When the Right People and the Right Information Come Together, Expect a Masterpiece

“All knowledge is connected to all other knowledge. The fun is in making the connections.”

The remarkable gentleman who said this quote, Arthur Aufderheide M.D. (1922-2013), certainly lived by these wise words.

Dr. Arthur Aufderheide

Dr. Arthur Aufderheide

Dr. Aufderheide was a medical school professor at the University of Minnesota who founded an entirely new area of scientific research: paleopathology – the study of the spread of disease through the forensic analysis of mummies (think of it as CSI: Ancient Civilizations!). He actively pursued his research with true passion for 30 years, traveling the globe locating mummies and establishing best practices for their proper examination.

Dr. Aufderheide’s ground-breaking research was the perfect combination of his medical expertise with his personal passions for archaeology, outdoorsmanship and native world cultures. Simply put, he absolutely loved his work. His excitement and passion for his innovative research inspired his students and earned recognition from the global scientific community.

Dr. Aufderheide’s life work helps drive home two key points about success, meaningful work… and life:

First: Organizations with genuine passion for their mission will utilize technology and share information far more effectively than other companies.

Dr. Aufderheide’s career as a medical school professor was not his first. He had worked for decades as a hospital pathologist, a job he no longer found fulfilling. Had he opted to just count the days to early retirement, his remaining life work likely would have been mediocre at best. Instead, at the age of 55, he made a career change into academia, resulting in one heck of a “second act”: a highly fulfilling career and life.

Aufderheide’s tremendous passion for his work was key to successfully discover new insights from many far-flung sources of information that had been waiting for centuries to be discovered. Anyone else doing similar work just to blithely earn a paycheck surely would have made very few – if any – meaningful discoveries, much less establish a brand new field of scientific research.

Similarly, organizations with true passion for its mission will uncover more, better and faster business discoveries by collaboratively gaining new insight from big data analytics, enterprise search, enterprise knowledge management, and other silo-busting technologies. Workers are actively empowered by leadership to ask new questions about the business, while also being provided the advanced technology resources that enable them to find new answers.

Second: Organizations with a culture of genuine passion for their mission will outperform competitors that don’t.

Leaders with a true passion for their organization’s mission will insist on an open, positive company culture that enables everyone to pursue that mission to the fullest – free from company politics, turf wars or internal arguments.

Passionate leaders will also only hire people who will share their passion. At a recent roundtable event, startup exec John McEleney emphasized the need for start-ups to “have the right people on the bus” and keep mediocre players out of the organization by requiring any new potential hire to be referred by an existing employee.

Without a supportive company culture and proper hiring practices, an organization will end up with people who are just working for the money.

This all reminds me of Simon Sinek’s fantastic viral TEDx presentation – a must-watch (and well worth watching again!):

Well, that definitely describes the kind of organization I’d love to work for. How about you? 😉

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You Do Not Need Permission to Innovate

Bootleggers K turnI read a great blog post written by Brooke Allen describing how a chance encounter decades ago with an ex-Prohibition-era bootlegger provided a key life lesson that served him well throughout his business career.

The ex-bootlegger – Brooke Allen called him “Jeb” – began by chatting about such tricks of the bootlegging trade as the “bootlegger’s K-turn,” a driving tactic used to escape hot pursuit by police by quickly reversing direction.

When FDR brought an end to Prohibition, Jeb needed to find new work. He finally found a mundane job working as a factory drill press operator. To deal with the monotony, he would think about how he could improve the drill press.

Finally, Jeb mustered up the courage to ask the factory owner if he could share his ideas:

After a few years he screwed up the courage to ask the owner, “May I ask a question?”

The owner laughed, “You don’t need permission to ask a question.”

… It turned out Jeb’s idea made the drill-press much more efficient. Jeb was about to go back to work when the owner said, “Why don’t I put you on another machine and let’s see what you come up with.”

In short order he’d invented all kinds of better ways of making things and soon he was even inventing whole new things to make. The owner gave him piles of money and Jeb was very happy.

“I never asked for permission to be a bootlegger because I knew it was the wrong thing to do,” Jeb told Allen. “But, I didn’t become [an inventor] until I learned that I don’t need permission to do the right thing.

Brooke Allen took away that key life lesson: You do not need permission to do the right thing. Knowing this simple fact is essential for any true innovation to take place. Innovation, by definition, is an act of “intelligent disobedience.” It is unafraid to question the status quo; it unashamedly asks, “What if…?”

I’d also add a big thumbs-up for the factory owner who had the sense to not only listen to Jeb’s idea, but to also encourage Jeb to discover new ideas and share the financial rewards with him. The owner demonstrated business sense that is lacking in too many corporate “leaders” today.

An empty suit of a “leader” probably would have just used Jeb’s first idea to make or save money without so much as a thank you (just like this example); or simply marched Jeb back to his drill press saying something like, “We don’t pay you to think!”

A bad boss can indeed go a long way to discourage innovation; however, that doesn’t change the fact that you don’t need permission to innovate. Lousy leaders who think nothing upsets the status quo without their blessing are kidding themselves. Under their noses, innovations are taking place in the form of secret skunkworks projects, workarounds and hacks that enable workers to sidestep red tape and self-important gatekeepers while also keeping their personal sanity!

Gatekeepers and Workarounds

Now imagine how well such a company could perform if innovation wasn’t driven underground by its own “leaders.”

Bottom line, you do not need permission to freely assess the way things are and envision the way things could be. Recognizing this universal truth might be the bootlegger K-turn you need to make a clean getaway from a “potted plant” organization and towards organizations and true leaders that actively encourage and reward innovation.

If you liked this post, you may also like:
“I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please” – An Innovation Message from Monty Python
The Impact of Imagination Level on Product Marketers and Managers
Product Managers and Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”?

“I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please” – An Innovation Message from Monty Python

A while back, Jeff Hayden wrote a clever article for Inc.: The Monty Python Guide to Running a Business, spinning business lessons from classic sketches by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the iconic British comedy team.

Not among Jeff Hayden’s top ten “business advice by Monty Python” selections was my #1 choice: The Argument Clinic, one of Monty Python’s most popular comedy sketches ever. I believe this skit also does a great job portraying the ideal business environment… for killing innovation and creativity, that is! Have a look:

Monty Python’s Michael Palin actually pays for the ‘privilege’ of having an argument in this sketch. Meanwhile, too many real-world businesses with poor company cultures are basically paying their managers to routinely engage in arguments (turf battles, verbal sparring, flame mail wars, etc.) with others in the company!

Such misguided organizations will also have plenty of de facto Verbal Abuse departments (“Stupid git!”) to go along with the endless arguments – all of which are sure to give workers plenty of headaches (though hopefully not from a literal wooden mallet to the head).

Simply put, constant arguing is the opposite of collaborating.

As noted in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, Sony lost the personal music market to Apple and iTunes because its divisions were too busy constantly arguing with each other. Sony could never “get its hardware and software and content divisions to row in unison.”

[A music executive told Isaacson he] “had spent two years working with Sony, and it hadn’t gone anywhere… Steve would fire people if the divisions didn’t work together, but Sony’s divisions were at war with one another.”

Indeed, Sony provided a clear counterexample to Apple. It had a consumer electronics division that made sleek products and a music division with beloved artists (including Bob Dylan). But because each division tried to protect its own interests, the company as a whole never got its act together to produce an end-to-end service (emphasis added).

Arguments can also be induced when workers feel compelled to look over their shoulders instead of working and collaborating openly with others. For one very big example, it is hard to imagine why Marissa Mayer would have enacted the long-discredited HR practice of “stack ranking” (aka “rank and yank”) at Yahoo, given the well-documented havoc it had already wreaked at Microsoft.

Back in 2012, I was stunned to read that Microsoft, led by then-CEO Steve Ballmer, had for years been using stack ranking, which “forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor,” as explained by Kurt Eichenwald in his landmark article, Microsoft’s Lost Decade. Back then, stack ranking “crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate.”

About the same time Yahoo was ramping up its stack ranking agenda (which has so far resulted in two wrongful termination lawsuits), Microsoft finally eliminated it shortly after Ballmer’s departure – a decision that didn’t come a moment too soon:

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed – every one – cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees.

“If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies” (emphasis added).

Time spent by workers, managers, departments, business divisions, etc. on internal arguments and other infighting is time not spent fighting competitors outside the company. Time wasted developing “innovations” in self-preservation, co-worker character assassination and other manipulative office politics is time not spent innovating new products, marketing messages and other creative solutions. The business costs and negative personal consequences of such dysfunctional behavior are massive.

Hmm, I think this article has gotten a bit too serious. Let’s close, then, with one more Monty Python“business lesson,” this time regarding customer service gone very wrong!

The Impact of Imagination Level on Product Marketers and Managers

With thanks to a tweet by Donald Farmer, I recently came across an impressive graphic representation of the increasing degrees of human imagination.

Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination was designed by John Maeda based on his conversation with Patti Brennan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Similar in design to Maslow’s classic Hierarchy of Needs, the Hierarchy of Imagination is represented as a pyramid progressing from the base of reactionary behavior with little or no imagination (Reflex), proceeding upward to Problem Solving, then Creativity, and finally the pinnacle of “completely unrestrained” Imagination.  It is a very thought-provoking, very useful model.

I had a few thoughts on Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination and its application to the workplace and product marketing/management in particular:

  • The hierarchy should not be interpreted as disparaging jobs in which little creativity or problem solving is expected. What sets a worker in such a job apart from others is the level of wisdom they bring to their job (Read more here). That said, a person in the Reflex category had better not find himself in a Peter Principle job situation and be expected to proactively solve problems or provide creative leadership.
  • Many boss-subordinate conflicts stem from incompatible levels of imagination. A product manager who spends his time gathering customer enhancement requests and prioritizing bug fixes (Problem Solving) will likely find himself in trouble with his VP who expects him to creatively identify new, ground-breaking features for the next version of the product. Conversely, a “left brain” business owner who prides herself as a Problem Solver is more likely to fail to appreciate the creative work of her marketing manager. She might even be reluctant to recognize new business leads are being generated by creative, engaging marketing programs, choosing to be preoccupied instead with supposed “flaws” as to “how” those marketing programs were executed.
  • Problem Solvers should beware of creativity blind spots. With the thought in mind, I read an article linked on John Maeda’s blog on the challenges creative people might face when pursuing leadership roles. I’m willing to wager that many of those surveyed demonstrating ambivalence towards creative people tend to fit into the imagination hierarchy as Problem Solvers themselves, strongly focused on successful project administration but also generally unaware of the creative value and ultimate business impact of a project’s deliverables. To paraphrase a passage I recall from a Tom Peters book, ‘the project was ahead of schedule and under budget… but no one cared about the final product!’ Such Problem Solvers risk losing their creatives, and with them, their capacity to innovate, gain the attention of new prospects and keep existing customers.
  • In fairness to Problem Solvers, creativity needs to be directed carefully. Product manager turned CEO Barbara Tallent warns product managers to avoid working on “just the cool stuff” instead of what customers have already said they need and will pay for. Read more here.
  • The further you go up the imagination hierarchy, the more vital your skills of persuasion will be. In order for a creative person or someone with “completely unconstrained” Imagination to achieve his vision, he will need to effectively brief others in the organization on the merits of that vision. And if their boss is that prideful Problem Solver, they must effectively “manage up” and earn the boss’ buy-in, enthusiasm and support. Read more here.
  • You can’t “teach” creativity, but you can help cultivate it. On this issue, I really like Patti Brennan’s comment: “teaching creativity doesn’t work but expanding their imaginations might work better.” In her work in patient healthcare, Patti Brennan believes “that in order to get patients to take control of their health, they need to imagine what it looks like to be more healthy.” Well said! The ability to visualize something better than what you are already doing is vital for creativity. Similarly, creativity requires a capacity to empathize with others, whether we are talking about the health problems of patients or the challenges and frustrations of our customers. Good product management and product marketing professionals can translate their empathy towards what customers are going through into well-defined products and clear, relevant, engaging messaging and content.

I found Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination very insightful and I look forward to reading more from John Maeda’s Creative Leadership blog.

If you liked this post, you may also like:

Product Managers and Product Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”? [Or: When Leadership Squanders its Innovative Workers]

Today’s “New Rules” Marketing Organizations Run Like Winning Football Teams

Innovative Companies Don’t Have Employee “Sediment”