Loosen the Reins

Riding a horse on a rural road. View from the horseIn the many years, I have watched my son work with horses, I have often heard him advise young riders to “loosen up on the reins,” to “give the horse his head.” For some young riders, there is the sense that the best way to maintain control of the horse is to hold the reins tight. While that may be appropriate in some situations, most of the time you will get a better result if you allow a bit of slack in the line — still hanging on, still guiding progress, but also allowing enough freedom for the horse to perform at its peak.

Too often, leaders seem to approach their task like that young rider. Keep the lines tight. No looking around, no veering off the straight line of some pre-determined course. Unfortunately, in the same way, a horse will toss its head and fight against reins that are held too tightly, a team or organization will push back against being unnecessarily constrained and thus unable to move forward most effectively.

The authors of Collective Genius put it this way: “The lesson for those hoping to lead innovation is clear. If you want to produce something truly new and useful, you cannot know — by definition — exactly where to go. That’s why leading innovation is not — cannot be — about being visionary.” Now I recognize that for some leaders, not knowing exactly where to go feels a bit like allowing slack in the reins while sitting on top of a 1,000-pound animal — scary, and not very safe. And it is your job to be visionary . . . right?!?

It is a leader’s job to achieve maximum long-term impact. Yes, that means providing direction and keeping our hands on the reins, but heaven help us if we as leaders are expected to have all the good ideas! If we hold the lines too tightly, we don’t allow the unique wisdom of individuals on our team to benefit the organization. Just as a horse will adjust course to avoid a hazard the person holding the reins might not see, we need our teams to have the latitude to bring their instincts, insight, and best thinking to the task at hand.

A leader should provide a clear destination and basic ground rules, and yet keep a light grip on the specific path forward. Yes, there will occasionally be missteps and things will need to be pulled back in a bit. That task is much easier if you haven’t made a habit of tugging on your people unnecessarily. Counter-intuitive as it may be, sometimes the best way to accomplish your goals is to take a deep breath and loosen the reins.

Making Room

Available Room Sign On Board

As Christmas approaches, regardless of your faith tradition, there are many leadership lessons to be learned from the birth of the Christ child. One that stands out to me at this particular moment in time is the concept of making room.

Jesus was an illegitimate child born to lowly foreigners who were seemingly ill-equipped to care for their child. To say they would be considered an “at risk” family was probably an understatement. And yet, from such humble beginnings came one of the greatest leaders of all time. Can you make room in your concept of who is “leadership material” to open the door to an unlikely candidate who brings something totally new to the table?

Much of the buzz about the Christ child was coming from people who really didn’t grasp the big picture, you know, uneducated shepherds. Granted, there were those wise men, but they were from another country and really didn’t understand King Herod’s strategic goals. Surely if he reasoned with them, they would understand the need to get things back on course . . . Easy to see the flaws in Herod’s approach in hindsight, but can you make room amid your well-laid plans to pivot when an unexpected distraction (um, opportunity) presents itself?

Logical, rational thinking would not have supported the conclusion that people throughout the world would still be talking about this seemingly random, inconsequential (well except for the star thing, but certainly that could be explained away) occurrence more than 2000 years later . . . and yet they are. Can you make room in your performance-based, metric-centric, fact-driven lens to pay attention to passion and potential, to look past probability to see possibility?

It is much easier to say no to making room. Truly, the Inn Keeper had no more space available — at least not what one would typically think of as space that could be used for lodging. Making room often requires a leader to look at things a bit differently than most people would see as typical or reasonable or necessary. Making room requires getting people to change their ways, at times having uncomfortable conversations, and not being certain of exactly how things will turn out.

At its core, making room is a decision of the heart . . . based on values, and mission, and an aspirational vision of the kind of place you want your organization to be. Making room takes courage, and faith in what could be, regardless of how unlikely something might appear at the outset. Making room is really what leadership is all about.

My hope for you this holiday season, and into the New Year, is that you take a moment to pause, look around, and consider where you should be challenging yourself and your organization . . . by making room.

Pieces of Perfection

Christmas Tree

I have a collection of porcelain Christmas ornaments that I have had for a number of years. They were all gifts that highlighted important moments in my life. Each year, I would carefully place them on our tree, making sure they were secure on the branch. And then one year, one of them fell, bouncing from branch to branch in a seemingly slow motion journey to the floor. After the initial pain of seeing something I held dear in pieces on the floor, I had a decision to make. Throw away the broken ornament and maybe look for a replacement, or try to glue the figurine back together as best I could, knowing it would never be the same?

As I pulled the scarred ornament out of its box this year, and positioned it on the tree so the unrepairable hole in the back was less obvious, I recognized that while it was less perfect than the other ornaments in the collection, it never fails to make me smile. As leaders, in our quest to have everything run perfectly, we can lose sight of the fact that sometimes the most imperfect part of our work can actually have the most meaning. That is where our effort can have the biggest impact.

Maybe your challenge isn’t gluing together broken pieces. It could be deciding whether to replace a fading ornament with something new, or taking a big risk to totally turn the tree upside down without knowing for sure how it will turn out. Too often, we unnecessarily set ourselves up to fail by making perfection the goal . . . in all things . . . at all times. Perhaps the best way to find fulfillment as a leader is to instead look for pieces of perfection . . . which may, in fact, be quite different than what you originally envisioned. It could be

. . . Improvising with Plan B when Plan A fell apart, and having it surpass all expectations

. . .Thinking you could never replace a key player who walked away, only to have an even better fit step to the table.

. . . Falling short on the original goals of a project, but making a connection that led to even bigger opportunities.

Pieces of perfection come into view when we let go of some preordained picture of what success is supposed to look like. Not to lower the bar on the impact you are trying to have, simply to recognize that there may be any number of ways to get there.

My Christmas tree is filled with mismatched ornaments, tarnished ones, and aging grade school creations that make my sons cringe . . . all hanging along side shiny new additions, and of course my porcelain figurines. I’m certain a designer would not call it a perfect tree. I’m equally sure that it is filled with meaning . . . and pieces of perfection.

 

Big Yellow Hats

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When my (now 31-year-old) nephew was young, he loved Curious George. If you know the story, through the many circumstances in which “George was curious,” the man with the big yellow hat encouraged him to explore, but was always there to keep him from going too far afield. George learned a great deal because the man with the big yellow hat allowed him the freedom to try new things.

Are you a “big yellow hat” leader? Do you encourage your staff to ask why, experiment, test theories and take risks, even when you know that sometimes they will stub their toes? According to a new report from The Bridgespan Group two of the core components in building a capacity for innovation within your organization are a curious culture, and catalytic leadership.

George was allowed to live in a curious culture. He took risks, and when he “failed” it became a lesson-filled learning opportunity. For the skeptics out there who are thinking your organization isn’t a cartoon and you can’t afford to have your staff play around, I would respond that, yes, there are risks that come with innovating. There are also costs associated with always coloring within the lines drawn by others. Just recognize that if you want your staff to identify creative approaches to the challenges before them, you have to let them explore a bit and ask “what if.” You have to let them be curious.

And what, exactly, is catalytic leadership? Merriam-Webster defines a catalyst as “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. Catalytic leadership provides the push needed to get the ball rolling in a specific, focused direction. The man in the big yellow hat always identified where they were going or what they were going to do, he simply allowed George the freedom to be curious along the way. Catalytic leadership isn’t about letting staff focus their energies in twelve different directions. It is about articulating a vision and priorities, and then letting your people grapple and experiment with the best way to get there. It is about mentoring and encouraging collaboration and hands-on learning. It is about allowing your staff to find a path forward.

Being a big yellow hat leader takes patience and the ability to embrace ambiguity. It requires a recognition that progress rarely happens in straight lines or amid a tangle of rules, and that one rarely knows the route to the end of the journey when standing at the beginning of it. It requires a clear vision of the destination and the ability to inspire others and serve as a role-model for embracing possibilities.

How exactly does one become a big yellow hat leader? The first step . . . is to be curious.

Easy as Cake

bigstock--cake 159887675Many leaders talk about the need for innovation in their organizations, however, in far too many cases, true innovation seems elusive. In most instances, it is not a lack of desire or effort that that impedes results, but rather a lack of the right blend of organizational ingredients.

Think of it like baking a cake. You can get all the best ingredients, measured out in the right amounts and set them side-by-side (you have top quality HR, and quality assurance, and product development), but if that’s all you do, you will never have a cake. It is the mixing of ingredients, in specific amounts, . . . it’s the dicing, the blending, the baking . . . that yields a prize-winning cake.

In their book Innovation to the Core: A Blueprint for Transforming the Way your Company Innovates, Skarzynski and Gibson talk about innovation as “combinational chemistry.” In effect, innovation isn’t about a “new” idea so much as it is taking a group of existing ideas/concepts — maybe from totally different fields or experiences — and putting them together in unique ways to create an entirely new solution.

So, when an organization challenges its “creatives” with innovation but does not include task or systems-oriented colleagues, it’s a bit like leaving the baking powder out of a cake — the flavor may be there, but it will never rise to its potential. Or maybe you always expect your senior, most experienced, staff to have all the good ideas. You know, there are only so many ways to combine the same ingredients, and after a while, everything you make with them starts to taste the same.

It takes a range of ingredients to make the best cakes, but how often do we have a diverse enough set of perspectives, ways of thinking and experience bases (or lack thereof!) as part of the ingredient list? Do we let it bake long enough? (How many “half-baked” concepts have you thrown out, lacking the patience for the idea to fully develop?) It may seem risky to add a spice you have never used before, leave out a “key” ingredient, or to use a new technique that feels a bit awkward at first (flourless cake . . . how can that be?!?). If there is a challenge to be solved, however, someone will come up with an innovative response. The question is, will it be you?

Sure, you will have some flops along the way. And some of the attempts will yield unexpected and delicious results. The simple fact is, the more cakes you bake, the more comfortable you become experimenting and trying unique combinations. First-time innovators will probably be most comfortable following a recipe. That’s fine, there are plenty out there. With practice, however, you will learn how to combine things in such a way to yield an entirely new creation. And that, my friend, is when you get to have your cake . . . and eat it too!

No Ceilings

Inside the castle of Cesky KrumlovAs leaders, our perspective has a significant influence not only on our approach, but also the efforts of those around us. When we run into a daunting challenge, do we look for ways to minimize our risk or maximize our gain? A power point I ran across this week put it this way: “There’s a floor to cost reduction but no ceiling to value creation.”

No ceiling to value creation . . . what a great lens through which to view the challenges and opportunities before us! How often do we respond to the roadblocks we encounter by immediately slamming on the brakes? Cut, reduce, minimize our losses and avoid future risk. Yes, as leaders we have to be good stewards and fiscally responsible, but do we stop to consider that there may be multiple ways to manage the bottom line while also expanding the top line?

What if our first question when we collide with a roadblock was to ask how to raise the ceiling on our value proposition? Isn’t that what Lean Principles are all about? Creating more value and, yes, eliminating waste . . . but maximizing value for your efforts is at the heart of Lean. How many leaders never even consider a path to value creation because they have a scarcity mentality? They instinctively reduce and withdraw, and in so doing eliminate the very path that could have led to greater value and financial sustainability.

How does a leader eliminate the ceiling on value creation? Certainly it is important to explore opportunities for efficiencies and economies of scale. However, just as there are limits to cost reduction, there are limits on how efficient you can become at a specific task. The question then becomes, is there a better task on which to focus your efforts? And the answer to that question is . . . Yes! Focus your efforts on innovation!

If a leader truly wants no ceiling on value creation you have to not only allow but encourage sky-is-the-limit, “in a perfect world” thinking (no ceilings, right). So often, right out of the gate, we frame our thinking with barriers . . . “They would never” . . . “It’s not practical, but” . . . “It would be cost prohibitive, however . . .” Feel that floor looming?

What if, instead of focusing on what we can’t do, we identify the most amazing, creative way to add value and then focus on figuring out a way to do that? I’m not suggesting you disregard your budget, or that you will automatically get there overnight. I am saying that when people are passionate about value creation . . . when innovative thinking is encouraged . . . they find a way.

Where do you start? No ceilings.

The Culture of Innovation

bigstock-142999232Innovation has become the business buzzword du jour of late. The business press is filled with articles and guides on how to be more innovative. And while there are nuggets of insight and helpful information scattered among the books and articles, I think those well-meaning authors who try to boil innovation down into a 5-step plan short-change their readers.

Innovation is not a 5-step plan. It is a messy paradox of contradictions, and there is not one “right” way to do it. Innovation can be about tweaking something to make it more effective or developing a totally new concept. It requires structure and flexibility. Urgency and patience. It requires one to chart a clear path, and have a willingness to press ahead without knowing the final destination. It is energizing and exasperating. Perhaps most importantly, it is not a set of tasks, it is a culture that develops over time.

I’m not suggesting that every organization has to be innovative. Much of the world is designed to reward coloring inside the lines. In many ways, that is a safer, easier approach and individuals can build successful, rewarding careers by leading within established guidelines. And even within organizations noted for being innovative, significant portions of their operations may follow a more traditional approach. So what is different about innovative organizations? Their culture.

Culture is “how we do things around here” — what we believe and how we think, feel and behave. Is it okay to challenge someone up the organizational hierarchy? What does the organization lead with . . . people or profits, mission or metrics? Now please hear me . . . all four are important components of success . . . an innovative company still has to be able to keep the doors open. A culture of innovation, however, has to have a higher tolerance for the messiness of trial and error and the fluidity required to maximize the unique gifts and graces of people scattered throughout your organization.

John Kotter’s concept of a dual operating system visually captures what this type of culture may look like, with part of an organization functioning in a more traditionally hierarchical way, and other parts much more fluid, drawing from all areas of the organization. In such a culture, it is okay — it feels safe — for someone with more front line experience to tell someone from an administrative function that their idea simply won’t work (respectfully, of course) and then offer their suggestions for a better approach. Good ideas are the great equalizers, and there is a spirit of productive experimentation as opposed to “this better work or else . . .”

Building a culture of innovation doesn’t happen with a pep talk or a plan. It happens based on your approach, your attitude, and your willingness to act . . . one step at a time. Maybe you’d better get started!