Archive for the ‘communicating’ Category
A friend once told me I was a genius. When I demurred, he added, “Genius is about seeing patterns where others see only chaos – and you’re really good at that.”
In the years since, I’ve seen similar definitions. My favorite is by the literary critic and author Malcolm Cowley, in his introduction to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:
Genius is vision, often involving the gift of finding patterns where others see nothing but a chance collection of objects.
So: if a core element of genius is an unusual capability for pattern recognition — can we cultivate that?
First, let’s talk about why it’s so useful. Even before we talk about genius, it’s important to recognize that being able to see the patterns in our experience is the key catalyst for learning. My almost-three-year-old granddaughter is relentless in finding and using patterns. For instance, after trying a variety of approaches (including demanding and fake crying) she’s learned that saying “please” will almost always get her what she wants. So “please” is quickly becoming a standard item in her vocabulary.
Take that basic human learning tool and ramp it up to “seeing patterns where others see nothing but a chance collection of objects,” and you have the core of all innovation and new understanding – what people call genius. It’s also an essential quality of good leaders.
And yes, we can get better at it. Here are three simple tools for stretching those muscles:
Get curious: Curiosity is that deep internal impulse to investigate. We all have it in abundance as children: it’s the source of their endless “why?” and “then what?” questions. Unfortunately, by the time we get to be adults, it’s been largely socialized out of us; we think we’re supposed to know everything and it’s seen as either rude or naïve to be too curious. But if you want to access and develop your innate ability to see patterns, you have to first re-ignite your curiosity. One great way to do it is to consciously ask “Why is that happening?” or “How does that work?” in day-to-day situations that you’ve come to take for granted. For instance, I recently encouraged a client to reflect on why her relationship with an employee had gotten strained. She came back to me a couple of weeks later, saying that once she started looking at what had changed, she realized that she had fallen into the habit of disagreeing with his ideas in meetings because his way of presenting those ideas was irritating to her – and that she was both ignoring some potentially useful ideas and hurting their relationship as a result. Voila – pattern recognition!
Be objective. My client’s recognition of that unhelpful pattern – and her part in it – required not only curiosity but also objectivity, which is the ability to look at all sides of a situation with openness and dispassion. If you go into a situation with deeply held pre-conceived ideas about what you’ll find, it’s unlikely that you’ll see anything new. The key to being objective is to cultivate the skill of being a Fair Witness, which I’ve blogged about regularly. The essence of being a fair witness is to observe your own self-talk (your internal monologue) to see whether what you’re saying to yourself about a situation is neutral and accurate. And if it’s not, to change it. For example, if my client had gotten curious but not objective about the situation – with slanted self-talk that supported her pre-existing beliefs, she might have come to the conclusion that her employee was simply an irritating guy, and that there was nothing she could do to improve the relationship. Being a fair witness quite often allows you to see things in new and unexpected ways, as my client experienced, to her benefit.
Pull back the camera. Once you’ve gotten curious and put yourself into an objective, fair witness mindset, it’s critical to step back mentally from the situation so that you can see the whole: that’s when patterns emerge. Years ago, I was at MOMA in New York. When I walked into the room where Monet’s single-panel Water Lilies hangs, I was first struck by its size: it’s over six feet high and almost twenty feet long. You have to stand across the room to take it all in at once; from a distance, you can see how wonderfully Monet captured the tranquility of light-suffused water, floating Japanese lilies, clouds overhead. But when you move in close to the painting, the pattern dissolves, and all you see is a collection of seemingly random brush strokes, in a variety of colors: your ‘camera’ is pulled in too close to make sense of it.
If you ‘get caught in the brush strokes’ it’s nearly impossible to access your own genius. For instance, let’s say that sales are down at a particular company, and the head of sales is desperate to figure out why. If she ‘pulls in the camera too close,’ she might focus, for instance, only on one or two formerly high-performing salespeople who are missing their targets. Just looking at that one part of the situation, she could assume any number of things: that they’ve somehow lost their edge or are slacking off; that firing them will solve the problem; or, conversely, that if she really leans on them, they’ll get better. Based on those assumptions, she might let them go, offer them training, read them the riot act, etc. – but never see the whole picture and the real patterns inherent in it.
If, instead, she “pulls back the camera,” she might (for instance) find that an important new product line isn’t performing as promised because there’s a slight manufacturing glitch. The high return level is affecting both current sales numbers and customers’ willingness to reorder. The broader view gives a very different perspective, and will almost definitely lead her to a different, more effective, more genius-like response.
The beauty of these approaches – getting curious, being more objective, pulling back the camera – is that they’re all practical, developable skills. In other words, you have genius in you…it’s time to let it out.
I read a great many posts and articles by and about entrepreneurs. Lately it has seemed to me that there are two basic entrepreneurial mindsets. There may well be more, and there may be variations on these themes, but these two entrepreneurial types seem to cover most of the territory I’ve observed.
Flavor #1 is the “make a killing” (MAK) entrepreneur. His or her core motivation is to crack the code on becoming wealthy. This kind of entrepreneur wants to build a better mousetrap not primarily to rid the world of disease-creating vermin, or give people a more humane mouse-removal option, but to exit the mousetrap business altogether with a very fat check in hand, and retire to the South of France. Now, these folks quite often create wonderful new things – but what they really want to do is figure out how to build something that can be scaled up and sold.
Flavor #2 is the “richard branson” (RB) entrepreneur. He or she is passionately committed to bringing a product or service to the world that’s better, faster, sleeker, simpler, more sustainable, more delightful, easier, etc. This entrepreneur wants to build a better mousetrap because he or she can see so clearly how much cooler it would be than anything that currently exists. And this person can’t wait to see how it’s going to happen. Now, this kind of entrepreneur quite often also gets rich (as witness the actual Richard Branson) and sometimes even buys a house in in the south of France – but he or she probably keeps working on the next, even cooler version of the thing while sitting on his or her terasse. Getting rich is not the point – or not the main point.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately because I’ve been realizing that I’m about
95% RB, and my business partner is about 65% RB and about 35% MAK (I haven’t run this by him yet – he might assess himself differently). And I see that his infusion of MAK-ness is very good for me and for the business. Without him, the business wouldn’t be growing as quickly, and we wouldn’t be thinking as much (or as practically) about creating new revenue streams that are more self- sustaining and scalable.
But I’m also watching my son – who is heavily weighted toward the RB side – having lots of difficulty finding an operating rhythm with his business partner, who is a pure, unadulterated, 100% MAK. They have these frustrating conversations where Ian focuses (passionately) on brand and how they can build a business and a reputation by giving their customers an experience and food that are uniquely attractive in a very specific way. And his partner just wants to focus on reducing food and liquor costs, increasing operational efficiencies and getting people in and out quickly, so their restaurant will blow up and turn a big profit. They’re speaking two different languages entirely, with almost no overlap, and I know that each thinks the other is…not wrong, exactly, but just not that appealing.
And it seems to me that if you’re an entrepreneur, it’s important to become aware of your primary flavor. It will help you get clear about what success looks like for you, and it will also help you make sure that your partners share enough of your mindset to speak the same language and be excited about the same future.
Which may very well include that house in the South of France, whatever your flavor.
“O Wonder, How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in it!”
– William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act. V, Sc. I
courtesy of Wikipedia
People have been using this quote for 400 years, mostly ironically (in line with Shakespeare’s original use): the utterance of a protagonist who misunderstands a new world, thinking it wonderful, when it is in fact dystopic (probably the best-known example being Aldous Huxley’s 1939 novel, Brave New World).
However, I’m proposing today that we can also use it in a completely positive way. Just last week I had great time doing a podcast with a wonderful guy named Tanveer Naseer. Tanveer and I started following each other last summer on Twitter. Then he responded to a query from our publicist Kaila (all via email) and indicated that he’d like to interview me for his podcast show, Leadership Biz Cafe. Tanveer and I did our interview on Skype, and now it’s available on his site.
OK, so think about this. Tanveer lives in Montreal, and I live primarily in New York City. We have (as far as I know) no intersections of school, family or friends. Without current digital technology, we never would have run into each other. And now (I’m sure) we’re permanently connected, and will support each other’s work and success in whatever ways we can.
And you – who may never have met either Tanveer or me, and perhaps never will – can benefit from our interaction as well, where ever you are. If you hear something that resonates for you in our conversation, you can use it for your own benefit, and pass it along to whomever you wish. A truly brave new world, indeed.
I know technology can do all kinds of bad stuff, and that Huxley-esque aspects exist in this “brave new world” of ours. But we can also use all of these new capabilities that exist to learn, to create connections, to innovate, to grow.
Let’s do that.
Some of you may not know that I write a bi-monthly email called the “Insider List,” and send it to everyone who has opted to receive it (you can do that here on the site, if you’re interested). Last time I wrote about the slipperiness of language – and how that slipperiness makes listening even more important. The example I used was the word/phrase “mayday” or “May Day,” which can either mean a happy spring holiday or a call for help.
In response, one of my “Insiders,” a friend and colleague named Todd Sattersten, sent me an email letting me know that there’s a word for words that have two opposite meanings: they’re called contronyms. Here are a few great examples (some of them from Todd):
sanction – ‘a penalty’ or ‘official permission or approval’
fine – ‘the state of being good’ or ‘a penalty for doing something bad’
shop – ‘buy’ or ‘attempt to sell’
custom – ‘special’ or ‘usual’
bolt – ‘secure’ or ‘run away’
dust – ‘add fine particles’ or ‘remove fine particles’
strike – ‘hit’ or ‘miss (a ball)’
buckle – ‘fasten together’ or ‘break under stress’
I love such quirky, illogical, counter-intuitive, imprecise aspects of language: I get a big kick out of the fact that such words exist, and that we’ve created a word for them.
And the fact that language is often like this is one of the main reasons listening well is so important. Contronyms are simply an extreme example of the potential for misunderstanding inherent in any conversation. It’s so easy to assume you understand what someone is saying…and miss what they’re actually saying.
If, instead, we were to approach every conversation assuming we really don’t know what the person is thinking or what they intend, and then get very curious about finding that out – I’m convinced about 90% of our misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and mis-matched expectations would simply evaporate.
Contronyms (and other slippery words) would lose their power to confuse – and speaking would become a bridge to understanding rather than a barrier.
What do you think?
A colleague of mine sent me a really interesting article from the NYT other other day, about the importance of ‘shared narrative’ in making people emotionally healthy. About 20 years ago, some researchers noted that kids who knew a lot about their own families tended to do better in challenging situations. They then created something they called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children 20 questions, such as, “Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know the story of your birth?”
It turned out that the “Do You Know?” questionnaire was an astonishingly accurate predictor. The article goes on to say, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”
This reinforced a deep personal intuition I’ve always had as a parent: when my kids were small, we spent time talking about my parents and siblings; the experiences I’d had growing up; how their dad and I met; what we did in the world of work. We also talked about what they had been like as babies and small children, how they were alike and different from other members of the family. Finally, we told them about difficult things that had happened, and trials and tribulations overcome. Somehow I knew this was an important conversation for them to be a part of – and I was often surprised and saddened by how little the kids’ friends knew about their families: they often didn’t even know what their parents did for a living. We’re continuing that into the next generation, telling our granddaughter stories about ourselves and those who came before.
But it also reinforces something I’ve observed as a business consultant for the last thirty years: companies and teams that have a strong, mainly positive shared narrative about themselves also tend to be healthier, more flexible and more resilient in response to difficulty. For example, we worked with someone last year to help us further clarify our Proteus brand. She interviewed a number of staff members and consultants to find out about our current understanding of our own brand. And one thing she found is that each of us said very much thing same thing about what it was like working as part of our team, how we treat each other and our clients, what’s important to us. In other words, even though we needed to get crisper about our brand communication (we did), we had a really strong, consistent shared narrative about Proteus and ourselves as “Proteans.” I feel the power of that every day: it draws us together and helps us overcome the challenges of distance, the inevitable misunderstandings and disappointments of human interaction, and the ups and downs of growing a business.
We’ve been gathering around the campfire to share our stories since time immemorial…and it sounds like we need to keep doing it.
Last night I was throwing out my Google net to see what I would catch. I do this regularly: Google search terms that have to do with our business (“leading so people will follow,” “erika andersen,” “executive coaching”, etc.) just to see what’s out there, and to respond when appropriate.
So I googled “proteus” and the first few entries that came up were about a newly released online game called Proteus. It sounded intriguing, so I bought it ($10 on their website, if you’re similarly intrigued.)
It’s a little hard to explain; you use your mouse pad to wander around and explore a world of islands and seas. It’s extremely primitive graphically (think early 80s pixelated video games), but somehow it seems more like the beauty of a primitivist painting than programming laziness. Each island has its own character and background music, and little pixel creatures who make their own sounds and do their own activities. There don’t seem to be any clear rules or objectives; you explore and see what happens. I haven’t spent much time in Proteus-land (remember, I just bought it last night), but the only cause-and-effect thing I’ve noticed so far was when I got onto an island that had lots of weather (rain, wind, rapidly moving clouds overhead – hauntingly beautiful), I discovered that I couldn’t move against the wind. And when I moved into what looked like a little dust-devil circle on the ground, I was transported to another island.
Because this is how my brain is wired, as I played, I was looking for similarities to “my” Proteus. There were a lot of dissimilarities: most of our work with clients is pretty goal and outcome focused. We help clients get clear about where they want to go and who they want to be, and help them build the capability or walk down the path to get there.
But then I noticed, as I moved around the world of Proteus, that I felt soothed and focused, drawn in, and very, very curious. Which are actually some of the effects I hope that we have on clients. And when I looked at some of the reviews on the site, I thought, These are some of the things clients say about us. I especially loved these two:
What surprised me most about Proteus was I found myself going back to it over and over. There’s something delightfully intoxicating about it.
…you definitely will want to explore Proteus’s island – trust us on that.
I like to think that we also create an environment that’s attractive to people, where they feel safe, and calmed. In our case, though, it’s a means to an end: it’s for the purpose of then breaking new ground, being illuminated and strengthened to live the lives and create the enterprises they want.
Maybe they’ll develop Proteus II, Leader Readiness…
I’ve realized lately that there’s something I love no matter what form it takes: growth. The process of something changing its form to become more complete, more mature, more fully established and able to fulfill its innate purpose – wonderful.
It’s marvelous to observe in nature; it’s why I enjoy gardening so much. Think about it: a tomato seed is tiny, almost transparent, fragile-looking. (If you’ve never seen a tomato seed, here’s a comparison: a tomato seed is about the size and shape of this capital O.) And that tiny object, when put in the ground and watered, first breaks through the ground as a little green seedling. And then over the next few months – a remarkably short period of time – it grows as tall and wide as an adult person, yields dozens and dozens of tomatoes, each of which is hundreds of times larger than the original seed.
And I’ve understood that growth – any kind of growth – requires two things: a framework for expansion and a compulsion to evolve. In nature, DNA provides that framework. The tomato seed contains all the instructions needed for the fully mature plant, as the human egg and sperm do for the adult human being.
The compulsion to evolve is the thing that fascinates me. I see it in all life: it shows up in animals as the urge to survive and reproduce; in plants as breaking through the ground, turning toward the light. It shows up in human beings as curiosity, competition, the will to create a better life for one’s children.
Earlier this week I had the chance to spend a couple of days with a very senior team in a large client company of ours. I’ve been coaching the leader of this team for the past five or six years. My intention – as is always the case when I coach – has been to offer him good frameworks for growth, and help him get in touch with his own compulsion to evolve. It’s been a joy to observe his growth, as a person and as professional, over these years.
But this time I saw his team evolving, as well, and it was so exciting to me. Over the past five years, I’ve worked with this team on 3 different occasions. This time, I saw framework + compulsion. By framework, I mean that they’re finally set up properly: they have the right people in the right roles, they’re clearer than ever on what they’re trying to do and how they’ll do it. We did some work in this session that helped clarify those framing supports even more.
The new thing though, and the most wonderful to see: the awakening of the compulsion to evolve. In previous iterations, there were people on the team who weren’tat all sure they wanted to grow as a team. This time, every single person in the room genuinely wanted to evolve into a high-performance team that will get great results and have fun doing it.
And to me, that’s as amazing as the tiny seed becoming a gigantic fruitful plant. That a group of people would come together and make a conscious decision to pool their passion, their experience and their trust in order to evolve into a new thing; a team.
A business miracle.
My partner Jeff sent me this wonderful article from The Week a few days ago. It’s a list (with definitions) of 14 words for which there are no English equivalents. A couple of them pinpoint experiences I’ve had so precisely (Koi No Yokan, in Japanese, is the sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love) or are so obviously high-utility (Zeg, In Georgian, means ‘the day after tomorrow’) that I immediately wanted to co-opt them and insert them into English.
And it made me reflect on the wonderfully organic nature of language. Live languages grow like organisms: they evolve toward usefulness and away from functional dead ends; they interbreed with other languages to acquire elements that serve them better. For instance, think of all the words that we now think of as English, but that are actually borrowing of genetic material, if you will, from other languages. Words that we added into our lexicon because we didn’t have a good word in English for the concept or thing they describe. A few examples:
Kindergarten – German for “children’s garden”; a great word to describe a place where children go to grow that’s not quite a school but more than a play group
Rendezvous – In French, rendez – vous, “go to you”; a meeting, usually with one other person, at a predetermined time and place…a very useful word, and so – voila! – we now think of it as English. (Like “voila,” a contraction of vois la which means “see there” and which we use to mean lots of things, from “there you go,” to “here it so,” or “so it happens.” Also very useful.)
Pundit – In Hindi payndit is ‘a learned man, master or teacher.’ Good to have a single word to describe someone who is considered (though perhaps only self-considered) an expert on a particular topic.
And then there are all the words that morph into new parts of speech to suit a particular need. At what exact point in time, I wonder, did Google become a verb as well as a descriptive noun?
As the pace of change and the globalization of communication continues, I can’t wait to see what the next decade brings in terms of the evolution of the English language.
For myself, I’m going to just start using a bunch of these words – including Lagom (Swedish for “Not too much, and not too little, but juuuuust right”).
There’s a name for phrases like this: in the English language, collective nouns for groups of a specific animal are called “terms of venery.” For instance, “a pride of lions,” or “a gaggle of geese.” As I understand it, this tradition began in Europe in the middle ages – and it became a fun and fashionable thing to do to create whimsical and ever-more-exotic terms of venery. In fact, in the 15th century there was even a fad for extending terms of venery to groups of human beings (“a sentence of judges,” “a melody of harpers”).
Some of these terms are simply wonderful. “An exaltation of larks” is one of my favorites, but I also like “a murder of crows” and “a clowder of cats.” I love how these terms were created to capture some essential quality of the animal described.
Over the past couple of days, I was in Austin to attend 800CEOREAD’s Author Pow Wow – an absolutely marvelous, fun, useful yearly conference of business book authors and the people who support and partner with us in the creation of our books: publishers, publicists, social media consultants, presentation skills experts, ghostwriters, agents.
It’s so great. Spending two days with 40 smart, curious, funny, collaborative people who are trying to figure out how to teach and share important ideas in an industry that’s changing faster than we can name the changes: Exhilarating. Inspiring. Reassuring.
So, my extreme thanks to 800CEOREAD, and Pow Wow sponsors Cave Henricks Communications, Shelton Interactive, and Greenleaf Book Group.
And I’ve decided that the proper term for our Pow Wow group is “an insight of business book authors.”
OK, before I say anything else, please watch this video:
A colleague and friend, Cindy Franklin, sent this to me on Saturday. I watched it with my husband, and we both completely missed the important element (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here). In fact, we were so committed to our sense that the whole thing was somehow a trick, that we immediately rewound the tape to see whether the element was really there. We both thought, Wow – how could we have missed that?
What a great example of – exactly as the title of the video says – “selective attention.”
Often when I talk with executives, I notice that there are big, important pieces of the picture they’re simply not seeing. This little video helps me understand more clearly that we when we miss critical elements, it’s often because we’re over-focusing on what we’re already looking for…to the exclusion of the things we may not be expecting.
I was just talking to a client the other day who is a senior executive in a large company – almost 50,000 employees. Her boss is about to retire, and has already named his successor, a very smart man who has risen fairly rapidly through the ranks to his current position. She likes this guy, and thinks he’ll be a good CEO, but is astonished that, in her words “he’s just starting to recognize that it’s important for him to be a good people leader.” She’s very focused on leading her own people well, and sees that as an important element of her success. It seems to me that her boss-to-be has been focusing exclusively on what are to him the players-in-white-passing-the-ball parts of the business; he’s very financially and operationally focused, so it’s essential stuff – it’s just not all the essential stuff. I think himself-as-leader-of-people has been the invisible gorilla in his movie.
So, here’s a suggestion. When you’re thinking about an important situation, professional or personal, and you want to make sure you’re focusing on all the important elements, try this. First, unhook your brain from the assumptions and conclusions you’ve already made (i.e., “I’m doing everything I can,” “It’s all their fault,” “I just need this set of facts,” “I don’t need to think about…”). Question those assumptions and concclusions, and assume they might not be accurate. Then step back and ask yourself “What am I not seeing?”
I predict you’ll be surprised at all the metaphorical gorillas that wander by.