and thus bring to life the previously hidden differences in our perceptions.  Creating a prototype to be shared and discussed, bringing data to life with examples and metaphors, role playing scenarios with the entire team can all bring to life differences in perceptions in a very real way, far better than weeks of debates over memos, meetings, and emails.
  5. Review the “game tape” together.  As the teams learn and evolve along the journey, everyone should share the “game tapes” with each other as they move from milestone to milestone.  Again, with my daughter, I could have analyzed the video in a vacuum and given her feedback through my viewpoint alone, or my daughter could have done something similar from her own perspective.  By sharing and assessing the data, prototypes, and analyses together we can more easily break through each other’s perceptions and more clearly align on how to proceed.

Investing the time in aligning on objectives from the start of a project, in communicating various perceptions along the way, and on actively and tangibly sharing progress and results can all help teams to overcome the “Cartwheel Effect”.  Until there is a shared,  tangible vision for success on the horizon, then individuals on the team will ride forward in different directions and struggle along the way.  As to my daughter… we both now agree that her cartwheels are beyond perfect… they are Amazing!


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