Be An Original

Every once in a while you run across a book that may defy popular perceptions, but absolutely resonates as true deep in your gut. (you know, those books that have you saying yesssss, and breaking out your highlighter.) Only a small handful of books have had that kind of impact on me, and Adam Grant’s new book is one of them. Originals, How Non-Conformists Move the World debunks some of the myths, with a host of examples and data, regarding how innovation really works. (If you don’t want to take the time to read an entire book based solely on my recommendation, at least take 15 minutes to watch his Ted Talk . . . then you’ll want to read the book!)

I think one of the myths that prevent people from innovating is the idea of risk. Especially in these financially challenging times (so the thinking goes), fiscally responsible organizations need to minimize their risk. The parable of the talents comes to mind when I hear such comments, but that’s another blog . . . Grant counters such thinking with the idea of the balanced risk portfolio. The most effective innovators are not the “burn the ships” zealots who place all their bets on a single idea. The individuals Grant highlights balance risk in one area with more conservative strategies in other areas. They have Plan Bs in place while they pursue their big ideas, much like you have a balanced stock portfolio.

The law of averages also comes into play. Babe Ruth was the strikeout king, but few remember that over his record-breaking number of home runs. Most successful ideas evolve over time, so innovators need to take a lot of swings — test a lot of ideas. Some will fail, some will be okay, but the law of averages would indicate others will be great innovations. Those who think, or have bosses who think, that they will only get one shot at innovation success rarely move their idea (which might actually be great) from concept to reality. Innovation is a mindset, not a task.

One final concept that resonated with me was that the road to innovation is often a meandering path that doesn’t happen on a tight timeline, and what some people see as procrastination may actually be processing! Sometimes even the best ingredients need to simmer for a while before they are ready. The insights we discover and connections we make while subconsciously working through an idea are often things we would have totally missed if the idea wasn’t already percolating in the back of our mind. Sure, we can’t process forever . . . but I’ve often found that you have to allow the time to connect the dots if an innovation is to be successful.

The larger lesson in all of this . . . conformity is over-rated. Want to move the world in 2017? Be an original.

Not Yet . . .

Not YetChanging external/bureaucratic/or even organizational systems is not a task for the faint of heart. It is a process that often happens in fits and starts, and rarely if ever follows a predictable path. As an encouragement to my team in the midst of such journeys, I have often reminded them, “No doesn’t mean no, it means not yet.” (Of course, I have warned them that no one is allowed to repeat that to my sons . . . but that is a topic for another day.)

No doesn’t mean no, it means not yet. That has long been my philosophy, the way I’m wired as a leader. So you can imagine how pleased I was to run across Carol Dweck’s Ted Talk highlighting her research on the power of “not yet.” She contends that “not yet” is part of a growth mindset that gives an individual confidence that there is a path forward, as opposed to someone having a fixed mindset that is more of a pass/fail perspective.

According to Dweck, not yet provides a source of encouragement that “we can do this!” as opposed to “we tried that and it didn’t work.” It is a reason to keep going rather than an excuse to stop. Very few of us hit a home run on our first at-bat, which is not the same as assuming we will never hit a home run. Unfortunately, today it seems far too many people want a guarantee of success before they will even step into the batter’s box.

Leadership doesn’t come with guarantees. It is about sticking with a worthy endeavor, even if it is hard, and frustrating, and isn’t working out the way you hoped. Leadership is about the long view. Sometimes today’s answer is not yet, and then tomorrow is a chance to pick up where you left off and try a different path. Sure we all get tired, and it is tempting to just walk away. Not yet. Rest if you need to. Recharge. And then reframe that no into a not yet.

Not yet is not a new idea. Thomas Edison, got it. When trying to create the light bulb he noted, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And oh aren’t we happy that he hung on for number 10,001. Sure, not every task is worth that kind of effort, but as a leader shouldn’t you be focusing your energies on those that are?

My challenge to you is to be the kind of leader who fosters a growth mindset in your organization. Sure, that means there will be good days and bad days. But at least you’ll know that no is not permanent. And when someone tosses a no your way, you can smile knowingly and correct them with a simple “not yet.”

Leadership is Simple…


. . . Which is not at all the same as saying it’s easy. But the fact of the matter is, there is a strong tendency among leaders to make their job too complex. It is not hard to see how it happens. Typically as an individual advances through a variety of management roles in an organization, they deal with an increasing number of details, complex variables and layers of “gray” in their decision-making. As challenging as these tasks may be, they also tend to be quantifiable. You can check them off the to do list, and measure the impact of the effort. You can clearly point to what you have accomplished in the last quarter, or last year. In some ways, dealing with quantifiable complexity is easier.

Leadership, at least at it’s most effective, is about the simplicity on the other side of complexity. What, exactly, does that mean? Simon Sinek does a great job of capturing this concept in his Ted Talk on how great leaders inspire action. As Mr. Sinek points out, great leadership is about focusing on the “why”, it is about connecting with people who believe what you believe. Of course, to do that, you have to be really clear on what you believe — and be able to explain it in a sound bite, not a 47-page dissertation. Therein lies the simplicity, and the challenge, of good leadership.

Igniting people’s passion with an inspiring vision, communicating a clear and innovative strategy, building a culture of trust and commitment . . . these leadership responsibilities are all about the why. The simpler and clearer you make these things, the more powerful they become. Unfortunately, they are rarely measurable on a short-term basis. Vision, strategy and culture are about the long term. That may sound well and good, but seriously, (according to that annoying little voice in your head) wouldn’t a real leader be worrying about bigger more complex things than that?!? Nope.

Sure, a leader is responsible for the numbers, but if the vision, strategy and culture are in a good spot, the numbers will be too. Yes, there has to accountability, but if your staff know why they are doing what they are doing, accountability becomes less of a struggle. When people are inspired — which happens when they connect at a gut-deep level with your vision, strategy and culture— they can accomplish amazing things. And here’s your tip for the day: people rarely connect at a gut-deep level with a vision and strategy that takes 15 minutes and 8 qualifiers to explain. Keep it simple! I know it’s hard . . . but you’re a leader, you’re up to the challenge.