Doctrinally approved solutions

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About a week ago I finished reading Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. I did not find it particularly novel as most of the research mentioned in it was familiar to me from other readings. However, it does  contatin some compelling anecdotal examples.

One thing that did struck me as interesting are the parts where the author describes some of the changes initiated in the U.S. army due to its initial failure in Iraq. The author describes how during the cold war the army was trained to fight the Russians in a one-off huge war where the strength of each army will tested in a predictable way. This meant that the army trained in a certain way:

One of the main ways the army did this was to require soldiers to essentially memorize checklists. In army terms, these are called “doctrinally approved solutions.” Military doctrine enables the army to manage its operations across a large organization. Because fighting the Soviet Army allowed for such a small margin of error, approved solutions detailed how to solve anticipated battlefield problems with precision and efficiency.

However, when the U.S. army reached Iraq, the “doctrinally approved solutions” (I love this term!) turned out to be irrelevant due to the ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty of fighting an insurgency in highly populated areas. So today, it turns out that training focuses on understanding the culture, the ability to study the terrain (both physical and in terms of the population) and on adaptive strategies.

In essence, from a rule based, top-down approach, making soldiers into memorizing cogs, the army had to turn into a creative machine that provides soldiers with a foundation and trusts them to use judgment and adapt to the situation in the field by connecting with local population, understanding the difficulties the specific context demands and leveraging learning and experimentation. Since the army started implementing this strategy its success in securing cities and defeating insurgents has risen tremendously.

I think this story has important lessons for every organization. If an organization as hierarchical as the army understands that using rules and turning people into cogs is not going to work, what does it say about modern organizations competing in highly competitive highly adaptive markets?

Yes, training people to think by providing them with the right foundation is harder than just drilling them to memorize pre-approved actions. This easiness has its price. It doesn’t work.

So, does your organization have “doctrinally approved solutions”?

Elad

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Safety and exploration

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I am currently reading the wonderful book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. In it, Brooks discusses the work of John Bowlby:

He theorized that what kids need most are safety and exploration. They need to feel loved by those who care for them, but they also need to go out into the world and to take care of themselves. Bowlby argued that these two needs, while sometimes in conflict, are also connected. The more secure a person feels at home, the more likely he or she is to venture out boldly to explore new things. Or as Bowlby himself put it, “All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.” [Emphases added]

When I read this paragraph it immediately made me think of management practices. The need to create a safe environment where people can re-group, reflect and improve on one side.  The need to allow people to venture into unknown territories and attempt novel approaches without fear of retaliation one the other side.

Bob Sutton emphasizes how managers should act as human shields:

The best bosses are committed to letting their workers work—whether on creative tasks such as inventing new products or on routine things such as assembling computers, making McDonald’s burgers, or flying planes. They take pride in being human shields, absorbing or deflecting heat from inside and outside the company, doing all manner of boring and silly tasks, and battling idiots and slights that make life harder than necessary on their people.

At the same time he points out that great bosses believe in making it safe for people to take risky actions and “fail forward,” by developing a “forgive and remember culture”.

I usually don’t like to think of managerial relationships as parental relationships as these induce an automatic bias towards hierarchy and… well, paternalism. However, as Brooks points out based on Bowlby work, the parental duty includes an important balance between creating safety, cohesion, rules, order and most importantly love and allowing the child to venture into unknown territories that enable growth. I think it might be beneficial for managers to think in these terms of safety and exploration when designing work environments.

How are you creating safety and exploration for your employees?

Elad

Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From

A few days ago I finished reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

As someone truly interested in creativity and innovation and their antecedents I thoroughly enjoyed this book as it gives very wide look at the development of innovation in the world around us (biological and evolutionary), sciences (from almost every imaginable field from pharmaceuticals to air-conditioning) and across different timelines (from Darwin to the invention of Twitter and Youtube). This wide ranging sample of the greatest innovation of the last 600 years gives the book a depth that support some of the interesting hypotheses it makes.

There is some kind of myth we all have in our heads in some form or another of innovation being the result of a lone genius sitting alone at his desk suddenly having this eureka moment based solely on his intellect and thinking power. In reality, while inventions due sometimes occur in this way, it is more the exception than the rule. As Johnson mentions himself in the book:

We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. But ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.

And:

On a basic level, it is true that ideas happen inside minds, but those minds are invariably connected to external networks that shape the flow of information and inspiration out of which great ideas are fashioned

Malcolm Gladwell, makes a similar argument when he compares Michael Ventris, the decipherer of Linear B, with Andrew Wiles, the solver of Fermat’s Last Theorem, in his amazing speech at the New Yorker conference labeled: “Genius: 2012”. Gladwell explained that: “Modern problems require persistence more than they require genius and we ought to value quantity over quality when it comes to intelligence”. Gladwell claimed that he would rather have 13 smart people working on one idea than one genius. 13 smaert people represent so much more opportunities just due to quantity that they are better equipped to deal with modern day problems.

Johnson’s book takes this idea a step forward laying down the seven fundamentals that together – in different combinations and quantities – create innovation or allow creativity to spark: The Adjacent Possible, Liquid Networks, The Slow Hunch, Serendipity, Error, Expatation and Platforms.

Expanding on these concepts, the book is a song of praise to the idea of openness, connectivity and the creation of idea networks and communication channels across disciplines:

It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.

In order to create this “network” we need to actively work on creating environments that cultivate sharing, ideas, discourse, mistakes and communication. This can’t be achieved by walling and protecting ideas, only by creating open platforms:

The premise that innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas, when hunches can stumble across other hunches that successfully fill in their blanks, may seem like an obvious truth, but the strange fact is that a great deal of the past two centuries of legal and folk wisdom about innovation has pursued the exact opposite argument, building walls between ideas, keeping them from the kind of random, serendipitous connections that exist in dreams and in the organic compounds of life.

Johnson creates a compelling argument against the overuse of copyright and patent laws, tools that are put in place to promote innovation but many times work against it:

If there is a single maxim that runs through this book’s arguments, it is that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.

While the book wonderfully explains each of the seven concepts and gives a few interesting prescriptions regarding the creation of a platform that supports innovation in societies as a whole I would have enjoyed a more detailed discussion regarding the implementation of the concepts in building creative environments not only on a nation-wide level but also on a personal, team or organization level. Mostly, we are left with this ending statement, which is powerful, but left me personally waiting for more:

Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.

Bottom line: worth a read as it might spark many interesting ideas for people working in environments where creativity is a must.

Elad

Balance, productivity and creativity

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I have been thinking about the issue of balance a lot lately. It shows up in many of my readings and it constantly popping into my head in all kinds of contexts. One of the balances I am particularly interested in is the one between productivity and creativity. The more research is accumulated on these issues, the more we learn that these two important concepts require very different environments in order to thrive. For example, productivity is many times focused on eliminating errors and minimizing noise and mistakes. Creative environments, on the other hand, thrive on such mistakes. As Steven Johnson wonderfully points out in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:

Good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error.

Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.

The same is true regarding values and norms in working groups. On one hand, harmony is essential in creating enjoyable working environments and can lead to better cooperation. On the other hand, again, from Johnson:

In groups united by shared values and long-term familiarity, conformity and convention tended to dampen any potential creative sparks.

Most organizations need both high productivity and high creativity in order to succeed. The question is how you balance the needs by creating environments that support both.

The thing is, even in each and every one of these worlds it is also a question of balance. The balance of diminishing returns. As Seth Godin writes:

Over time, processes that seek to decrease entropy and create order are valued, but improving them gets more difficult as well. If you’re seeking to make the organized more organized, it’s a tough row to hoe.

Far easier and more productive to create productive chaos, to interrupt, re-create, produce, invent and redefine.

True. At the same time, we need to remember that to much Chaos is also counterproductive. Johnson Reminds us that:

The computer scientist Christopher Langton observed several decades ago that innovative systems have a tendency to gravitate toward the “edge of chaos”: the fertile zone between too much order and too much anarchy.

The question of balance in general and the balance between creativity and productivity is one that fascinates me and I hope to keep exploring it further in the future. In the mean time you should ask yourself – how are you balancing these two concepts? Are you really balancing in a way that contributes value or are you creating a compromise that hurts both?

Would be happy to hear your thoughts.

Elad

Mastery of the mundane

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When I read Outliers: The Story of Success about two years ago, one on the things that struck me most is the 10,000 hours rule. For those of you are still not familiar with this concept, in the book, Gladwell claims, based on research by Anders Ericsson that greatness requires enormous amounts of time. If you truly want to be an expert at something, you need to practice and engage in the act for about 10,000 hours. While this claim seems daunting, unintuitive and does not always hold up, it still presents a worthy approach to perseverance.

Perseverance is something we truly lack at management. Because even if you do not believe that it takes 10,000 hours to truly become great at something, we all instinctively value expertise and experience in the functional parts of the business world. But, when it comes to managerial skills (communicating with people, facilitating discussion, effective recognition, helping people excel, etc.) you wouldn’t find many people hailing for specific experience in that sense. Would you hire a manager that has no technical experience just for his excellent managerial skills and experience?

Our world is becoming more and more specialized and managers are less and less equipped to lead from the front, by expertise. Functional expertise is becoming a part of a bigger diverse workflow of creativity, where the challenge lies in the transformation of diversity into synergy. In this kind of world, managerial expertise that comes out of long-lasting experience coupled with perseverance is the true skill that needs to be celebrated. Power is to be found in the fundamentals. Or, as NameTag Guy tells us, in becoming the master of the mundane:

Become a master of the mundane. “Fully extend your dominant arm.” That’s what good coaches will tell you. Whether you’re shooting hoops, slinging slap shots or slamming aces, nothing beats an unbent elbow. It’s just a basic tenet of most sports.
The interesting part is how well the pros execute this strategy. Even the ones who get paid millions of dollars a year. They’re never too good, too rich or too successful to master the mundane.
My friend Steve Hughes, a presentation coach, teaches his clients this very principle: “You’re looking for the trick play when you need to just work on basic blocking and tackling.”
Remember: Never underestimate the power of continual application of the fundamentals. Forget the rudiments and forego the revenue. Are you brilliant at the basics?

So, how many hours have you been practicing you managerial skills?

Elad

Mastery of the mundane

When I read Outliers about two years ago, one on the things that struck me most is the 10,000 hours rule. For those of you are still not familiar with this concept, in the book, Gladwell claims, based on research by Anders Ericsson that greatness requires enormous amounts of time. If you truly want to be an expert at something, you need to practice and engage in the act for about 10,000 hours. While this claim seems daunting, unintuitive and does not always hold up, it still presents a worthy approach to perseverance.

Perseverance is something we truly lack at management. Because even if you do not believe that it takes 10,000 hours to truly become great at something, we all instinctively value expertise and experience in the functional parts of the business world. But, when it comes to managerial skills (communicating with people, facilitating discussion, effective recognition, helping people excel, etc.) you wouldn’t find many people hailing for specific experience in that sense. Would you hire a manager that has no technical experience just for his excellent managerial skills and experience?

Our world is becoming more and more specialized and managers are less and less equipped to lead from the front, by expertise. Functional expertise is becoming a part of a bigger diverse workflow of creativity, where the challenge lies in the transformation of diversity into synergy. In this kind of world, managerial expertise that comes out of long lasting experience coupled with perseverance is the true skill that needs to be celebrated. Power is to be found in the fundamentals. Or, as NameTag Guy tells us, in becoming the master of the mundane:

Become a master of the mundane. “Fully extend your dominant arm.” That’s what good coaches will tell you. Whether you’re shooting hoops, slinging slap shots or slamming aces, nothing beats an unbent elbow. It’s just a basic tenet of most sports.
The interesting part is how well the pros execute this strategy. Even the ones who get paid millions of dollars a year. They’re never too good, too rich or too successful to master the mundane.
My friend Steve Hughes, a presentation coach, teaches his clients this very principle: “You’re looking for the trick play when you need to just work on basic blocking and tackling.”
Remember: Never underestimate the power of continual application of the fundamentals. Forget the rudiments and forego the revenue. Are you brilliant at the basics?

So, how many hours have you been practicing you managerial skills?

Elad

10,000 hours rule, Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, Seth Godin, NameTag Scott, perseverance, expertise, diversity, synergy, creativity

The challenge of diversity and innovation – a different way to approach motivation

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Last week (yes I know, who writes about things that happened last week anymore, right?) John Kotter wrote an interesting post on HBR.org titled: What a Physicist Taught Me About Leading Change. In it, Kotter describe the importance of diversity for developing new ideas:

Whenever you get people with diverse backgrounds looking at the same thing you can come up with ideas that might not have developed otherwise. That is hardly news. But I’ve learned in studying large-scale change that if the people are very different, in relevant ways, and want to work together (not appointed to be on one more task force), the possibilities are great.

I emphasized the words “and want to work together” in the quote because it touches the heart of the challenge of managers today that have to deliver innovation if they want their companies to survive.  As Kotter says, some types of innovation will only develop out of diversity. These are usually the game changing, radical innovations. And if we want to keep delivering them, we need to keep at putting together diverse teams.

But here lies the challenge. Diversity is hard. More than that, innovation is hard. Innovation out of diversity requires learning that is difficult, because it involves heading right on into areas you are not familiar with along with someone who doesn’t really speak your language or gets you. And in order to that, you have to be truly motivated. A kind of motivation that can only emerge and cannot be mandated.

Our management structures, unfortunately, are not built to support this kind of motivation. This is a kind of motivation that will not come out of mechanisms of control or rules, but only out of autonomy, mastery and especially, purpose. That is the real challenge of diversity. It demands a change in our leadership mindset.

So, how do you make sure your diverse group wants to work together?

Elad

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The combination of a killer process and almost religious trust

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Seth Godin writes about Finding inspiration instead of it finding you:

One approach to innovation and brainstorming is to wait for the muse to appear, to hope that it alights on your shoulder, to be ready to write down whatever comes to you. The other is to seek it out, will it to appear, train it to arrive on time and on command.

Your first idea might not be good, or even your second or your tenth, but once you dedicate yourself to this cycle, yes, in fact, you will ship and make a difference.

This falls right in line with what I wrote about teamwork just a few days ago:

The idea that someone “from above” will “direct” the individual accomplishments is not only outdated, it is insulting. It reminds of me of how serfs were treated in the old days.

Instead, we need to understand that teamwork, like passion, creativity and initiative (all the required ingredients for success in the today economy) are emergent properties. Teamwork is not about doing what the boss says. It is about Synergy. And Synergy cannot be commanded and controlled from above. It can only be emerge by an enabling atmosphere.

Same same but different. It is not about commanding or deciding or just doing. It is about taking a commitment that translates into habit. It is about creating the right atmosphere and environment. In the world of productivity you know that if you show up and do what the rulebook says, you will produce something. In the world of creativity, you can show up, there is not real rule book, and even if you do what all the experts say, you might come up with nothing or come up with bad ideas.

But that is exactly the point. Trust the process. As That Guy with the Nametag writes:

Whatever you’re currently disciplining yourself to do, there comes a point where you have to affirm: “Look, I might not like doing this right now. But I have great faith. I honor and trust the process. And I know it’s going to pay dividends. And sure, I might not know what those dividends are yet. Or when they’re going to surface. But when they do, I’ll know that the wait was well worth it.”

The combination of a killer process and almost religious trust is the only combination that can work for innovation. And the cool thing is, the only one who can find the right process for you and develop that reverence like trust… is you.

Are you still here?

Elad

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