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Posts Tagged ‘executive’

How does curiosity get piqued? What is the value of being curious? And, most importantly, what can you do to become more curious?

Wondering why I ask these questions? It’s because I’ve noticed a paradox in my work facilitating innovation and change leadership: Professionals who are considered experts, are naturally evaluated by what they already know. The prevailing thought is, “Experts get paid a lot of money to know, so it might look bad for them to question their own knowledge.” Perhaps they consider questions the sign of a novice; or worse yet, something over which children obsess. Expertise and knowledge, then, can be a barrier to curiosity; yet, curiosity is what built the knowledge and expertise in the first place.

Here is what I mean by curiosity being at the root of knowledge and expertise, as well as the driver of innovation and change leadership:

1. Curiosity drives active learning.

As a way to illustrate the potential power of curiosity on our proclivity to learn, I can imagine this difference between a naturally curious person—or active learner—and myself in my usual reactive learner mode:

ME: I touch a hot stove and I learn to never do that again. It hurts!

NATURALLY CURIOUS PERSON: Learns the same thing I did when touching a hot stove, but then asks, what makes the stove hot? How do people feel pain from heat? How does the skin heal itself? What are the common factors that make people touch hot stoves? And on and on! These questions could lead to learning about physics, medicine, psychology, risk management—curiosity naturally opens up new avenues to knowledge. Because of curiosity, maybe someone will invent a stove top that cooks food without being hot to the touch. Maybe we’ll get an instant burn-healing ointment—or some sort of smart-alarm that senses when a cook gets too close to the burner.

Active learning drives innovation.

The point is, innovation, itself, is a learning exercise. In other words, innovation doesn’t come from knowing, it comes from asking. There’s a risk to this when you have to ask, “Have I been defining the right goal? Have I been solving the right problem? Do I understand the nuance of context? Are there motivations I haven’t yet considered? All of these are hard questions for an expert to ask. Still, you must be curious and open to exploring all the uncharted paths on which your questions take you—even if (and here’s your second risk) you have no assurance it will lead you to the promise land of innovation. Albert Einstein is a great endorsement for following curiosity’s many paths. When asked about his work process, he said, “How do I work? I grope.”

Curiosity drives engagement (which drives change).

Here’s something else I’ve noticed: When I’m naturally curious, I  become naturally more engaged. Sometimes it’s a desire to fill gaps in my knowledge. Other times, my curiosity is piqued by a problem to be solved…something to figure out. So now, if I’m not feeling engaged in something that I know I should be, I try to become curious. What is the one question I can ask that will invest me in a meeting, in a task, in a conversation? How can I use my curiosity to engage in and lead change?

This all leads me back to one of my initial questions: What can you do to become more curious? I know I could do better, so I’m just asking…

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Nation…Recently, I finished Stephen Colbert’s book, I am America (And So Can You!) Like Mr. Colbert, I’m no fan of reading books, but this one has a lot of pictures, so I made the exception. It has a lot of opinions, too. And I am a big fan of opinions, because if there is one thing I’m absolutely certain of, it’s my opinions. (My opinions, death and taxes.)

It’s my opinion that we can learn about brand building by watching Mr. Colbert. Here is a man who has been able to match his not-so-hidden agenda—Mission, Vision, Values and Purpose—so purely to his powerfully cohesive Look, Message and Actions. What is his agenda, you ask? (I’ll ask for you.) My opinion tells me that his agenda clearly is to realize a world driven by the free market so that he can use his self-promotion talents to build his power-base and monetize his fame. (Who wouldn’t want this?)

Let’s start with the Look. He is consistent: Dark suit, white shirt, power tie, wire-rim glasses, and well-coiffed mane (nice job of hiding the gray, sir)—the uniform of a free-market zealot. The Look is reinforced on his website, over and over again in his book and at his public appearances. He only varies it to prove a point, which makes that point all the more noticeable and powerful. For example, when he went to Iraq, he wore camouflage and got his head shaved. This proved the point regarding his unequivocal support of the troops. (Also made the point that he looks better with longer hair.) Then every night thereafter, when we saw him with short hair, we were powerfully reminded of the point he made when he had it shaved. (Short hair takes awhile to grow back.)

Next, let’s examine his Message. Again, he’s consistent both in content and in tone (and by content and tone I mean so close to the edge of satire that you might even think he leans to the left). Free market… support of the Republican agenda…doesn’t see race…doesn’t read books…afraid of bears…believes in a Christian nation…a mistrust of science are all familiar themes (and by familiar I mean excrutiatingly monotonous.) We know where Stephan Colbert stands. (In high regard with his banker.)

And his Actions match his Look and Message. He walks the talk (pays illegal immigrant to walk; he just talks). He puts people on notice, points out threats, give a tip of his hat or wag of his finger, challenges all his interview guests with his right-wing perspective (pistols at dawn might be easier) and otherwise offers his opinions unabashedly. (To his guests it may seem to be more bashedly).

How do you measure the success of the Colbert brand? His Facebook page has nearly 2,000,000 fans. His show is immensely popular, he spoke at the White House Correspondent Dinner, His book was on top of the New York Times Bestseller’s List, and by his own admission, Stephan is incredibly wealthy.

I choose to measure it by the impressive (in its odd range) list of other “brands” that wanted to affiliate with Stephan to receive his famous bump. From his website:

Colbert has literally made a name for himself with “The Colbert Report.” The following have all been named in honor of the host: Steagle Cobeagle the Eagle, the mascot for the minor league hockey team Saginaw Spirit; Stephen Jr., a bald eagle at the San Francisco Zoo; Stephanie Colbertle the Turtle, a leatherback turtle in the first Great Turtle Race; Aptostichus Stephencolberti, a trapdoor spider; Air Colbert, a Virgin America jet; American Dream, a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor; Esteban Colbert, a very virile falcon in San Jose; Stelephant Colbert, an elephant seal tagged as part of a study by University of California Santa Cruz; Agaporomorphus Colberti, a diving beetle from Venezuela; and a NASA treadmill called the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistant Treadmill (C.O.L.B.E.R.T.).

Stephan Colbert is an authentic brand. He has translated his agenda into a compelling Look and Message. He remains consistent in his Actions. This has earned him brand zealots—something to which all brands aspire.

Finally, to Mr. Colbert: You’re welcome, sir. You’ve just received the GPS Creative bump.

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One of my favorite Peanuts cartoons shows Charlie Brown and Linus leaning against a fence. Linus asks Charlie Brown a theological question: When you go to heaven are you graded on a percentage or a curve? Charlie, without hesitation replies, “On a curve, naturally.”  When Linus asks, how he can be so sure, Charlie responds, “I’m always sure about things that are a matter of opinion.”

That exchange provokes thought on many levels, not the least of which is the topic I’d like to explore today: Balancing Advocacy (communicating one’s perspective) with Inquiry (asking questions and listening to others).

Of course, Linus was the deep thinker in the neighborhood. As an Inquirer, he got there by asking questions…seeking the truth. Charlie Brown, the Advocate, was often the buffoon; outsmarted by his dog; as manager, never a winning baseball game; and, always falling for Lucy’s fake sincerity when she pulled the football away just when Charlie was about to kick it.

Inquiry seems to have the edge in this comic strip.

Now let’s look in the corporate world. Here, it’s often those who have the greatest conviction in their set of assumptions who win. Advocacy rules over inquiry because at the end of the day, decisions must be made and action taken based on available information. Analysis paralysis does not move a company forward.

So where is the balance to be found? Where’s the line between think and over-think? And where is the time to do either? How can the Advocates be sure they hear from the Inquirers—and not just get their way because others are insecure or afraid of being wrong? Or because they fear uncovering a different, less pleasant truth? Or, perhaps because they’re apathetic?

A Playing Field for Advocacy and Inquiry

Innovation is one arena where Advocacy and Inquiry must play well together. In order to be innovative, one has to question everything. All assumptions are suspect, everything must be seen through fresh eyes. Wild ideas, experimentation and mistakes are catalysts for breakthrough solutions. But in the end, innovation requires change. Someone has to sell the new idea—be its Advocate—to those who might still be in Inquiry mode. And even more importantly, to those in the Off mode.

I love this quote by Fredrich Jacobi, who says, “We must try harder to understand than to explain.” A great endorsement for the clarifiers among us.

On the other hand, Teddy Roosevelt once said, “In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

The Inquirer in me will continue to search for the balance. The Advocate in me tells me to get back to work.

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Have you ever tried to sell yourself or sell an idea with a logic that seems so obvious to you, yet for some unknown reason, it doesn’t sink in with others? Like the time you had that perfect pitch to a prospect who was less than generous in providing feedback? Too often our presentations and marketing materials focus on what we believe are our strengths or the strength of the idea. We cite statistics and stories for support. Yet these presentations miss the mark because they fail to consider what the prospects might need to hear before they can even listen to what we’re selling.

In short, many of us present ourselves and our ideas by talking about what’s important to us rather than what’s motivating to our prospects. We miss the important step of considering the context for our message, before crafting the content of the message.

The following is an approach for 1) exploring context, and 2) focusing content for your message.

Exploring Message Context

What’s happening? Begin by looking at your own assumptions, perspectives or attitudes that influence your presentation, and how they might be similar or different than those of your prospect?

Why is it happening? What market forces, personality traits and other issues might be affecting those assumptions, perspectives or attitudes, and therefore influence the decision to act?

What do we want to happen? What is the goal of the communication? And if different, what is the ultimate long-term goal of the relationship? What are the obstacles that might get in the way of achieving the goal?

Use the insights from this exploration to frame your content. Two examples:

  • If  your prospect has engaged the organization in a customer relationship initiative and you’re trying to sell sustainability, your prospect might not want his employees to lose focus with another initiative. You might frame your proposal as a way to enhance customer relationships. Or you might wait until after the customer relationship initiative is well seeded before attempting to sell in a sustainability initiative.
  • If, after thinking about your prospect’s personality, you decide she is an implementer who is not much interested in hearing about the planning process, you might want to begin by talking about goals, deliverables, metrics and schedules before talking about your process for finding and leveraging the insights that drive your work.

Focusing Message Content

Once we know the context of the message, we can better focus the content of the message. The trick here is to avoid the mistake of focusing only on the What of the message, and failing to connect the So What and Now What. Below is the distinction we make between What, So What and Now What.

a) What you want the prospects to know.

There are a variety of tools to help you arrive at a pinpoint focus on what you want to communicate. For example, if you’re selling the services or products of your organization you might use a concept in Jim Collin’s book, Good to Great and explain, what you do better than any other organization on the planet, If it’s an idea you’re selling, write the newspaper headline that explains it. Then elaborate; but remember, the object is to engage your prospect in the What, not to demonstrate your encyclopedic knowledge of the topic.

b) So What it means to your prospects and why they should care

It’s always good to list the traditional benefits that you believe the prospect might hope for or even expect. Then explore what benefit you might deliver that the prospect doesn’t even know is needed until it’s offered. This is meeting the unknown, unmet need (we call it the gift) and if you meet all known needs plus a compelling unknown, unmet need, then you have successfully differentiated your organization or idea from all others.

c) Now What I want you to do about it

While this seems obvious, many times we forget to “ask for the order.” We are so focused on presenting ourselves that we forget to tell the prospects what we want them to do.

So this is what I’d like you to do. Try exploring context for your next presentation. Connect your What to the So What and Now What. Share this post with others. Then give me feedback. Let me know what helps you…what confuses you…how we might improve this communication model.

Oh, and let me know if you come up with any new ideas for “what’s in it for you.”

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How many times have you adjourned one of your meetings or presentations wondering, what did they think? Did they get it? Do they still have questions? Are they with me?

In my last post, I discussed the forming, storming, norming and performing phases of group dynamics, with the promise of discussing the final phase of adjourning, in this post.

I have attended many meetings and presentations where “Questions/Next Steps” is the last slide before adjourning. I suppose this is helpful for the clarifiers and implementers among us, but it doesn’t always lead to a good understanding of the group’s mood or commitment to taking the next steps. If you want to know what stuck and where a group might be stuck, I’ve found a more direct approach to be useful.

On my agendas, I often carve out significant time for adjourning to ask group members to share their answers to two or three specific questions. I choose from the following options:

  • What did you like?
  • What did you learn?
  • What concerns do you still have? (And put them in a form of a “How to…?”problem to solve.)
  • What do you personally commit to the effort?
  • What action will you take in the next 24 hours?
  • What part of the meeting gave you the most energy?
  • What possibilities do you see coming out of this meeting?

If you don’t know the group well, it takes confidence to ask some of these questions. It might catch the group a bit off guard since they aren’t used to sharing “what they liked” about a presentation. But I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from these questions, and how many times I’ve seen everyone leave feeling more positive and upbeat about the time we spent together.

I’m sure there are more good questions to ask, and I would love to hear some suggestions from you.

But first, what did you like about this post? What did you learn? And what concerns do you still have? (Put in the form of a “How to…?” problem to solve.)

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One of the most useful insights I gained in my studies of creativity and facilitation training was a model of group dynamics that says all groups go through the same four phases: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. Now, different groups may linger longer in one phase or another. And, it’s not always linear; that is to say you might go from Storming to Norming to Performing and then back to Storming. Some groups—and we’ve all been in them—actually abort before ever getting to the Performing phase.

This insight has helped me better cope within any group, of which I’ve been a part. It allows me to not be so discomforted by my confusion during my group’s Forming phase. I’m not as dispirited by the bickering that may occur in the Storming phase. I don’t get quite as bored by the Norming phase. And because I have a name for it, I become exhilarated in the Performing phase.

The mindfulness of these phases gives me both hope and direction to get through any rough patches my group might experience. It gives me clues for how to move on. For example, I make sure there is plenty of time for the Clarifiers in the Forming phase. The sooner they use their clarifying questions to help the group understand why it’s there, the faster the group can move onto the next phase.

A Storming phase might suggest time needed to examine the facts and sort out those assumptions masquerading as fact. It might suggest a listening exercise to make sure everyone heard what was said and understands what was meant (not always the same thing). Then make sure everyone agrees on the implications.

A Norming phase, where structure has been established and participants know the group rules, will often cry out for some divergent exercises to help people accelerate their thinking in new and innovative areas.

A team in the Performing phase needs to be vigilant in maintaining its creative culture. It requires the resources to sustain its efforts. And it should take a breath every now and then to celebrate the magic.

Back on January 21st of this year, I wrote about George Land’s Transformational Theory, in which he posits that every living organism (he would include a group as a living organism) travels the S-curve as complexity grows over time. That theory is consistent with the four-phase construct I just described: the bottom dip of the “S” representing the Forming and Storming phases; the first break point representing the Norming phase; and the Performing phase represented by the ascent up the S-curve. (click for more on the  Transformation Theory)

The S-curve also includes a fifth phase, which may take the form of either starting a new S-curve for new growth, or becoming obsolete and going away. The professor who taught me the four phases of group dynamics included a fifth phase for that construct, which she called Adjourning.

I believe this “add-on” phase is so important that I will stop here and discuss Adjourning in my next post.

In the meantime, if you have other insights to add about group dynamics, I would appreciate learning from you.

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Who doesn’t want to be the expert? It means you know all the answers, earns you respect, moves you up the organization chart, increases your demand and makes you more money.

It doesn’t necessarily make you a good innovator, though.

In fact, an expert’s very identity is based on knowing the answers. Experts draw upon their years of experience. They seek out and promote best practices. They use their creativity to adapt and improve within the existing paradigm. They reduce risk and minimize change.

Experts are extremely valuable—until an innovative competitor creates a new product or service, making yours obsolete.

So how do innovators do it? An innovator’s mantra is don’t let what you already know get in the way of what is possible. Innovators aren’t ruled by the rules. Assumptions can’t masquerade as fact. Innovators look at the status quo with fresh eyes, imagine an ideal new reality and create a plan to get there. They accept some risk in order to change the game.

Here are a couple of exercises to engage your innovative thinking:

  • Ask, what would you love to see happen for your business if there were no obstacles in your way? What would your clients or customers love to see happen with your business if there were no obstacles in your way?
  • Once you know where you could go, try looking at your work through fresh eyes. Journal about every detail of your product or service as if you are an alien. Take photos like you’re a tourist. Collect materials like you are an anthropologist. Use your fresh eyes observations to bubble up new insights that might drive innovation.
  • Brainstorm everything you “know” about as many aspects of your business as you can. What has to happen for you to be successful? What do your customers expect from you? What processes are required? Who are your allies and who is your competition?
  • Then ask, if this weren’t true, then what could we do?

But then, I’m no expert. What ideas do you have for driving innovation?

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