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.
As some of you may know, our mission at Proteus is: We help clients clarify and move toward their hoped-for future. However, we also apply our mission to ourselves – we consistently work to clarify and move toward our hoped-for future as a company. The last couple of years have been especially wild and fun: we’ve been growing quickly, and looking for ever-better and more effective ways to support leader readiness at every level.
One of the things we’re really trying to sort out lately is how to best use distant learning to support our in-person training, coaching and facilitation. Even though our foundation is in-person learning, and we believe deeply in the power and efficacy of face-to-face development, we want to figure out how to augment that with other learning approaches.
Our point of view is that no matter how technologically advanced we become, human beings are still physical creatures, and much of our most profound and permanent growth happens as a result of interactions with others. But that learning can be reinforced through lots of other means. In the leadership and management training we do, for instance, we’ve found that having the opportunity to hear about, see, discuss, practice and debrief new skills in real time with an excellent instructor and other learners is key to real behavior change. However, we also know that learning online can be a great lead-in to those face-to-face learning situations, and – even more important – can be powerful in supporting participants’ ongoing learning after the session.
So -What Works?
At this point, we’re talking to smart, experienced people to get their insights about how best to take advantage of the options now available, through technology, to prepare for, support, and sustain face-to-face learning.
And you, my friends, are smart, experienced people. I’d love to hear from you about any ‘distant’ learning options you’ve found valuable – online, mobile, video, whatever.
Just drop me an email, and let us know: What did you like about it? What did you learn? What could have been better? And if you have the chance to send along links, or app names – that would be wonderful, too.
As an added incentive, just for turning us on to something you’ve found valuable, we’ll give you free access to our first online support system, once we’ve developed it.
I can’t wait to hear from you….
I have to admit, the general attitude toward strategy – as boring, soulless and impractical – is a puzzle to me. In my work and in my life, I see the real power of operating with a strategic mindset every single day. And when we teach our framework for thinking and acting strategically, participants report that it provides a great way for them to bring their focus up out of the weeds, and helps them and their teams stay focused on their vision for success, and on how to address the most critical issues confronting them.
But I digress. Most people would rather do their taxes than think about strategy. In fact, when I wrote my second book, Being Strategic, a dear friend of mine in the business book world, for whom I have a great deal of respect, told me he thought it wasn’t the right book for me to write. “You’re so warm and personal,” he said, “and you have such a great way of connecting with your readers. Strategy just doesn’t seem like you: so heady and cold.” It turned out he hadn’t actually read the book yet.
I believe his assumptions are widespread. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 reasons why people think strategy is boring:
5) No agreement about what strategy is. I have a google alert on the phrase “being strategic.” It’s astonishing to me how little overlap there is among the various meanings people ascribe to this phrase. For instance, some people use it to mean “acting only for your own benefit,” while others think it means “staying mono-focused on destroying the competition,” and still others use it as high-falutin’ way of saying “thinking like I do.” In this welter of conflicting definition, I believe people just think, I don’t know what it means – and I don’t care.
4) As practiced in most organizations, strategy IS boring. Have you ever sat in a ‘strategy’ meeting at your company? I bet you have. Complicated charts, Ben Stein clones droning on about some obscure algorithm having to do with market share as a function of cycle time, blah blah blah. And then fat binders get created, and sit on shelves, and get pulled out and referenced (maybe) in excruciating detail once a year. Oh my god, let’s all just shoot ourselves right now.
3) Mind-numbing language. As above. Somehow, most people think they’re “being strategic,” if they’re saying obscure, intellectual-sounding stuff. Here’s a quote from Michael Porter, probably the world’s best-known strategy guru: “Strategic positions emerge from three distinct sources, which are not mutually exclusive and often overlap. First, positioning can be based on producing a subset of an industry’s products or services. I call this variety-based positioning because it is based on the choice of product or service varieties rather than customer segments. Variety-based positioning makes economic sense when a company can best produce particular products or services using distinctive sets of activities.” What, now? Oh, wait, I don’t care.
2) Practitioners who want to seem smarter than you. See the above. The charts and graphs, the language, the lack of clear definition – all support the strategy consultant’s implied contention that strategy is an arcane and complex body of ancient wisdom, able to be understood and practiced only by the anointed few. Many CEOs are taken in by this and pay kajillions of dollars to be told what to do and why. Most of us, again, are thinking, Whatever, dude. Can I just do my job now?
And the number 1 reason people think strategy is boring (drum roll):
1) They don’t see the connection to real life. Because of the way “strategy” is thought of, talked about and practiced in most organizations, it seem entirely disconnected from people’s day-to-day concerns: how to do a good job; how to build positive relationships with those around them; how to get good results; how to have a reasonably good time doing it. Even those who are passionate about their jobs or about the success of the company simply don’t see how “strategy” – again as generally practiced – is going to help.
It’s a shame really, because there’s actually something extremely valuable hidden in the midst of all this. And even Michael Porter (who I love to diss) has said wonderfully clear and accurate things about the value of strategy on occasion. My very favorite quote of his is “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
Because that’s it: strategy is thinking in a focused way about what’s most important and how to get there, and it can give you critical insights as to the things you shouldn’t be doing that won’t get you where you’re trying to go. How about if we define being strategic simply as consistently making the core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future. In other words, thinking and acting strategically means figuring out the future you want to create for your enterprise; then getting clear about where you are now; then building a path with your colleagues – making core directional choices – for getting there. And finally, being consistent about walking down that path together.
That doesn’t sound so boring. That actually sounds reasonable and very useful. Let’s do that.
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.
Some of you may have noticed that there was no Insider List at the end of June- and for those who have been with us for awhile, you probably figured out that it meant I was on vacation, since this is the 3rd year in a row I’ve taken a June vacation-related hiatus from the Insider List.
It was great to unplug for 10 days or so, and I’m getting better at doing it. But I have to confess, I still felt a bit guilty not writing the communications I’ve committed to writing on an ongoing basis: the Insider List, the Forbes blog posts, the Erika Andersen blog posts, and my weekly emails to the Proteus team. Nothing bad happened as a result of not doing that writing, and I truly believe it’s important to take complete breaks from work – even work you love. But still…I noticed I wasn’t completely OK with it.
Fully Doing: Fully Not Doing…
Based on dozens or perhaps hundreds of conversations I’ve had over the years with colleagues, clients and family members, I know that this is a pretty common problem. We tend to think about vacations when we’re working; we tend to think about working when we’re on vacation. We think about family and friends when we’re with our colleagues; we sometimes think about colleagues when we’re with family and friends.
And the problem with this is that when we’re not 100% present in any given moment, everything suffers: our experience, our results, our relationships.
To get a sense of this, think about a moment in the recent past when you were fully engaged and present. Perhaps it was a moment playing with one of your kids, when everything else fell away and it was just the two of you having fun. Or maybe a discussion at work where your brain was on fire, you and your colleagues were coming up with great stuff and you completely lost track of the time. Or it could have been a solitary moment at the end of a day, sitting and looking out a window; relaxed, a little tired, but just enjoying taking in a beautiful view.
Think about how you felt in that moment – physically, mentally, emotionally.
I can’t speak for you, but I know how I feel in those moments of being completely present: aware, open, full of potential; as though the best of me is more accessible. Wonderful experiences can find me when I’m present: I’m here to be found. I do my best thinking; get my best results; provide best support for my most important relationships when I’m all here.
So, my commitment to myself (and this is a lifelong commitment – vacations are simply a demonstration to me of how much I need to keep re-committing to this) moment to moment, is:
I’ll see you there…
So, as is usually the case, the baby watch yielded a baby: Charlotte Autumn Van Carpels, born June 5th at 11:50am. Everybody’s happy and healthy (and, in Charlotte’s case, teeny and gorgeous). One thing I noticed, though, is that things didn’t happen quite the way we’d planned: Patrick wasn’t involved at all in the birth – he’d had to fly to Indianapolis two days before in response to a family emergency. So I picked up Hannah and she stayed with me overnight…and no one went to the birthing center except the new Mom and Dad since Charlotte decided to be born in record time. So I met Charlotte the next day (and had the joy of watching her big sister meet her for the first time, as well), and Patrick met her on Saturday.
Not exactly what we had in mind. And still: astonishing, joyful, miraculous.
Not limiting life to our measure…
I recently listened to someone complaining about his team. As his complaints unfolded, it sounded to me as though his team was actually pretty great: smart people, committed to doing good work, working hard to accomplish the objectives for which they were being held accountable. They were respectful of one another’s opinions and expertise, and they worked well together. No big interpersonal issues. Lots of success. At one point I said, “So the main thing that bugs you about your team is that they’re kind of serious.”
He stopped. “Yeah, well, I guess that’s it,” he said. “I just wish they were more fun; no one wants to hang after work, and there’s not a lot of laughing.”
How often do we overlook the 98% that’s great in a situation or in an outcome because we get obsessed about the 2% that wasn’t what we had in mind? Not even that the alternative 2% is worse – it’s just different. Not what we would have preferred or had planned for.
Here’s a challenge for you. Next time you find yourself irritated, disappointed or upset about something not turning out the way you’d hoped, stop and ask yourself these three questions: “Is this really worse than what I wanted?” “Is there any real reason I can’t be just as satisfied with this?” “Are the ways in which this might actually be better?”
Planning is a great thing, but a big part of the art of planning is being able to flex your plans to accommodate reality as it unfolds.
Till next time…
My second grandchild was born last week – Charlotte Autumn Van Carpels. And when I met her, I was stunned (as I always am by babies, but it’s even more stunning when they’re somehow related to you) by her unsullied beauty and sweetness. As I held her in my arms, I thought about all the possibilities ahead of her: a hundred years of learning, love, accomplishment, joy and insight. The future world she’ll both be a citizen of and help to create.
It’s made me reflect on the traditional Christian doctrine of ‘original sin,’ the idea that all humans are born in a state of sinfulness, based on Adam’s fall from grace in Eden. I’ve never been able to understand this; it just doesn’t resonate with my experience of babies and young children. Looking into Charlotte’s gorgeous little face, I could only think: this is innocence and purity. In fact, my main impulse toward her is to do whatever I can to help her maintain some portion of that marvelous simplicity and light intact as she grows.
She seems to me to be a bundle of purest potential: full to bursting with life; her curiosity ready to be engaged; surrounded by a thousand thousand circumstances, objects and people that can ignite the process of her personal evolution.
And I like to think that we are all still that, 10 or 30 or 70 years later: bundles of potential, able to keep reaching new levels of understanding throughout our lives. I believe we stop ourselves, assuming that we’re too old, too big, too stuck, too tired.
But what if those 2nd century Christians had it exactly backwards: that instead of coming into this world tainted with sin, having to work our way painfully to some state of grace, we arrive in the most complete and lovely state of grace, and have the possibility of staying at least partly in that state while we figure out how to acquire the knowledge, insight, skills, experience and capability to live our best and most satisfying life.
Looking at Charlotte, I believe that’s true.
At my house this week, we’re on baby watch. Our daughter’s due date is tomorrow, and as soon as we get the call, we’ll leap into action: Patrick will call me, so I can make my apologies to whoever I’m meeting with and jump on the train – then he’ll go and get Hannah (our grand daughter), then pick me up at the train station and drop me off at the birthing center. They’ll go home and play (or sleep, depending on the hour) till I call them to let them know that Charlotte, Hannah’s new baby sister, has arrived and they can come and meet her!
It’s all well choreographed (my daughter is a very organized person), and we’ve done it before, so it doesn’t have that nerve-wracking first-time feeling.
But it’s still a miracle.
We think of miracles as once-in-a-lifetime things: the person struck by lightning who doesn’t die; the coin thrown up in the air that lands on its side. But when we limit our conception of miracles to these statistically improbably events, we fail to see the extraordinary in the everyday.
Redefining the miraculous…
One of the definitions for ‘miracle’ at Merriam-Webster is “an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment.” Having a baby may not seem unusual – but think of all that has to come to pass in order to make it happen. Think of the amazing and unlikely union of sperm and egg; then cells dividing and dividing again, millions of times, each fulfilling a designated role; the baby growing safe inside the mother’s body (that in itself astonishing) till – voila – 9 months later, a perfectly formed brand new human being arrives on the scene, starts to breath, opens his or her eyes…
And begins the miraculous journey toward becoming a speaking, walking, talking, feeling, creative person.
Just because something happens all the time, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a miracle. Let me say that more simply: common occurrences can be miraculous. And perhaps most importantly: we can appreciate them as such. The coming of spring each year; falling in love with someone who turns out to be perfectly suited to you; finding your professional passion and having the chance to work at it every day; doing or saying one thing that changes the course of another person’s life: these are all miraculous.
We can choose to put them into a “that happens all the time” category in our minds, turning them into boring commonalities not worthy of our attention, or we can see them as they truly are: Open our minds to noticing to the incredible complexity of factors necessary to even the most mundane event. Seeing the miraculous in the everyday gives you a very different experience of being alive. Each day seems chock-full of possibilities, happy confluences, wondrous outcomes. The world becomes richer, more three-dimensional.
And it’s up to you: you can see the world and your own life as ho-hum, business as usual, nothing special…or you can see the miraculous at every turn. The choice is yours.
Till next time…
“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.
“Good humor is the health of the soul, sadness is its poison.”
- Lord Chesterfield
My colleagues and I laugh a lot at work. I take this as one of the best signs of Proteus’ health as an organization. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but when people are uncomfortable with each other, or don’t trust each other, there’s generally not a lot of laughing going on (except for the forced, awkward, hah-hah-hah kind, and that doesn’t count).
As Lord Chesterfield noted almost 300 years ago, humor promotes health – physical, emotional, and mental. But laughing with (as opposed to at or about) others benefits your professional life, as well.
Humor makes things easier…
I wrote a post at Forbes a few weeks ago about humor, Want to Get a Promotion? Be Funnny, where I cited a statistic I found fascinating,“A Robert Half International survey…found that 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement; while 84% feel that people with a good sense of humor do a better job.”
Those are pretty impressive percentages. So, what is it about humor that makes it so important to our success?
I think of humor as one of the primary lubricants of human interaction. That is, when you share a laugh with someone, everything seems a little easier. You feel more connected, more relaxed.
For instance, when a difficult situation arises, if you’re able to see the irony or the absurdity in it, and smile or laugh with others about it, you feel as though you’re in it together – rather than that you’re facing it alone.
If there’s a tense moment between you and someone, and one of you responds with humor (especially self-deprecating humor) rather than defensiveness or confrontation – it breaks the tension and provides an opening to come back to comfort and trust.
And when a team uses humor regularly, it communicates ease and affection – “we get each other and we like each other” – in a simple and consistent way. It makes all the members of the team more likely to feel that they can come to each other with questions or problems, and that they’ll get openness and support vs. stone-walling or “not my job.” Humor builds our confidence in and reliance on each other. In the words of Maya Angelou:
“I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh.”
― Maya Angelou
Till next time -