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.
Forbes ran a great blog article recently on 7 reasons why millennials fail to get promoted at work. You’ve got to go read it. Seriously. Especially if you are a millennial…or you have a job.
I’m not going to rehash that list here, but the 7 reasons are spot on. They got me thinking of some traits that I’ve observed over the last 20 years that makes for successful, valuable, and transformational members of a organization. I’m purposefully not putting this in the context of what makes a good leader because, while this happens to be true, its really not about leadership in spite of our obsession with it. Its about being great citizens of a community of people engaged in a common endeavor or effort.
This list is by no means exhaustive or categorical; merely practical observations about what makes some people shine brighter and with greater effect. People who do these things make a difference. Leadership is made possible and happens when these folks show up and do their thing.
- Find a problem and solve it or a job that needs doing and do it
- Be a self-starter, stop needing to be told exactly what to do
- Practice being curious, think and learn about things outside your job description
- Become an expert at something but never stop being teachable
- Learn to dig beyond the surface and look for other angles, other perspectives, or hidden problems
- Master the art of careful, attentive listening
- Be a great asker of questions
- Take risks, don’t be afraid of mistakes, learn from failure
- Learn to write and verbally communicate correctly and clearly — yes, your spelling and grammar really do matter!
- Study art, music, the Bible, and philosophy. You’ll be amazed at how these disciplines can influence any kind of work (this is a good place for a rant about how STEM-only thinking is killing American education…)
One interesting note in the Forbes piece. 80% of millennial see themselves as leaders and embrace the rather curious and vague notion that anybody can lead from any position. [Just one of the numerous vague definitional problems the (my) field of leadership suffers from.] Yet, according to Forbes, only 12% of this group had held leadership or management positions in 2013, a number that had been steadily declining.
Of course, as Forbes has also noted, it could be that this due to a lack of failure to provide leadership training to millennials, or the different set of values many millennial hold that may cause them to not remain at one organization long enough to be promoted. Whatever the case may be, our culture has an obsession with leadership. We are in a steady slide backwards for people who actually can do it, even at the highest levels. I wonder if some of what we see in the millennial generation’s apathy about some of these things is just a subconcious weariness with what often is a shallow and manufactured industry that seems to exist only to generate revenue for those who come up with new leadership secrets.
A better approach is to stop focusing on trying to be a leader and start trying to be a better, more well-rounded, informed citizen who is genuinely interested in the possibilities of the world around you. Focus on how to make the people and organization around you better because of your presence there. Do good work. Let people matter. Be curious about everything. Make a difference. Leadership tends to come along more organically when that happens.
Howard Gardner is the psychologist and educator who introduced the idea of multiple intelligences. More recently, Gardner has suggested five distinct mental abilities, or minds, that are important for educators to cultivate in order for students to be effective and successful in the globalized complex world of the digital information age . The first three minds are cognitive, the last two relational:
- The Disciplined Mind masters key subjects.
- The Synthesizing Mind organizes information to make sense to self and others new connections.
- The Creating Mind breaks new ground and discovers new concepts.
- The Respectful Mind understands and appreciates the differences of others.
- The Ethical Mind seeks to identify and fulfill one’s obligations to others and society.
What’s interesting is that Gardner here is not writing as a psychologist but as an observer of culture. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Gardner said
When I talk about the five minds for the future, there is no scientific claim that these are the five minds that God gave us or that are innate or that we have to develop. Rather, I’m making the case that in the future people need to have minds that are disciplined, capable of synthesis, creative, respectful, and ethical. 
Disciplined, capable of synthesis, creative, respectful, and ethical. It’s a good simple list that faculty and teachers can use to help students understand both what is expected of them and why.
Following the instructions and rules, for instance, is a form of building discipline. Disciplined people who can understand and work within parameters, who can get things right the first time, who can stay focused and on task, even when that task is no fun: this makes for a good citizen and a good worker. Or the the ability to synthesize: it means better problem-solving and critical thinking, necessary skills in any workplace or organizational setting.
Feedback and Formation
Gardner gives us some vocabulary and concepts to approach the learning task in a better manner. I suggest teaching faculty keep this list close at hand and use it to help shape their own thinking, their own minds, about the various aspects they need to cultivate in the mind of a student. Great learning, holistic character and citizenship formation (the goal of classical liberal arts learning), and productive skill development are never the product of just one single way of thinking.
One suggestion is to use this list as you are reviewing student work. Do any of these minds seem applicable to the task at hand. And, if so, what feedback could you provide to help strengthen or better cultivate that particular mind?
A second suggestion is to use these minds as a lens for helping you communicate with students each week or session. What general things can you say in lectures, announcements, or general class discussion to help stimulate one or more of these minds? I have discovered in my own teaching that when I set expectations high (Disciplining) for students but then take time to explain my reasoning and to help them see how their growth is my motive (Respectful and Synthesizing) that students actually come to value my toughness and rise to meet or exceed those expectations. Time and time again, I have seen students grow to the place where a high level of productivity and integrated, holistic thinking has become voluntary and normal.
A Student Model
I can see possibly developing a model for student success based off of Gardner’s work in which each of the 5 minds describes a list of more particular responsibilities, habits, characteristics, or skills that successful learners demonstrate. This model could then be incorporated into student orientation and introductory courses. It would also provide a framework for helping assess and coach students throughout a course.
 Gardner, Howard. Five Minds for the Future. Harvard Business School Press, 2006.