Silly Putty and Super Glue

Blog Quote

Each year Fast Company magazine puts out a “100 Most Creative People in Business” issue. I love reading through the descriptions of these individuals’ innovations and approaches to their creative endeavors because they stretch my thinking, and cause me to consider the challenges before me in new and different ways. The experience always brings to mind a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that says, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

So what has your mind been looking like of late? Are the dimensions of your perspective the same today as they were three months, six months, or even a year ago? If you had to describe the parameters of your thinking, which term is a more accurate representation — silly putty or super glue? (Hang with me here . . .)

Does your thinking stretch beyond the egg-like shell that originally contained it? Do you have the ability to expand your understanding, your horizons, your sense of possibility to lengths far beyond what one might imagine when first viewing the malleable little ball that is your mind? Do you pick up ideas, impressions, from others and adapt them to create a new picture, and bounce back when you run into walls? Silly Putty.

On the other hand, do you stick with things, unwavering in your commitment? Can you be counted on to hold tight to that which you have been called to do? Regardless of the stress or pressure being placed upon you, are you the one that people rely on to remain strong, to stand tall, and to serve as a yardstick against which to measure their own actions? Super Glue.

Which is better? Wrong question. The answer is an “and” not an “or.” As leaders, I believe we are charged with demonstrating Super Glue tenacity when it comes to our values, our mission, our passion, and Silly Putty adaptability in finding new ways to reach those goals.

Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People are a perfect example of that. These are people who have held fast to an idea in the midst of some pretty significant obstacles/push-back/box-like thinking. And yet, regardless of the pressures they faced they did not waiver from the passion that fueled them. Super Glue. In virtually every case however, they also had to expand their thinking in new and different directions. They had to stretch to find new ways over, under or around some impediment that had deterred others from considering that path to success. Silly Putty.

The best leaders have to be willing to stretch if they want to stick tight to what drives them. Don’t believe me? Pick the best, most accomplished leader you know . . . look closely . . . I’d be willing to bet you’ll find a healthy balance of both silly putty and super glue.

Creative Focus

This week, I dove into in Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business” issue. I always find this annual round-up motivating because the snippets on each honoree’s accomplishments open one’s mind to possibilities, and to looking at seemingly intractable challenges in new ways. Seriously, if a researcher can find what appears to be a cure for ebola by infecting tobacco plants with the virus, or another company can find a way to eliminate nuclear waste with “molten salt”, surely I can take another look at some of the persistent challenges that face my own industry and organization.

I happened to be reading these stories right after meeting with a number of colleagues about impending changes in how we do business, and so was especially struck by how hard it can be to look past how we have always done things to see the possibilities of the future. When entire organizations are built around doing things a certain way, having someone suggest going in a totally different direction can be a bit jolting ( . . . unless of course you are the one proposing the new path!) And yet, if “the way we have always done things” is not resulting in significant progress toward solving the problem at hand, don’t we want someone to find a better way?!?

For argument’s sake, let’s assume the answer to that question is yes. So if the goal is to find a better solution, how do these “most creative people” do it? Creative focus. That’s my takeaway from reviewing this year’s list, and those from the past 10 years. And while it might seem natural to start with the creative part, I’m guessing the people on Fast Company’s list start by finding their focus.

How focused are you on the real challenge before you? So often we direct our attention to the wrong thing . . . we work diligently to build the best product or program, and that becomes the goal, rather finding new ways to look at the problem. Sometimes, we have to stop trying to build a better buggy and instead consider that maybe there is a better way to get from point A to point B. One of your key jobs as a leader is to define the focus for your organization — and that’s actually much harder than you might think. Are you a residential program or a child and family-serving organization? The options before you will be quite different depending how you see yourself.

Then, once you have your focus, you need to support your staff in exploring creative solutions. Do you give them permission to pursue the “what ifs” and consider solutions from an entirely different perspective? Again, sounds good in theory, but not so easy in practice. What if they come up with a solution that makes your current approach obsolete? Are you really prepared to go back to the drawing board after you have made significant investments in doing things one particular way? If you feel a bit shaky on the answer to that one, please refer back to step one.

Creative focus is not for the faint of heart . . . and neither is leadership. But, as the editor’s at Fast Company can tell you, for those who have the courage and determination to take that leap, the list of possibilities is endless.

Giving Up Your Security Blanket

There comes a time in every toddler’s life when it’s time to give up the security blanket, or the binky, or whatever it is that calms the child in stressful situations.

There comes a time in a leader’s life, too.

Okay, so maybe I haven’t witnessed too many leaders literally dragging around a tattered, faded scrap of fabric, but figuratively . . . oh my! How many times do we clutch on to systems, or programs, or markets that are worn and full of holes simply because of the predictability and comfort of knowing what to expect, and the warm memory of past glory. Security blanket, indeed.

A recent issue of the magazine Fast Company (, February 2015) included an interview with Katie Couric who, when asked about her decision to become Yahoo’s global news anchor, said, “When you’re a part of an established entity, there’s so much incentive to maintain the status quo. A lot of times, the people who are leading are at the end of their careers, so they don’t want to throw everything up and see where it lands.”

Giving up the security blanket — throwing everything up to see where it lands — can leave you vulnerable . . . no doubt about it. When you forfeit the comfort of what you know, those first few steps might feel a bit shaky. What if you trip and fall? In most cases, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, I’ve found there’s a confidence in those who have “given up the blanket” that usually results in pulling themselves up, brushing off their back side, and stepping forward in a new direction . . . toward a new market, or solution, or opportunity.

I’m not suggesting you have to take crazy risks. I’m merely challenging you to consider if perhaps you have outgrown some of the approaches or perspectives being used within your organization. There’s nothing wrong with comfortable, per se . . . as long as it doesn’t hold you back from an opportunity that could extend your mission reach or market share. Unfortunately, the more you are snugged in with your blanket, the less likely you are to notice those opportunities.

When you as the leader hold tight to “what has always worked”, chances are your staff will too. The new ideas, the “what ifs,” will quickly get smothered by blanket-toting lieutenants who are following your lead, thinking you’re guiding them along a safe route . . . right up to the point they discover it is actually a dead end.

Look around. Be brave. Take the first step. Lead. Before you know it, you’ll find out you really didn’t need that old blanket after all.

It’s Not What You Know . . .


Image from cartoonist Hugh MacLeod

. . . It’s what you do with what you know! I’m not sure who said this, but I think the graphic above by cartoonist Hugh MacLeod captures the concept perfectly. In my experience, leadership, innovation and ultimately, organizational success, is a result of seeing connections where others may not. That is why I encourage my staff to read widely outside our field, and to add the wisdom of their own unique experiences to the discussion of how to carry out our mission and ministry.

There have been a number of times where something I read in Fast Company, totally unrelated to human services, spurred an idea for how to extend our mission reach . . . or an article in Harvard Business Review caused me to look at a situation differently. I’ve had fiction books I was reading for pleasure spark an idea related to some work issue I had been grappling with, and walks through nature open my eyes to new connections. And if my entire leadership team is doing the same, we have exponentially expanded our ability to connect seemingly disparate ideas in new and powerful ways. Think about it, if the only place you are getting information is from within your industry, from people who basically have the same perspective and professional experience you do, how much harder is it going to be to see things with new eyes and find an innovative solution?

Consciously seeking ways to “connect the dots” is a skill we need to teach our staff as well. We provide thousands of employee training hours each year. In effect, we invest a lot into filling our people with dots . . . and yet if we stop there, we have wasted our investment. We also have to give them intentional experiences that encourage them to find the connection points between the informational nuggets they have gained. We need to give our staff the latitude to find that aha moment that can help them tackle a specific situation, or maybe inform the entire way we do something. Giving a staff member latitude is not the same as tossing them into the wind. There need to be parameters, but supervisors also need to have a tolerance level to allow staff to bring ideas together in a new way that, in our case, might help a child when nothing else has.

I know a number of people who are incredibly smart, and yet if they do nothing more than accumulate disparate facts … if they don’t make the leap to connect the dots … they’ll make a great team member in a trivia contest, but may not be the best person to give your organization an innovative edge. What you know is a start, but what you do with it makes all the difference.

It’s time to make a difference.