I got a day off today and I sat down and thought about how I’ve ‘reinvented’ myself many times over the past 15 years. Whether it’s as a dental educator or as a practicing dentist.These days when I speak it’s not so much about clinical techniques, but more about your journey. We go through 3 phases in dentistry – general dentistry, advanced dentistry, and emotional dentistry.
With a background in advertising, I am keenly aware of the influence that engaging and colorful words can have on the acceptance of an idea. However, I had not connected this with the business axioms that are so often embraced without challenge.
Axioms are “statements or propositions regarded as being established, accepted or self-evidently true.”
I wondered about the cultural consequences of not challenging these underlying beliefs when I read an example in “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz. It caught my attention, perhaps because I have often shared the adage:
“If you are going to bring me a problem, make sure you bring with it a solution.”
On the surface, this phrase makes good sense because behind the expression are two juxtaposed attitudes: one of a “passenger” type employee who has nonchalantly identified a problem but is not adequately engaged enough to offer a solution, and one who also perceived the challenge but is committed enough to wrestle with the issue until a solution is found for it. One is building and the other is throwing rocks. Which person would you rather work with?
With the above judgment in mind, step back and examine the axiom and the issues that might arise from with this thinking. The first is based on a belief that lives in many organizations: “If you point out a problem, you have a moral obligation to fix it.” If this holds true in your organization, then speaking up when you see a problem can be a great way to ensure yourself of getting more work! (And remember that your best people are probably your busiest.) Second, today’s business landscape is changing so rapidly that there are many new and undefined challenges out there. If the above obligation exists, pointing out a problem without a solution is tantamount to admitting, “I don’t know how to keep up with the changes, perhaps I am obsolete.” And third, what if I see a problem that has absolutely nothing to do with my department? If I say something, might I be creating adversaries with people I might need help from later?
In all three scenarios, the people closest to the work and, perhaps more importantly, those who see the problems best are incented to stay quiet. Then, of course, the problems go unchecked and are repeated.
In all organizations, there are beliefs and mandates that everybody knows but are not actually written.
While the notion of “bring a solution with every problem” may still be the right approach, we should explore the potential consequences of holding that belief. In this case, a danger of people thinking, “it’s better to stay quiet.” And, left unchecked, these beliefs can grow into signposts for all to see and follow.
For example, one organization we work with had an unwritten protocol that all staff knew about, accepted as valid and even promoted. It even had a name and an action to go along with it, which was meant to signify the sentiment “cover your butt” – it was like a fraternity. Quite without intention, a cultural signpost had been created, suggesting the narrative that any type of mistake will be met with fear and retribution. It was nursed over time and made easy to pass from one employee to another. And even though it was not true, new employees were quickly indoctrinated to the understanding and carried on the tradition. And so it is with culture – if we do not define it, others will. Leadership has an obligation to be “wary of what we believe and intentional of what we promote.” (Unless, of course, that’s just an axiom.)
In an attempt to define cultural “signposts,” Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans has developed what he calls Quicken Loan ISM’s. It is a trait that can be attributed to a person or organization as reflective of personality – such as kids calling Dad’s bad jokes a “DADism.” He does this to be clear about what is required to join and stay at Quicken Loans and he is dramatic in its elevation.
Another commonly shared saying is “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.”
Is this true? Are culture and strategy even separate? Perhaps. However, I would posit that the issue is not “culture eating strategy;” rather, it is the absence of the integration of the two. Many organizations have not been intentional in identifying the underlying causes, good or bad, of their culture. And whether you use ISM’s, share axioms or put up posters with motivating core values, stories will develop in the minds of your staff. Those stories will develop not based on the axiom or the poster, but on the sustained actions of the leadership. The opportunity is to ensure culture is not separate but rather PART of your strategy, and that leadership believe in and curate the culture so much so that the posters, axioms and ISM’s demonstrate the organizational narrative as authentic. When that happens, culture doesn’t eat strategy for breakfast, it sets the table for it!
Food for Thought is our way of sharing interesting concepts on corporate leadership and management with others who might find it useful. The thoughts offered are intended to be controversial and thought-provoking. They are intended to help our readers intentionally realize their potential, what we call Potentionality.
Are you a Linear or Non-Linear Thinker?
Last article we discussed the value of specific and diffuse conversations. This article we examine a related topic of linear and non-linear thinking. Have you ever heard somebody comment that so-and-so is a “linear thinker?” Or, somebody might proudly say, “I am a non-linear thinker.” What do they mean?
The word “linear” comes from the root ‘’line.” The thoughts of a linear thinker tend to form a line, i.e., one thought leads to the next, and that to the next, and so on. The implicit assumption in referring to somebody as a linear thinker is that the thought process is easy to understand, the conclusions seem logically sound with an undertone judgment that the conclusions are not that profound. In contrast, a non-linear thinker tends to have a myriad of unrelated thoughts that somehow interrelate, these thoughts lead to conclusions that might otherwise not have been evident, with an undertone judgment that the conclusions are more profound and insightful. Hence the pride in claiming yourself to be a non-linear thinker.
Stereotypical characterizations often label scientists, accountants and analytical types as linear thinkers, while artists, designers and creative types are labelled non-linear thinkers. Is that generally true? Is introducing a sampling of non-linear thinkers into a staff of linear thinkers helpful in engendering creativity? Can linear and non-linear thinkers coexist and work together; more importantly, can they communicate effectively with each other?
Before we answer those questions, let us look at linear and non-linear thinkers from a different perspective. (Wow! Non-linear thinking?) We ponder an open unsolved question from the field of computer science (P versus NP), one of the Millennium Prize Problems: Is it harder for computers to find the solution to a problem than to verify that a found solution actually works? It is generally believed that finding the solution is significantly more difficult than verifying a solution. For example, can you pull together a select group of employees in your company whose balances in their company 401(K) account averages to precisely $100,000? Finding the right set of employees to choose might be difficult. But once found, demonstrating that their account balances averages to $100,000 is relatively easy. It is generally believed that you need creativity of thought for the search, but once found you need clarity of thought for its communication.
Let’s go back to linear and non-linear thinkers. Do we sometimes confuse the thinking process with the communication process? Do we sometimes call people, who cannot cogently articulate their thoughts clearly, non-linear thinkers? Just because they are all over the place in their communication doesn’t mean that they have derived benefit from being all over the place in their thinking. They might just be haphazard thinkers. Likewise, do we confuse organized thinkers with linear thinkers? Even if the search for the thought requires non-linear thinking, one needs to be able to articulate it clearly. We posit that lack of clarity in communication of a thought is often a reflection of the lack of clarity of understanding of the thought.
What you would like is a non-linear, organized thinker. These people can find connections between seemingly unrelated thoughts and then present it to you in a simple clear way. If you can get such people into your team they will engender creativity. How can you instill non-linear, organized thinking? Here is one possible technique:
We are all familiar with the concept of brainstorming, whereby a group of people throw out ideas, all of which are recorded, none of which are judged or evaluated, and when the ideas run out we look at the whole list. Now use the technique of affinity mapping to group the ideas into categories that make sense. Write each idea on a sticky note, paste all the sticky notes on a wall and let the people move the sticky notes around to group related thoughts together. Again, like in the brainstorming phase, nobody has to justify why they moved one sticky note next to another. In fact, a sticky note might bounce back and forth, like a yo-yo, between two groupings of notes. When there is some level of settlement in the movement of sticky notes, have the group (or have one person) create a total story of what all the groups say. You have promoted non-linear thinking with organized communication.
Affinity mapping is one of the tools in our tool chest. The concept of leadership tools, and the amassing of a large tool chest, is critical to becoming an intentional leader. And, as most of you know, that’s what we are all about: developing intentional leaders.
Different people tend to speak with different levels of specificity. Over this past Super Bowl, somebody commented, “I like watching the Super Bowl for its commercials.” This is a statement of personal preference with some broad judgment intended. It is unlikely that somebody would disagree with the intended judgment since it is stated as a personal preference. That individual could alternatively have said, “Some of the Super Bowl commercials are really funny,” or “Super Bowl commercials are really well done.” Each of these alternative expressions takes a position with which a listener could more likely disagree. Some people speak with specificity and some people speak more diffuse. Although the specificity of one’s statement may depend on the situation and the subject matter, we all have a tendency to be more specific or more diffuse compared to others around us. For example, somebody taking a sip of coffee poured from a fresh pot and finding it lukewarm might comment, “You know, coffee is best when served at least 180°F.” This is a very specific statement, and it causes the listener to determine for themselves whether they agree or not. The listener may or may not question the position, but agreement or disagreement is implicitly or explicitly established. People who are “Specific” either expect that others will agree with them or tend not be concerned with disagreement. Their goal is to establish a very clear position and are often happy to take on (to understand or to challenge) opposing points of views. They will often express their opinions as statements of truth. People who are Specific do not shy away from controversy and disagreement.
In contrast, in the example above of a lukewarm cup, the coffee enthusiast could have commented, “You know, coffee is best when it is served rather hot.” Notwithstanding the iced-coffee fans, it is hard to disagree with that statement. It is a diffuse statement that casts a broad enough net allowing for people with a variety of opinions to find some common ground. People who are “Diffuse” speak with less specificity so that all listeners can find some overlap in their position. They are more interested in finding common ground and then narrowing the common ground as far as possible, than finding the contrast between their true position and that of the other person. When they want to be specific they will often couch it as their opinion. People who are diffuse tend to shy away from controversy and disagreement.
Is one better than the other? Are we labelled as Specific or Diffuse and do we always speak in that manner? Clearly, the answer is “no” to all those questions. However, if you observe yourself you will find that you have a tendency to be more one type than the other. By becoming self-aware of your natural tendency you can be more intentional about how you speak in particular situations and with particular audiences. Some audiences – accountants, lawyers and engineers come to mind (sorry for the stereotyping) – tend to be specific in their communication and might find diffuse conversations full of platitudes and lacking in substance. On the other hand, other audiences – artists, salespeople and politicians come to mind (again, my apologies) – tend to be diffuse in their communications and might find specific conversations obnoxious and opinionated. By being aware of your audience, either broadly or as specific individuals, you might be able to structure your communication to balance your needs with those of your audience in choosing how specific or diffuse you wish to be. We close with a self-referential question: Is this article Specific or Diffuse? How could this article have been written to be more specific or more diffuse?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” serves as a powerful example of how we can inspire ourselves and other to effect profound change and be our highest vision of ourselves as individuals and as organizations.
He focused on what he wanted, not what he didn’t want.
What I feel and what I experience depends on what I am focused on in each moment. The direction I take and the decisions I make also depend on what I am focused on in each moment. When I am focused on what I want, on what matters, on what has meaning and purpose, I become inspired and I inspire others.
When I am focused on what I don’t want, what I did wrong, what could be better, what is irritating, angering, frustrating, sad, what holds me back, what I don’t have, can’t do, what isn’t fair, or is overwhelming, I am not inspired. It is when we are inspired that we achieve significant results.
He inspired others vs. motivated.
We often think that when we’re leading or selling, we have to persuade, convince, and motivate others to achieve results. Motivation does not work–not in the long run. And neither does persuading or convincing. That’s the reason we find ourselves continually needing to persuade, convince and motivate ourselves and others. When I am trying to motivate myself or others, I am actually in a state of force; and in the long run, there is no power in force. Often, it brings about an equal and opposite reaction.
Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t tell others what they should or shouldn’t do. Or what we needed to make happen or better. He said, “I have a dream” and shared his highest vision — authentically, sincerely.
Inspiration is power.
Inspiration, which means to be infused with spirit, ignites a power within. When I am inspired, there is no stopping me, and remarkable things start to happen. When I am inspired, I am in touch with my highest awareness and creativity. I get all kinds of ideas on how to create and expand what I have envisioned. And others want to help.
Vision, purpose, hope, thankfulness, wonder, and possibility all bring about inspiration.
He shared his dream.
When I work with business owners and managers, I ask them to tell me what their dream is for their organization. Nine times out of ten, they don’t have one. They wax on and on about providing value to their customers, being an employer of choice, and maximizing returns for their investors. When they finish, I tell them I am not inspired. Because I am not inspired. They weren’t inspired, so they weren’t inspiring, and I wasn’t inspired.
When I ask them to tell me their dream for their life, they look at me with a blank stare because they don’t have one. They haven’t thought about it. Their first assignment, then, is to write their “I have a dream” speech.
Sometimes it’s hard to get started. Once they start, they can’t stop. They write their dream for their organization, their employees, their customers, their suppliers, their investor, the community. They see and feel the difference they are making, and they become inspired–mightily.
When they share that vision with their teams, their customers, suppliers, and investors, they too become inspired. And they write their dream speech for their role and contribution to creating that vision. Remarkable things start to happen. They can’t wait to get together with their partners and families and write the dream speech for their life, their career, their marriage, their family, their retirement….
What’s Your Dream?
I invite you to listen to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech again. And then write your “I Have a Dream” speech for your life, your work, and every role you play. See what happens.