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Leaders Make Connections, Not Decisions

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Contrary to common understanding, leadership is not principally about setting a clear direction and influencing a team to get moving. Rather, leadership is about creating the spaces where discovery and action can occur. Often we don't know what the outcome will be nor the ingredients required until we start making progress.

Steve Jobs argued that "creativity is connecting things" and a leader's role is to make sure that people are open to connecting to new ideas, perspectives, and potential approaches. Connection comes from the ability to empathize with others, particularly those that have markedly different skills and experiences that your own. We so often focus on the mechanics of leadership that we neglect the sense of vulnerability and empathy required to make sense of the world and to take appropriate action.

Recently, I was working with the senior leadership team for research and development at a large publicly-traded technology firm. Their focus is hardware and the thing that kept them awake at night was the implications of 'bring your own device (BYOD)' to their primarily institutional sales channels. This was a group of experienced innovators with multiple advanced degrees. And they were stuck.

We spent our time on things that left many of them frustrated (at first). They learned about Andy Goldsworthy, the Scottish natural artist and worked together to assemble ways of representing what they wanted to accomplish using objects found in their natural environment. They met with smart people completely disconnected from their day to day. They connected with a graduate of the Y Combinator program in California. They played around with emerging and immersive approaches in anatomy and physiology. They heard from artists that were pushing the limits of their tools. And they connected with a social innovator who was trying to reshape the way that philanthropy happens, while making a tidy profit in the process.

I told them before we began that 90 per cent of the conversations would be useless, but that the big breakthroughs happened in the 10 per cent that stuck in their minds and grew. When we wrapped up our three days together they called me a liar. All of the conversations had stuck, they told me.

Apparently, smart people make room for new ideas when they come along.

The Dark Side of Expertise

I can understand the desire for experts. Experts offer the possibility of being pulled out of our problems. Their confidence inspires us when we feel defeated. When we are uncertain, they provide us with direction and we can move our feet without thinking too deeply about the destination. There is a dark side to expertise, however.

Confidence comes from having a toolkit to apply to problems and as the saying goes, when one becomes skilled in using a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. The proliferation of leadership and innovation consultants suggests proven methods exist to facilitate innovation and the creation of something new. If you follow these steps, you will get to where you need to be. However, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, if you don't care where you're going, any road will get you there.

Expertise also means that we too often ask the same questions to the same people. We don't listen to people who don't speak our "language" and we struggle with ways of making sense of the world that don't follow the steps and assumptions with which we are most comfortable.

I am guilty of being one of those consultants that supports organizations to feel their way through their challenges. I am often confounded by much of the thought leadership that circulates around leadership and creativity, primarily because it so distant from the day-to-day reality I see on the ground. While I appreciate the importance of process, I find process to be a secondary contributor to the emergence and health of new ideas. Over hundreds of projects, engagements and residencies, the quality that seems to suggest success in new acts of creation has not been a fixed process, but rather a vulnerability and openness to other ideas, experiences and approaches. In short, an empathy for the experience of the other and a holistic appreciation of what they are trying to accomplish, rather than what we are trying to accomplish. Much more time needs to be spent on figuring out where we're going. The current industry focus seems to be on which road will get you there and organizations are surprised when they wind up in places where they don't want to stay.

The Path to Invention

Many of the problems that we are collectively trying to address are enormous. They extend beyond traditional boundaries and insist on collaborative thought and action. Our educational systems are built on mastery, on ensuring that the reach of what we know is as broad and deep as possible. Great acts of creation, however, seem to emerge from a form of surrender; surrender to a larger collaboration and surrender to the limits of our own ability to understand.

Jennie Winhall, one of the founders of Participle -- a UK-based design firm that is transforming the way public services are designed and delivered -- would spend weeks in immediate and intimate contact with those she was trying to serve. Participle was addressing massive issues including families in crisis, isolation of the elderly, chronic unemployment, and the broad failures of the welfare state. When I asked Jennie about process her responses surprised me. To her, process was useful and necessary, but served more as a container for collective action, rather than an end unto itself. Gurus of design thinking are all about steps. The reality is much trickier.

The Benefits of New Perspectives

Leadership is messy and full of different intentions. Participants in creation bring their own stories and expertise to the table and time can easily be spent trying to stay in control. When artists, researchers or leaders insist on processing new information through familiar lenses they fail to appreciate the enormous benefits that a new perspective can bring to a long-standing problem. Setting aside what we believe to be true about the world leaves us vulnerable to something quite unsettling yet generative. Collaborations among artists, Indigenous leaders, scientists and business leaders ask each to set aside their expertise and to reflect on what is being shared without first processing that information through a lens shaped by education, culture, practice or institutional orientation.

Coordinating activities, talking on behalf of an organization, and, more generally, getting things done, require organizational members to interact with others. Although this idea might look like common sense, the fact is that communication regularly remains the 'blind spot' of innovation. We surround ourselves, and others, with people that think and talk like us, and we do little to cultivate uncomfortable experiences that can introduce new perspectives and ultimately generate new ideas. A meaningful exchange with new voices requires a vulnerability that I see as essential to effective innovation efforts. We need to expose ourselves to as broad a set of experiences and expertise as possible. We need to position ourselves at busy intersections of new and sometimes uncomfortable ideas. Rigid innovation processes too often move us away from unexpected approaches. Confidence in a consultant's or our own expertise can make us blind to deeply human experiences that might lead to insights where transformational change can happen.

Jerry McGrath is the Director of Innovation and Program Partnerships at the Peter Lougheed Leadership Institute. Jerry enables novel and often unorthodox collaborations to support small and large projects in service to our client communities. Past clients include SMART Technologies, Shaw Communications, the Canada School of Public Service, as well as various entrepreneurial ventures, municipalities, provincial ministries, not-for-profit organizations, and energy sector clients.


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