I Think, Therefore I Am… I Do, Therefore I Am Busy… I Create, Therefore I am Fulfilled

I Think, Therefore I Am

My Spring Break started yesterday at 5:13 p.m. (but who’s counting?), and I am more than looking forward to having 9 days away from the office.  I am taking a “Stay-cation”, so instead of packing up half of our house and loading up the mini-van we have decided to have some quality family time at home.  We do not have much scheduled, and will hopefully get caught up on some “eating, drinking, and being merry”.  The one family goal that we do have over the break is to build a treehouse in the backyard.  We have been talking about this project for years now… brainstorming, daydreaming, researching, drawing up blueprints, etc., and it is finally time to reduce this dream into reality.  In discussing the project over breakfast this morning, my daughter said “It has been so much fun imagining this treehouse… I can’t believe that we are actually going to make it.”  And while she was clearly excited, she also looked nervous, anxious, and a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of turning what has existing only as a fairy tale in her mind into a crude wooden structure in her yard.  And to be honest… I somewhat share that sentiment.

I will leave my mental Spring Break for a few minutes now, and go back to the cubes and labs…  In our roles as innovators, we are often tasked with “building a treehouse”.  We need to dream big, plan smart, and execute with excellence to turn visions into actions into realities.  And while this seems like a very logical flow of thought and of work, I have a question.  In an average work week, how much time do you actually spend “creating”?  I don’t necessarily even mean the “final product”, but what percentage of your time is actually spent creating prototypes, summaries, or any tangible results rather than time spent thinking, talking, and busy-ing yourselves with the mundane?  Of course it is important to invest in ideating, collaborating, and “checking the boxes” that the corporate world often demands.  But do these activities complement or conquer the time that we should spend actually making something?  And if the percentage is low (mine surely is), why is that?  By nature, we have all gotten into the creative business of innovation because we like “building things”… and creating transformational and disruptive products and experiences.  And also by nature, many of us are bored easily by repetition, mundane tasks, and “politics”… so then why do we spend so much time with the latter, rather than the former?

1) I Think, Therefore I Am.  The truth is, dreaming, brainstorming, and ideating is fun.  Leaving the constraints of reality, and instead imagining what is possible rather than what is probable, is a fun state in which to exist.  And when working on a creative team, the collective power of the ideas can be highly energizing and exciting.  But it can also be paralyzing.  Much like the fear my daughter and I feel about turning our treehouse dreams into reality, teams can get into a vicious cycle of fear of not being able to perfectly translate a vision into a functional product.  On post-it notes, in conference rooms, and within a powerpoint presentation, an idea can remain in its ideal space… but when the team starts reducing it to practice, it is almost like stepping backwards into a world of compromises, messiness, and creative disagreements.  Thinking is important and creating is hard… but it is critical to take the leap forward and to start reducing ideas to practice.  If an idea forms in a brainstorming session, but there is no one there to create it, does it make a sound?

2)  I Do, Therefore I Am Busy.  So when we do leave the realms of “dreaming” and start actually “doing”, what type of tasks do we do?  Do we invest our time on the messy tasks of prototyping, or the menial tasks of emailing?  Do we spend our energy on difficult-to-measure activities like experimenting or on more tangible, recordable box-checking?  Yes, the corporate world is full of a lot of “crap” (a technical term) to do and it is easy to get caught up in the overwhelming wave of mundanity that can flood over us.  However, we can often use this deluge as an excuse to not focus on the tasks that are truly impactful.  Do you vigilantly answer every email because it is mandatory, or because it fills an internal desire to complete something?  Do you do every training and attend every meeting to be a good corporate steward or out of a fear of checking less boxes than your peers?  And… in the end are you biasing your time toward safe but less impactful activities rather than risky but potential amazing ones?  Basically, do you keep yourself excessively busy with peripheral tasks because you truly have to, or because you are afraid not to?

3)  I Create, Therefore I am Fulfilled.  In my opinion, there is nothing more fulfilling than creating something out of nothing.  Part of the allure to me of writing these blog entries is the satisfaction of taking a blank sheet of paper and turning it into a tangible and permanent finished product.  In creation, we are putting our stamp on the world and bringing to life something that otherwise would not exist.  It is utterly rewarding, but often highly difficult… particularly in getting started.  First, there is the hurdle of letting go of the perfection of the ideation stage.  Once you impose the constraints of reality, like time, resources, money, laws of nature, etc., it is virtually impossible to create exactly what is in your mind.  Don’t underestimate the impact of this hurdle, as the unconscious fear of failing to meet the gold standard can create a high activation energy for starting a project.  Second, there is the obstacle of clutter.  There are so many “little things” constantly bombarding us, that it can be difficult to learn to live with the clutter (it can never be eliminated!) and to focus on building something new amidst the “storm”.  And third, there is the critical barrier of prioritization.  There will always be something or someone that demands your urgent attention, and there will be no shortage of meetings and deadlines.  The urgent will always attempt to overwhem the important, and if you do not deliberately dedicate time to building for the future, then this time will always fall to the bottom of the list.  Prioritize time for creating.  This doesn’t just apply to products… building a prototype, creating a concept, writing a summary all involve starting with a clean slate and making something real.  If not every day, then every week, I would recommend allocating and investing time for leaving the mundane day-to-day work and building something.  This will not only drive results for your programs… but will provide personal fulfillment as well.

As I start my Spring Break, I have a very clear goal for the week to build a treehouse.  There will be little things that get in the way, but we are dedicating the time to bring this to life.  It is going to be messy… I am never going to be skilled enough to do a professional calibre job and my three young architects will be “helping” alot.  It also will be far from perfect.  We have big plans and limited skill, so what we ultimately build will be far less than what we have dreamed in our blueprints (Sorry, son, we will not have a working bathroom or kitchen).  But while it will fall short of perfect, it will be infinitely better than the empty space in the tree that we have now.   We’ve dreamed, we’ve planned, and now we will build… and when Spring Break ends there will be a new home in the backyard where nothing stands today.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

 

 

The Fable of the Dangling Carrot

Dangling Carrot

A long time ago, in a meadow far, far away… there lived three rabbits.  They were all happy, hard-working, and ambitious young bunnies who supported themselves and their families by farming lettuce in their three neighboring fields.  The rabbits had become good friends and often helped each other so that they could maximize their collective success.  Their boss was a sly, old fox who was quite happy with the rabbit’s results, but wondered if there were a way that he could motivate them to work even harder.  The fox was rather perplexed about how best to do this as he had nothing tangible to offer the rabbits, but he was greedy to grow his business so he set off to devise a plan.

The fox locked himself in his burrow for several days, brainstorming, ideating, and deep-diving before finally he had a scheme that he thought just might work.  So the next morning he went to the meadow, called the three rabbits into a meeting, and began to unveil his plan.  “You all have done a masterful job of building our lettuce business,” said the fox, “and I have been quite happy with your success.”  The rabbits all smiled proudly, looking around at the lettuce fields that they grown.  “However…” said the fox, “the times are changing and we need to step-change our progress and to grow more lettuce than ever before!”  The rabbits gave him their full attention and anxiously awaited the brilliant vision from the fox.  The fox proclaimed, “If we are truly successful then one or more of you will have the opportunity to leave these lettuce fields and to gain a more prestigious role, to bring in more green for your families, and to even supervise some rabbits of your own.”  The fox then pulled a juicy, orange carrot from his pocket and dangled it in front of the bunnies… whose eyes and mouths were now widely gaping.

“If you can seize this challenge, work even harder, and achieve breakthrough results, then you may have the opportunity to farm carrots like these instead of that boring, old lettuce… and only then will you experience unprecedented success and glory.”  The first bunny exclaimed, “Wow! I want those carrots!  How much progress must I make?”  The second bunny blurted, “That is amazing!  When will we know who has succeeded?”  And the third bunny, looking intrigued but more skeptical, asked, “What’s the catch?”  The fox, expecting these questions, calmly explained, “There is no catch… you have my word that there are carrots on the horizon.  I can’t give you specifics on when or how much, as the future is very uncertain, but I can say that the harder that you work, the better your chances.”  With that, the first two bunnies ran to their fields and began working while the third bunny went off to find a quiet place to think.  And the fox walked away, feeling confident that his plan had succeeded.

What the racing rabbits did not realize, however, was that when the fox dangled that carrot, there was no carrot field yet to be found.  The fox wanted to be in the carrot business, and hoped that he could deliver on his proclamation… but had no tangible carrot to offer.  He decided to sit back and wait to see how the rabbits responded before planning his next move.

Back at the meadow, the first rabbit had built a fence around his field and was working alone harder and faster than ever before.  The second rabbit had chosen not to seclude himself from the others and continued to work during the day as usual… however, every night he left his family and went back to the field to work alone through the night.  The third rabbit chose not to change his behavior, but rather to keep doing what had been successful in the past.  However, because the rabbits were no longer working together, it had become harder and less fulfilling to deliver the same results.

After the first year, the fox came back, carrying the juicy dangling carrot, to assess the rabbits’ results.  He entered into the first rabbit’s fence and was pleased to see that the lettuce field was noticeably bigger and more fruitful than ever before.  The rabbit looked tired… but proud of what he had done.  When the fox went to the second field, the rabbit was not yet there but was running from his home looking dismayed.  The fox was pleased to see the progress, but the bunny looked distracted and desperate that he had done enough to earn the carrot that the fox still held.  At the third field, the rabbit stood, content with his work, which was not a dramatic improvement from the previous year but consistently strong.  The fox shook his head in disapproval, and went on to praise the first two rabbits.  “I am quite pleased,” said the fox, “and clearly you have been working hard to reach our goals.”  “Unfortunately,” he stated slowly, “there is no carrot field to be awarded this year… but if you keep up the good work then maybe next year will be the year!”  The third bunny shrugged and went back to his field, the second bunny had tears in his eyes as he sulked back toward his house, while the first bunny looked angry but determined as he hopped quickly back inside his fence.  Each went back to work in their respective fields, determined to earn the elusive carrot from the fox.

Another year passed, and when it came time for the “carrot dangling” the fox was almost giddy as he pranced back to the rabbits’ fields.  He could not wait to see how much more that they had accomplished, and to figure out how much richer he would become.  However, as he approached the fields he started to become suspicious that his plan was not working like he had thought.  When he approached the first bunny’s fence, the bunny rushed up to meet him and began taking the fox through an extensive presentation about why he, and not the other two bunnies, deserved the carrot field.  He had elaborate charts, drawings, and graphs on his fence wall and spoke extensively about his personal merits (and the flaws of the other two rabbits!).  It was an impressive display, but the rabbit talked for so long, that the fox did not even have time to look behind the fence to see the actual field.  As he walked over to the second rabbit, he could see the dark circles under the bunny’s eyes and a look of pleading upon his face.  The bunny pulled out his timecard and showed how many extra hours that he had invested, how many nights he had spent in the field, and how hard it had been to be away from his family for so long.  The fox gave him an encouraging pat on the back, tried to look empathetic, and thanked him for his work. He then slipped away and went over to the third bunny’s field.  The third bunny barely looked up from his work as the fox approached.  The fox surveyed the field and saw the consistent results that he had grown to expect, but was surprised by the bunny’s general lack of interest.

He engaged the third bunny in conversation, and the bunny told the fox, “I know that you are probably pleased with the short-term results that we have all achieved, but I am concerned about the long-term implications.  One bunny is so concerned with the prestige of earning his carrot that he is neglecting his actual work, and his working relationships, to invest more time in ‘campaigning’.  The other is spending so much time away from his family that I am worried about his health and well-being.  And for me… the culture just is not very collaborative anymore and it is no longer fun for me to work in the fields.”  The fox looked shocked at these words and also at the third rabbit’s questioning of the fox’s own masterful plan.  He gave a disapproving stare to the bunny and then went to address them all.  “Brilliant work and strong results for each and every one of you”, said the fox.  “I am pleased by your progress and optimistic about our future.”  “However… while our results are good, they are not good enough and I am sorry to inform you that there are no carrots to be awarded this year”, the fox said slowly and carefully.  He waited, as the rabbits’ reaction clearly showed their frustration and disappointment before saying, “But I am optimistic that next year just might be the Year of the Carrot!”

The fox then quickly left the fields to go back to his burrow and to count his profits.  He was still quite pleased with how his plan was proceeding, but was beginning to worry about the third bunny’s words of caution.  The fox knew that he would eventually need to come through on his carrot promise, but decided to wait one more year and to further line his pockets before finding a way to award the carrot.

At the time of the third year’s review, the fox went back to the fields.  He tried to remain optimistic as to what he would find, but had a lingering doubt in the back of his mind.  And as he approached the first bunny’s field, his doubt was rapidly turning into concern.  He saw that the fence was higher, that the graphs and charts were more extensive, and that the bunny was ready for another profound presentation to impress the fox.  It was clear that this bunny was no longer on speaking terms with the other two bunnies and that he had become obsessed with nothing but winning the carrot.  The fox stopped the bunny before the “sales pitch” could start and instead went inside the fence.  The fox has shocked and dismayed to see that both the quantity and the quality of the lettuce field had deteriorated rapidly!  Clearly the bunny had focused on style over substance, and the results had suffered dramatically.  Anxiously, the fox hurried out of the fence (with the first bunny hopping behind him still trying to deliver his rehearsed presentation) and went to the second bunny’s field.  The bunny looked much more content and healthy than the previous years, and told the fox, “You may notice that my field is smaller this year.  The quality is still high, but I decided that I needed to spend more time with my family and less time in the fields.  I had become so obsessed with the carrot that I was neglecting my family… and I realized that carrots weren’t really that important to me anyways.”  The fox was glad to see the high quality, but dismayed to see yet another decrease in production.  He went over to the third field and again saw the consistent, steady growth that he had grown to expect… but the third bunny was nowhere to be found.  He saw a note from the bunny that said, “Dear Fox, Thank you for the opportunity and I apologize for the short notice.  I have decided to leave this job and to go to work for myself growing my own lettuce.  I wish you luck and please send my best regards to the other two bunnies. May you all solve the dilemma of the dangling carrot.”

The fox was floored and dismayed by what had happened, and shocked by the failure of his plan.  He hurried back to his burrow (when he finally evaded the first bunny who was still unceasingly continuing his pitch), to deal with the realization of the situation.  Now… not only were there no carrots in the horizon, but there was no longer enough lettuce either.  He looked onto his table at the carrot that he had been dangling, and what had once looked bright and promising now looked cold and depressing.  That very carrot, which had once tantalized and entranced the bunnies, now just teased and mocked him. The fox tossed the carrot in the trash and sat wondering how his leadership of the bunnies had gone so wrong. He then saw a turnip on his shelf and had a new, brilliant idea…

The Moral of the Story:

For the Fox:  As managers, we Must Not dangle a carrot unless we can deliver, otherwise we will create a culture where our bunnies will become disgruntled, distracted, and disappearing… and we will become a leader with no followers.

For the Bunnies:  Before we blindly chase a carrot, we must make sure that 1) we even like carrots, 2) That the carrots are real, and 3) That we understand the costs of the chase.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

From Lego to “Let it Go”… Innovation Lessons Learned from Attending Movies with my Kids

Disney Movie Innovation

The Academy Awards have come and gone, and while it was all over the media… I honestly did not pay too much attention.  Outside of American Hustle, which I managed to catch during my crazy “Megabus” trip to Chicago, the only nominated flick that I was able to see was “Frozen”.  With three kids all nine years old or younger, the only time we “roll out the red carpet” and head to a theater is to see the latest Disney or Pixar production.  I am not complaining, as the quality of the plot, production, and performances of these films are generally outstanding… it does, however, make me pretty useless in keeping up with current Hollywood pop “culture”.

That said, three of the last kids’ movies that we have seen have not only been entertaining, but have also had some very insightful (and often poignant) lessons to be reapplied to an innovative culture at work.  (Yes, my kids correctly think that I am a big nerd for over-analyzing their movies.)  The one consistent theme that has been most striking to me has been the struggle to balance between trying to enforce strict, safe, and consistent control over an individual or an “organization” while still maintaining a culture of creativity, rule-breaking, and fearlessness.  This tension is often central to the plot lines of these films and, in my opinion, is a microcosm of struggles that we are all facing in our innovative organizations (and even more generally in our society) today.  The lessons learned from a lego mini-figure, a video game villain, and an ice princess are surprisingly applicable to the challenges we face daily in our organizations.

The Lego Movie

By far, this movie is the best metaphor of the challenges in corporations and businesses to maintain order and control while still encouraging individuality and creativity.  (Plus, only in a Lego World can you have Han Solo, Batman, and Dumbledore all in the same movie!)  Without divulging too many spoilers about the really well done plot twists and surprises in this movie, I will try to at least set the stage.  The villain is the President of a lego metropolis, and his name is Lord Business.  He has an army of “micromanagers” (yes, that is really what they are called), whose job is to insure that all of the lego citizens follow the rules, do what they are told, and do not deviate from the instruction manuals.  His desire to maintain order is so strong that he hatches an evil plan to cover the entire city with super glue, so as to insure that every piece remains permanently fixed in its place.  (To be fair though, having a son who is a lego maniac myself with his thousands of legos in the house, I do somewhat empathize with the villain…  But I digress).  Anyways… the hero of the story is named Emmet.  He is just a run-of-the-mill lego construction worker who mindlessly follows the orders and directives of Lord Business, believes all of the propaganda, and happily goes through life just doing what he is told.  Until one day… Emmet stumbles across a group of “rebel” lego heroes known as the “master builders” who are working to fight back against the oppressive rule of Lord Business.  This band of legends and super heroes have the ability and the desire to build and to create using their own imaginations rather than using instruction manuals, and want the city to be more representative of the collective vision of the broader population and not just of the mind of Lord Business.  They become convinced that Emmet is unknowingly the ultimate hero known as “The Special” and that he will lead the master builders to end Lord Business’s reign and to set the people free.

Emmet joins the master builders, all of whom had either fled the city, rebelled against Lord Business, or been captured and removed from society.  He quickly learns that he must stop Lord Business and to help the creative master builders to stop the evil “super glue” plan.  He also, though, realizes, that the creative and imaginative “master builders” have bold visions, but cannot get onto the same page creatively, and thus that they too actually need to find a way to follow some common plans and instructions in order to translate ideas into concrete actions.

In the end, Emmet thwarts the “super glue” plot and along the way teaches the master builders that a common vision and some degree of structure is important, and also helps Lord Business to see that for the city to truly thrive he needs to encourage creativity and expression among society… even if it means that some amount of chaos and uncertainty may ensue.

Some questions as it relates back to our “real world” organizations:

  • In our organizations, does “management” want an army of executors who execute against “super glued” plans, or a creative organization who incorporates their own ideas into the broader vision?
  • Do we want our innovators to strictly follow an instruction manual or to use their imaginations?  On the flip side, are our innovators able to converge enough to follow a common vision and to make progress… or do they get caught in endless divergence?
  • Do our innovators feel like a part of the culture in the organization, or do they feel they must rebel, flee, or quit to express themselves appropriately?
  • Do we encourage one common vision, and enable a battalion of leaders to find unique ways to plan and to bring the vision to life, or do we tightly micromanage so as to have one vision, only one plan, and an army of executors… but not innovators?

Wreck It Ralph

This was a surprisingly good movie set behind the screens of an arcade and inside the lives and worlds of classic video game characters.  The primary plot is set around a Donkey Kong-esque game, called Fix It Felix, in which a character named Wreck It Ralph is tasked with destroying a building, while Felix works feverously to fix it.  In the game, all of the “digital residents” of the targeted building consider Felix to be a hero and encourage him with praise and awards, and consider Ralph to be a villain and assault him with insults and jeers.  Eventually Ralph tires of his role as the “bad guy” and chooses to leave the game, essentially shutting down the entire virtual world of “Fix It Felix”.  Without someone to destroy the existing buildings there was nothing then to fix, and the game was stagnant, no longer playable, and at risk of being “unplugged”.

Of course, after a series of adventures, Felix ultimately finds Ralph, the good people of the building recognize Ralph’s importance, and they manage to save (and even to improve) the game.

  • In our organizations, do we reward the innovators who break down existing “buildings” of norms, standards, and ideas or do we disproportionately encourage the “problem fixers”… the ones who work to maintain the status quo and to extinguish deviations before they start.
  • Do we recognize that a culture of “fixing” can, at best, hope to maintain steadiness and parity… but can not encourage growth?  Fixing things is important and can help to prevent losses, but to truly grow we need to “wreck” existing products, ideas, and models and then build them up better than before.
  • Do we make the risk-takers and the rule-breakers feel like “bad guys”, while the risk-avoiders and rule-followers feel like “good guys”?

Frozen

For any of you who have young girls at home, your minivans and living rooms have likely been filled with the repeated singing of the ice princess’s theme song- “Let it Go”.  In this movie, a young princess learns that she has “super powers” and that she is able to create snow, ice, and cold from her very own hands.  She and her younger sister initially enjoy this amazing power, and proceed to have wintery fun and adventures.  All of that changes, however, when, as a child, the ice princess once fails to control her powers and accidentally injures her younger sister, sending their parents into a panic and into action.  Instead of supporting and teaching the ice princess how to harness the uncertainty of her powers, the parents instead banished her to her room and forced her to keep her powers under wraps.  They essentially “managed the uncertainty” through trying to eliminate all risk, forbidding their daughter to use her amazing but somewhat uncontrollable ability.  Then, as happens in any good Disney Princess movie, the parents eventually die a tragic death, and the ice princess has to emerge from her room and to become the queen of the kingdom.  She tries to hide and to control her abilities, but they are an inherent part of who she is, and she ultimately and inadvertently unleashes them in a destructive freeze of the entire kingdom.  She then flees into the mountains and vows to never expose anyone to her amazing and powerful abilities again.

Well… of course in the end, she learns how to control her powers, saves the kingdom, and lives happily ever after.  But it begs the question:

  • In our organizations, when an individual or team has a unique idea or an unproven talent, do we encourage her to experiment, to learn, and to fail or do we try to repress this amazing but potentially dangerous ability or to hide it and to “play it safe”?
  • Are we helping these individuals to harness and unleash the uncertainty of their skills or do we manage and suppress them?
  • Do these individuals feel supported and encouraged to “lead the kingdom” or do they feel reclusive and feared?  Do they feel that the only way to truly be creative and expressive is to rebel against the organizational culture rather than to be a part of it?

Overall, these movie themes highlight a tension that is all too common in organizations.  Many managers want an organization of leaders, risk takers, and innovators, but at the same time want to super glue, micro-manage, and freeze plans and programs so as to maintain control and to minimize risk.  If we want a truly innovative organization, then we need to focus on delivering a clear and aligned vision for the organization to follow, but then to allow strategic, tactical, and executional freedom to our innovators to create and to build without strictly following an “instruction manual”.  We can’t hire innovators to merely execute- we need to encourage them to create, to explore, and to own.  Yes, this will introduce some degree of chaos, of risk, and even of failure, but more importantly it is critical in allowing for breakthroughs, step changes, and new-to-the world innovations.  When it comes to micro-management of innovators, we need to “Let it Go”, not be afraid to “Wreck” our existing norms and standards, and allow our “Master Builders” to innovate against the vision with the freedom of self-expression and creativity.  Getting this balance right is key to delivering an innovative culture that delivers a “Box Office Smash”.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com