Saturday, July 26, 2008

Want More Spontaneous Collaboration? Dust Off the Chalkboards.

Imagine around every corner in your organization, you didn’t hear the din of quiet but the buzz of live chatter. To your left and right you see small groups of your colleagues immersed in excited conversation around of all things—a blackboard (or, a chalkboard depending on the term used when you were growing up). Ideas are filling the board. People are debating, rubbing out and adding ideas. Passersby stop, ponder and add their “two cents worth” before moving on.

This is standard practice in the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, a theoretical physics think tank. It was founded in 2001 by Research in Motion’s president Mike Lazardis to nurture breakthroughs in cosmology, quantum gravity or string theory and other mysteries of the universe. The researchers are freed from administrative and teaching duties to sit, walk or bike around and think.

While the majority of us don’t have the luxury of just thinking, we do have the freedom to create more opportunities for spontaneous collaboration. Hallway and water cooler chats are renowned for generating new connections, ideas, innovations and breakthroughs in decision making. Why not add a blackboard to enhance the creative process?

This could be a tough sell. It is embedded in our society not to have such things around. We left chalkboards behind first in grade school and lastly in college and university where remnants existed in old lecture halls. Even flip charts are hard to find in our modern buildings. Instead, we have our heads buried in computers, PPT presentations or our individual notebooks when in meetings. None of these are high touch enough to get our collective creative juices going.

In the crime program “Numbers”, we see the blackboard magic at work. One of the key problem-solvers is shown frequently in front of his blackboard contemplating various algorithms and interconnections to make sense of a crime’s mysteries. Colleagues from the university drop by to aid in his musings. A computer is nearby for complicated calculations and data research. There’s also a lot of sitting around and tossing ideas back and forth. High touch and high tech complement each other.

We are not unfamiliar with such experiences. Retreats and workshops commonly make use of low tech flip charts and other hands on communal thinking processes to stimulate “out of box” thinking. But, flip charts, let alone chalkboards are not commonplace outside of these venues or on site meeting rooms.

For many of us, when we were kids, the teacher stood up at the front and wrote on the blackboard. Maybe it’s now time to dust off this scenario with a modern touch: all of us up at the front at the blackboard here there and everywhere in our places of work. At minimum, the level of informal exchange of information will climb exponentially. Out of that soup of ideas, something exciting will spontaneously gel.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Time is Now for a "Groundswell" Mindset Among G-8 Leaders

Let’s hope that the G-8 leaders are listening to a younger generation of advisors and more seasoned pros who are strategic thinkers. Based on media reporting so far, they seem stuck in the past unable to grasp that it’s time to be inclusive, let alone on trend with the pressing global issues.

A “groundswell” mindset means the balance of power is no longer within the G-8. It’s more than G-13 and G-20, as Canada's former Prime Minister Paul Martin lobbied so passionately for. Solutions to our complex world issues will be derived from connecting people with people to discover an array of ways forward.

That means the right kind of engagement forums and processes with the right players at the table. Leaders of all other kinds of organizations are well aware that if they don’t involve the individuals and teams who do the work and who will be most affected by executive decisions, the big issues will remain.

“Groundswell” is defined as “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations” in the book of the same name by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. On the simplest level for political leaders, whose decisions matter so much for our collective well-being, they must broaden their reach and take advantage of blogs, wikis and social networking. Their “IQ” as a team will increase exponentially.

The showstopper is ego. Can each and every one of the G-8 leaders get beyond pride in their own ideas, protection of their power, and fear of the unknown? Creativity beckons. Innovation is at their door step. To use Jim Collins’ terminology from one of his books, the time is now to go from “good to great”.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Importance of Being Curious: A Leader's Real Best Friend

Personality specialists have long touted “openness” as one of the healthiest traits for surviving and thriving in our complex, chaotic world. Economists and urban planners note that organizations and city-regions with “openness personalities” have a better chance at prosperity than those which are not. Alan Greenspan, retired Chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, characterizes the ability or talent as “being curious” versus “incurious”. Great historical leaders speak of “learning coming upon them” in order to understand what to do. Down through the ages, “being curious” has proven to be an important asset.

Alan Greenspan found Bill Clinton the most curious and successful President at managing the economy of the six under which he served during his tenure as the Fed Chair. In his book, The Age of Turbulence, he described Clinton as “fully engaged”, “an information hound” and a person who “asked a lot of smart questions”. He was also a “risk-taker” with good judgment. On the other hand, Greenspan’s most “incurious” President was George W. Bush. In his opinion, he was fixed in his beliefs and consequently was not open to exploring. While Clinton generated significant increases in new jobs, wrestled unemployment and the deficit down and improved the competitiveness of the United States, George W. Bush did the opposite. Incuriosity has its costs in every sense of the word.

Looking back to historical greats such as Churchill and Gandhi, we find a similar theme. As described in Arthur Herman’s Gandhi and Churchill, in the winter of 1896, after satisfying his fascination with becoming a “crack” polo player, Churchill set off on a crash reading program. He also traveled widely, particularly in India, to learn about that country’s challenges through his own eyes. Behind his curiosity was a belief that “large ideas would triumph over small ideas; that modern progress really would dispel prejudice and barbarism; and that human will and purpose such as his own would overcome every challenge.”

As Churchill grew as a leader so too did Gandhi. Like Churchill, he experienced many twists and turns. But always, he was “listening and learning”. In today’s terms, we would call Gandhi a “new age” person, drawn to the latest trends and ideas. Gandhi also believed strongly in grassroots knowledge—traveling around the country to see and experience the lives and struggles of ordinary folks.

While the curiosity of these leaders---Clinton, Churchill and Gandhi---did not always lead them directly to success, on the whole, their respective records stand the test of time. The least we can conclude is that “being curious” is a much better route to leadership and management success than “being incurious”. John Camillus in his May 2008 Harvard Business Review article, Strategy as a wicked problem, implies that today’s “wicked” problems which have innumerable causes, are tough to describe and don’t have a right answer, cannot be solved without curiosity and openness. All leaders and managers take note.