In his book, A Passion for Excellence, Tom Peters offers a very insightful and valuable perspective of innovation and order. Chapter 3 is entitled “The Mythology of Innovation” and Peters writes:
Innovation is “always messy, unpredictable, and very much affected by the determined champions…we must learn to design organizations [of every stripe] that take into account, explicitly, the irreducible sloppiness of the process and take advantage of it, rather than systems and organizations that attempt to fight it…As a friend at General Electric says, ‘When you go through this inordinately messy, sloppy, fouled-up, mucked-up seven year process of bringing a new product to market, you say to yourself at the very end, “Any idiot could have done it better than that! Let’s get organized for the next round.” And in that single phrase, “Let’s get organized for the next round,” lie the seeds of subsequent disaster.'”
“It is a messy world…If it is a messy world, the only way to proceed is by constant experimentation: ‘Don’t just stand there, do something.’ If constant experimentation is the only antidote to a messy world, we need experimenters — or champions (skunks). And if we need champions…the most effective environment for champions is almost always an abundance of skunkworks, those small off-line bands of mavericks that are the hallmark of innovative organizations. Finally, and this is the $64,000 issue: if the messy-world-experiment-champion-skunkwork paradigm makes sense, then we need to create a climate. that induces all the above to occur — a climate that nurtures and makes heroes of experimenters and champions.”
It is 38 years since A Passion was published in 1985 and it is more keenly relevant and insightful than before.
For most of the last decade, I have been taken with the matter of what it looks like to to apply a truly Christian worldview to our understanding of organizations and leadership. Over the years, I have grown increasingly convinced that a biblical theology of creation must be our starting point for thinking about leadership within organizations. The narrative of creation in the book of Genesis — regardless of how one argues to interpret chapter 1 — clearly demonstrates that the concept of work and organization is integral to God’s created order. In other words, the impulse to create organizations and pursue work or activities together in a systematic fashion is not a human invention, but one found in the very DNA of the created order.
Out of this has grown the a new project: “A Framework for Redemptive Organizational Leadership,” a way of thinking comprehensively and ontologically about the fundamental nature, purpose, and activity of organizations, and the subsequent groups of processes required for those purposes to flourish. Those fundamental, deep purposes are work, community, and stewardship. These three things are the essence of what makes an organization an organization.
- Work is activity that provides for needs and brings for enjoyment and beauty. Vision, creativity, and productivity are essential keywords.
- Community is the experience of human freedom while sharing in genuine fellowship and purposeful work. Collaboration, trust, and freedom are essential keywords.
Stewardship is the responsible management of resources so as to care for others and ensure sustainability. Accountability and entrepreneurialism are essential keywords.
Tom Peter’s description of the nature and importance of messy innovation harmonizes with this framework’s view of these fundamental, deep purposes of any organization. The combination of creativity, vision, productivity, collaboration, freedom, and entrepreneurialism are found in and required for a “messy-world-experiment-champion-skunkwork paradigm.”
This kind of paradigm requires a certain level of trust, mutual respect, freedom for growth and purpose, and a healthy embrace of risk-taking driven by a strong sense of values and purpose. A team or organization that fosters such a climate is beginning to tap into the core of what it means to be a flourishing, healthy organization.
As human beings made in the image of God, we all long to be a part of a community or team where this kind of messy, life-changing innovation is the norm.
The longer I work with teams in organizations, the more I realize the power of asking the right questions. Here’s a sampling from Bob Tiede’s Great Leaders Ask Questions ebook.
General questions for meeting with a client, customer, team member, or employee: 1) What is going well? 2) What’s not? 3) Where are you stuck? 4) What needs to change?
Helping a group get unstuck in brainstorming: How can we do this in a way that guarantees its failure? (After making this list): What, then, do we need to do to guarantee its success?
Connecting with somebody the first time: Would you please tell me your story?
Great manager question #1: What can I do to help you be more effective?
Great manager question #2: What can I do to make your life easier?
Great manager question #3: Who needs to be encouraged?
Asking the second question can be a transformational move — good general ones: What else did you learn? Can you please tell me more?
Change management questions: What do you like least about this [organization/group]? What do you like most about it? What is one thing you would change if you could?
“Leadership is about opening doors for people.” (Powerful insight)
Getting clarity about the work: What outcome are we looking for:? What might the solution be?
Ask “why” about a problem 5 times.
Avoiding victim-mentality: What/How/Where/Who/When can I do/help/see/try/learn/pursue/act?
What is one thing you know you need to do to remove an energy drain, and when will you do it?
What do you want to work on? Where do you want to go? What are 4 options that could get you from here to there? What hurdles should you anticipate?
What is most energizing about your work? What is inhibiting your success?
What’s something that would be impossible to do, but if you could do it, would dramatically increase your success? What would make it possible?
End a conversation with a question.
What questions are you asking yourself?
The longer I go, the more I become convinced that “leadership” — whatever it actually is — is something that we only discover on the way to something else. The recovery of leadership may well begin when we stop trying to find it.
Of course, the immediate objection is “everything rises and falls on leadership!” That’s certainly what we made the culprit, and it is true that the success of an endeavor does rise and fall on something or somebody. But it may be that our modern obsession with leadership as the silver bullet of organizational success is a flaw that keeps us from seeing the more essential ingredients of what makes things work.
The more valuable journey is to better understand what organizations actually are, how they work, and what it looks like when they work well. For instance, the work of Edgar Schein in organizational psychology and development offers more meaningful insights and language than much contemporary leadership study. His seminal career book, Humble Inquiry, cuts through a lot of the fog of oversimplified leadership principles to the heart of asking humble questions as the catalyst for trust, creativity, collaboration, and innovation in a community. It’s not what leaders do, its what people working together do that makes things work.
Likewise, Patrick Lencioni has focused significantly on understanding and overcoming the dysfunctions of teams, and more recently, the advantages of thinking in terms of organizational health. The healthy relationships and interactions of people is the essential thing that drives organizational life.
For both of these authors, leadership is something that emerges along the way and almost incidentally in the journey toward understanding dynamic human social relationships in the work environment.
Instead of focusing on leadership as the only thing that really counts, the better thing is to focus on what makes a healthy organization, one characterized by enthusiasm, freedom, collaboration, imagination, trust, creativity, and productivity. Health-minded leaders, whether leaders by virtue of position or respect, do the following 4 things. Its not the leadership per se, but the climate they produce in which healthy relationships and healthy work naturally happens.
Healthy organizations are ones that have great clarity about their Purpose, their Priorities, their People, and their Processes. Health-minded leaders are focused first and foremost on birthing and nurturing such clarity. They are driven by asking and helping answer “Why?”
Developing people in their passions, abilities, and potential is the core of dynamic human community. Health-minded leaders are focused on people and helping people become all they came be.
For people to truly flourish, they need the space that is simultaneously safe and challenging. Health-minded leaders create the environment where people are free to pursue their dreams, take risks and fail forward, grow their skills, contribute to society, build relationships, and have meaningful work.
Healthy organizations consist of people with a fire in their belly that today’s dreams actually can and do become tomorrow’s reality. Health-minded leaders fan the flames of inspiration and hope not merely by words but by persistent action to remove the obstacles that stand in the way.
“What builds a relationship, what solves problems, what moves things forward is asking the RIGHT questions.” Ed Schein in Humble Inquiry. Machiavelli’s The Prince, written centuries before organizational development was a thing, noted that a great prince must “certainly be a great asker of questions.”
What are the RIGHT questions? They are the kinds of questions that
- push us beyond obvious & preconceived answers;
- show humility on the part of the asker;
- demonstrate genuine curiosity in the thoughts and ideas of others;
- foster an environment of collaborative trust;
- invite honesty and truthfulness, however unpleasant the message;
- generate a range of ideas that is both wide and deep; and,
- cause us to seek out new information or consider new perspectives.
When facing change, challenge, or crisis, the temptation is to try to solve the problem as quickly and cheaply as possible, usually involving some form of imitation where we find the company that looks to be successful and try to copy what they do. This innate instinct to “institutional isomorphism” (the tendency in an industry for organizations to all look essentially alike) has given rise to an enormous industry of how-to books, conferences, and expert consultants.
Yet the most powerful ingredient for dynamic organizational change and success is everywhere we look: asking the right questions and taking time to listen well. In many cases, ask enough of the right questions in the right way and the solutions to problems become self-evident.
A leader who has a strong sense of curiosity and humble interest in the experiences, ideas, and needs of others will unleash an environment of creativity, trust, innovation, and healthy engagement like nothing else can.
I’ve started in on Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School. The sub-line is more informative: “A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom.” See here, here or here.
Without giving an in-depth summary or review of the book, here are some of the more fascinating insights I’ve gained thus far (through 2 chapters). I’m sharing them largely as tidbits for reflection rather than being particularly analytical:
Thinking and Memory
- Compared to the majority of the brain’s other functions, conscious thinking is actual rather slow, inefficient, and clumsy.
- “Thinking” is defined as combining information in new ways and that information comes from both the environment and one’s long-term memory.
- The argument that we ought to focus on teaching people/kids to evaluate information rather than acquire new knowledge because of the volumes of information readily available in the internet is false (I used to hold the evaluate rather than acquire view).
- “Working memory” is the part of the brain where thinking and awareness take place.
Knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. When it comes to learning and thinking, the effectiveness of our working memory doesn’t depend on the amount of information we are trying to take it, it depends on the number of meaningful objects, or “chunks” of related information we are trying to process.
The more “chunking” we can do with all the information around us, the more and faster we can learn. Chunking requires background knowledge in order to group things in our working memory, combining information and tying new information to existing information. Therefore, “background knowledge allows chunking, which makes more room in working memory, which makes it easier to relate ideas, and therefore to comprehend” new ideas or knowledge. Empirical studies have demonstrated — in reading comparisons, for instance — that the amount of comprehension depended far more on a reader’s prior knowledge than their reading level as indicated by standardized reading tests. To sum, comprehension depends on background knowledge. The more you know, the faster you learn, and the more you retain.
Willingham addresses the proverbial (and demonstrable) “fourth-grade slump” whereby students from at-risk or underserved backgrounds tend to lag a grade level behind their peers in reading ability suddenly fall even further behind starting at fourth grade:
“reading tests start to emphasize comprehension. As described here, comprehension requires background knowledge, and that’s where kids from privileged homes have an edge. They come to a school with a bigger vocabulary and more knowledge about the world than underprivileged kids. And because knowing things makes it easier to learn new things, the gap…widens” (p.28).
Background knowledge is necessary for cognitive skills.
Long-term memory plays a much greater role in problem solving than specific critical thinking skills. Memory is “the cognitive process of first resort.” It is naturally what our brain turns to first before conscious thinking in working memory. Consider the difference in thinking required by a 15-year old student driver versus a 40-year old adult who’s been driving in urban traffic to work for decades. The latter has to do very little concrete thinking because of the vast knowledge bank (also called “experience”) they have accumulated: road routes, vehicle speeds, traffic patterns, muscle control, foot-hand-eye coordination, road locations, turn signals, exits, and so on.
Factual knowledge improves your memory
Experimental studies demonstrate that having a greater amount of background knowledge directly correlates to the amount of newly acquired information you retain as time goes by. Consider two people, one of which is a dedicated football fan and the other who knows virtually nothing about the game. Imagine they both are asked to read a summary of a college football game from the prior weekend. Which would you suppose would recall more details or have an easier time recalling those details from that article 24 hours later? The more knowledge you have of something, the greater your memory when absorbing new information because you have a much greater bank of knowledge to tie it to. Having factual knowledge makes it easier to acquire more factual knowledge.
Einstein was wrong…sort of.
Einstein supposedly once said, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Willingham hopes to persuade us that Einsten was wrong. I concur. Knowledge is required for the kind of imagination that is needed for creativity, problem-solving, entrepreneurial work, and good decision-making. It is true that one can have knowledge and not be imaginative, but it is difficult to grasp how one could be imaginative without have a meaningful well of knowledge (data, facts, information, ideas) which are the raw ingredients for imagination. This is all the more ironic given the incredible wealth of knowledge which Einstein himself so obviously possessed. What I would contend Einstein actually meant (or should have meant) is this: you must acquire knowledge so that you may then use it to be imaginative in a way that changes the world around you.
But knowledge you must have.
Willingham offers these implications for educators.
- Build a good knowledge base before emphasizing critical thinking.
- Do whatever you can to get kids to READ…and not music, social media, or sports sites on the internet.
- Knowledge acquisition can be…and often is…incidental. Often, the best acquisition of knowledge happens by exposure in the midst of other things than in concentrated study or memorization; e.g., factual data wrapped in math or science problems, reading good historical fiction, watching documentaries, thoughtfully written movies, conversation with friends, reading the news, and the like.
- Start early. Which also means early intervention in building exposure to the world of knowledge is both the greatest challenge and greatest gift we can give to kids.
- Make knowledge meaningful. Simply expelling lists of facts (or dates or concepts) is not all that useful. Instead, connect the dots, make it interesting, tie facts to familiar things, make it about the excitement of discovery rather than the drudgery of memorizing another useless piece of data.