Category Archives: Leadership

Pace + Perseverance = Performance (not!)

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The inadequacy of this equation is self evident when written on the page. But in the workplace today the speed with which one is moving combined with the effort to keep in motion, regardless of what purpose or passion may be fueling the effort, equates to performance.

Call centers handle a higher volume of customer inquiries than ever, but navigating the automated menus as a frustrated consumer is a shear waste of time. A Google search generates required information faster than ever, but time to think and reflect is scarce. A respected leader whom I “follow” is on “retreat”; I receive hourly tweets which update anyone who will follow his attempt to take a “time out”.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Some new performance equations are urgently needed!

Powerful Conversation(s)

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I recently asked a group of senior technical people, scientists and engineers, the question: “What is the most powerful conversation you have participated in at work in the last three months?”

Their responses ranged from: 1)a very negative experience where the project team was told by management that they had been working on a project that had been dropped from the priority list months ago to; (2)a conversation that was emotionally-charged and therefore powerful to; (3)knowing that my input was making a difference to; (4)asking individual technical professionals what kind of work they really wanted to be engaged in.

A powerful conversation in my judgment is one that surfaces and even challenges underlying assumptions.

A powerful conversation makes it possible to discuss “undiscussables”.

A powerful conversation shifts the frame of what is being discussed. A new way of looking at the challenges or opportunities at hand unfolds.

Powerful conversations require a relationship, not just a connection, where it is “safe” to go beneath the surface of the usual management reporting protocols.

As one technical lead stated: “I can’t remember when I was last in a conversation that wasn’t all roadblocks.”

What do you think makes for a “powerful conversation”? When was the last time you participated in one? What could you do to facilitate such a conversation?

The Necessity of Accepting “Stuckness”

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Yesterday I had a very frustrating day – not one which is totally foreign to my experience but with a slightly new and different twist. After enjoying three days of a long holiday weekend, I had set aside most of the day to create/compose/write my presentation for the American Astronautical Society which I am delivering in a couple days at their Imagine 2009 Conference. The day was virtually “wasted”.

Despite my good intentions and a plethora of ideas and angles and insights, I accomplished very little, until…

Early evening I posted the following comment on my Face Book page: “Some days it just seems impossible to be as productive as I know I am capable of being – why do I get “stuck” like this?”

Literally within minutes I had the following responses from several trusted friends and colleagues, including my daughter.

“Sometimes you just have to allow yourself a break. That can be a very good thing. “

“If I knew, my friend, I would share the answer, gladly.”

“It’s called creative incubation. we all need it. 🙂 “

“Productive and ‘creative’ are different things. Perhaps by being productive you mean ‘efficient’. For being effective in what you do, if you are a creative person, you need periods like that. The worst you can do then is to try very hard.”

All of the above comments make sense to me intellectually. They were/are appreciated. But there is nothing that tries my patience more than believing that I SHOULD be able to produce right now, even though I am not. I become very self-critical and undermine my best intentions even more.

When it comes to pacing productivity, sometimes the most significant thing we can do or say is simply to acknowledge, “I’m stuck”. When I did that yesterday, everything changed within a very short span of time. I found myself in a new kind of “flow state” within minutes, though I did little or nothing different, other than state to my virtual friends what was obvious to me by the end of the day.

Sometimes THE most productive thing we can do is ease up on ourselves. I wonder how much creativity and innovation is lost because we fail to realize this in a timely way??

Thomas Edison Re-Considered

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Managers motivate. Leaders inspire. One without the other is incomplete when striving for sustainable performance. AND, no matter how powerful or forceful one might be, a leader cannot force you to commit nor compel you to create.

When times are tough, the need for the spirit to be sustained and nurtured does not vanish. Both “perspire” and “inspire” as well as “expire” for that matter are rooted in the Latin “spiritus” which means “to breathe in new life, to animate or energize”. Innovation requires inspiration as well as perspiration!

The earnest manager sometimes cites Thomas Edison when it comes to working harder. “Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” Edison’s statement describes what is required to move a creative idea forward to an invention, and then perhaps an innovation, where real socio-economic value has been established. He is not addressing what is required to invite and sustain a creative work environment which is animated and inspired, even when times are tough. People who are managed by others need more than admonitions to do more, faster, with less.

Leaders Inspire by the Way They Inquire

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” ‘Search’ has made us all drive-by scholars,” writes Gregory Rodriguez last week in his column in the Los Angeles Times entitled, “Answers Can Be Found in Questions” . He addresses the fundamental value of inquiry, a skill that is waining in our society, as he points out.

He cites a newly published book by Andrea Batista Schlesinger entitled, The Death of “Why?”, The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy. Batista Schlesinger writes: “The way we interact with information reveals the priority we place on trivia over investigation, consumption over explanation, speed over reflection…”

Coincidentally, just this week I finished writing a paper with my colleagues that addresses the value of skilled inquiry when seeking to engage employees in tough times. We look at some of the “political” issues related to how the questions of performance and potential are framed in R&D; organizations. We review four ways our clients have validated success with skillful inquiry:(1) listening posts; (2) cascading conversations; (3) skip-level meetings; and (4) barrier-busting by managers.

In our experience the “political” nature of any inquiry about performance and potential in the R&D; space, both organizational and individual, will either deepen employee commitment through this economic downturn or perpetuate more cynicism and distrust.

As Rodriguez’ column highlights, the value and power of inquiry is being compromised with consequences we may not realize in the immediacy of our “search”.

Leaders inspire by the way they inquire!

The Prevalence of Blind Spots

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When it comes to vision, most animals care very little for the substance of things. Their eyes are oriented to movement. No so for human beings. Our eyes are continually filling the field of vision with content, even when it’s not there. The anatomical structure of the human eye causes a blind spot which is filled by the surrounding environment in a way that we may never notice. A simple visual exercise confirms it.

“We spend about one-tenth of our waking hours completely blind.” (A Natural History of Seeing, Simon Ings)

Cultural biases and organizational norms cause blind spots as well. “Taboos” exist which we cannot address because we don’t know they are there. We can’t “see” them, above all, in our own daily environment. The consequences, though often not apparent in the short term, have enduring impact over the course of time and history.

One way to increase our awareness and uncover blind spots is by comparison and contrast. Examining the differences between a microbiology lab and a high energy physics lab (ethnographic study) helps scientific and technical leaders uncover their blind spots. The patterns and practices for generating new knowledge are very different in these labs, for those who have eyes to see.

Just as an ophthalmologist tests visual fields of the eyes, it is possible to check periodically for blind spots of leaders. Paradoxical as it may seem, successful leaders know how to look for their own blind spots as well as those of their organization. Leaders can develop and practice skills to make visible what is invisible. As a result new fields of awareness emerge.

Awareness precedes choice. Energy follows attention

The Bad Rap of “Politics”

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Over twenty years ago, Peter Block published a book entitled The Empowered Manager, Positive Political Skills at Work. It is one of the few references I have found that acknowledges the inevitable reality of politics as well as the possibility of redeeming the meaning of the word itself. Max Weber defined politics as “the struggle for power”. (The word “politics” originally comes from the Greek word polis meaning city or state.) The struggle for power is a reality day after day, wherever people gather.

Block writes: “The process of organizational politics as we know it works against people… We empower ourselves by finding a positive way of being political. The line between positive and negative politics is a tightrope we have to walk. We must be powerful advocates… in a way that does not alienate those around and above us.”

SFB Associates is launching our Politics of Creativity™ Assessment this week. It is very simply five propositions and twenty normative statements which we believe will help R&D; functions in particular find positive ways of being political. Proposition # 1: Innovators break rules. This is not necessarily bad, but it is almost inevitably political. Our purpose is to break down the barriers that give politics a bad rap in organizations – naming it for what it is – “a struggle for power” which is real and needs to be more effectively addressed if we want more innovative break-throughs.

Imagine leaving your job!

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A respected and very talented client was recently recruited for a new leadership role with another company. Having made plans to accept the new senior R&D; position, he found himself speaking up and taking risks in new ways, reflecting his untapped vision and continuing passion for his current work. Given he was leaving his present position, any lack of support or endorsement of his work at this point by senior management would have nominal impact, if any, on his career.

As he made plans for his transition to the new employer, the economy tanked and the offer was rescinded. He found himself continuing with his current position.

I recently spoke with him. He commented without hesitation that he had significant concern about the affect of some of the “edgy” initiative he exercised in recent months, in anticipation of leaving. However, to his surprise, there was far more receptivity, even momentum, to work which he was previously cautious about leading. He became acutely aware of his limiting beliefs about what was possible, until he thought he was leaving.

Imagine what we might do if we knew there was always some place else to go, something else to do, a calling that is bigger and greater, than the current role we fulfill. This is difficult for most people, if not impossible, when economic instability and job security is very much on our minds. But such courage is essential if we are to realize our full creative potential, not merely for our own sake, but for the innovative, productive prosperity of the organizations we serve.

Innovation as a Social Enterprise

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Stories abound about the lone inventor, cloistered at the moment of “eureka”! Like most myths it makes good theater, and is far from the reality of modern R&D.; Janet Rae-Dupree said in a recent New York Times article, “Truly productive invention requires the meeting of minds from myriad perspectives, even if the innovators themselves don’t always realize it (my emphasis)”.

Invention is a social phenomenon. Some of us primates have evolved the capacity to see, hear, and experience others as if we were them, empathy. It is a trait that helps us negotiate the complex political terrain we inhabit as social animals. It can also function to feed our imagination using the thoughts of others, to build on not only the explicit content, but the underlying sense of what they are trying to express.

I recently watched this in action with eight colleagues, relative strangers, at a weeklong forum on “Measuring Sustainability”. Our focus was energy systems, our challenges, too little time, too much complexity, and a book chapter to draft on the last day. The group had two assets: a diverse set of backgrounds and the ability to build on each other’s ideas, criticisms, experiences; empathy. This “meeting of minds from myriad perspectives” produced an insightful, inventive, useful and novel approach to the problem. We’ll be proud to see it in print with our names on it.

The ability to harness this capacity can be a critical asset for R&D; leaders. Rae-Dupree quotes Robert Fishkin, president and chief executive of Reframeit, Inc. “We need to get better at collaborating in noncompetitive ways across company and organizational lines.” We need empathy to unlock the power of diversity.

Jack Johnston – Contributing Author

Keepers of the Culture

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“Culture-keepers tend to be in the underground.”

That was the comment of a senior scientist in the biotech industry as we concluded an interview with him this afternoon. We are in the midst of our first round of interviews with senior leaders in R&D; concerning the relationship of culture, high performance, and leadership practices. What especially caught my attention today was this leader’s unsolicited use of the phrase “underground”. And that those who compromise the underground are the “culture-keepers”.

“Culture-keepers” may engender thoughts of preservation, conservation, and stasis. Or they might be understood as the reservoir of largely untapped resources, buried beneath layers of bureaucracy and a myriad of processes – sort of like the connective tissue that keeps everything intact despite stress and strains. Either way, culture keepers are the bearers of implicit knowledge that is transferred from generation to generation.

One of the core premises of the Politics of Creativity is that there is indeed an underground of relationships, practices, and even scientific knowledge that generally fails to hit the screen of management. One of the reasons this happens, as the leader we interviewed today added, is that senior managers are rotated through the R&D; function every few years. While management may initiate structural changes or launch other initiatives to optimize innovation and productivity, the culture is seldom affected, unless there is an intentional, trustworthy attempt to engage this “underground”.

This is not about gimmicky programs or subversive tactics but rather about more authentic engagement with people who matter because they are the guts of the R&D; lab. Valuable political skills can be honed which acknowledge the reality of the power structure(s) of the business while honoring the wisdom buried in the organization. But before even thinking about engaging the “underground” one needs to acknowledge that it exists. What prevents or encourages management from doing so? That’s the question I didn’t explore in the interview today. Next time!