No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience. ~ John Locke
If you’ve read a few of my blog entries, you’ve by now stumbled on the value I place on thinking. Planned…purposeful thinking.
I try hard to not tell my readers how to think, but will do what I can to help you maximize this important activity. And here I’ll offer tips about where to think.
Some have already found a quiet place where distractions can be shut out and thoughts gathered. But I think that your best thinking is likely to come by removing yourself from that comfortable environment. Allow me to offer a couple of reasons why I’ve reached that conclusive…
While reading Business Traveler magazine I came across the mention of a research project documented in The Journal of Experimental Social Phycology where two Indiana University teams of problem solvers were studied. The only difference between the two groups is that one was told that they were to gather data for a “linguistic skills” program on the IU campus, while the other group was led to believe that they were doing the same work for IU students studying abroad in Greece.
With only that single difference, the work being done for the “distant” program led the second group to come to a significantly higher number of creative answers than the first. Psychologists have concluded that this is a common trait and that we tend to think in concrete terms (construals) when we’re in a familiar environment. But that when we’re geographically distant we tend to think in the abstract.
The deduction reached is that creating spatial distance has a demonstrable impact on creative performance.
While I’m addressing thinking rather than problem solving here, I think you’ll agree there’s a connection. But if you’re unconvinced, allow me to pull in a second example…
Some speculate that the reason that so many Dutch philosophers appeared in the “Early” Enlightenment period was that the Dutch were exploring the world more widely at the time. Seeing new cultures, landscapes, flora and fauna may have stimulated new ways of looking at the world. Seems reasonable to me.
This reminds me of, what I considered at the time to be, a serious problem I was facing in my twenties. I could see no way out. I was stuck…and nearing exasperation over it. But a breakthrough occurred when my father took me for a short jaunt in his plane during which we circled one of the larger towns in our little piece of central Illinois. Looking down, I was struck about how small it looked. Suddenly, my problem had a new context. I recall leaping from the plane with a completely different attitude about finding a solution.
But I’ve proved the premise (to myself, at least) of the above multiple times…As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in a Chinese hotel listening to conversations I do not understand…while looking out the window at a cityscape with signage which I cannot read, yet reminds me where I’m at. Some ask me how in the world I can stand to travel so much, to so many far-away places. Yes, travel can be hard with 14 hour flights, unfamiliar food and drink, disgruntled travelers…but I seem to always be energized by it too. I’ve learned that unfamiliar places jar me into thinking outside of my box. And the value of that for me personally has been huge.
You don’t have to find yourself in China to facilitate new thinking…but I do believe that you’ll find new ways of thinking easier to come by when you purpose to think in less familiar territory than your room or office.
About a year ago Eddie (One of the Practice Leaders on my team) called me to express a concern. “Boss…I see emails from you all hours of the day and night, seven days a week, even when you’re not traveling internationally. I’m worried that you’re trying to do too much and that you’re headed toward burning yourself out.”
I replied, “Naw. Whenever I have too much on my plate, I just pass a bunch of work over to Eddie.” To which he responded, “…I need an Eddie!”
Fortunately, in my case, I have more than one “Eddie”. In fact, my team has several very talented leaders and I realize that I’m blessed in that regard. My view is that leaders should always be grooming someone to take their place and I’m fortunate that multiple people could do that. What? (!)…you say. So…you’re wondering about the wisdom of helping someone prepare to take your place, right? But if no one is ready to move up, how can your career progress?
I’ve seen some cases where talented people haven’t been promoted out of concern that the group would suffer if the leader moved on. Yeah, that’s a poor reason to pass someone over, but it happens. Helping others get in a position to progress their careers is very fulfilling work and can energize all of your leaders (current and potential). And don’t let yourself fall into the trap of being less than zealous at finding growth opportunities for your best people, even in another part of the organization. Losing a leader to another team will leave a hole sure. But, if you’re modeling this across your organization, their “Eddie” will step into the gap. No one who wants to progress their career should be left in a position of just waiting for their boss to “die”.
A number of years ago, shortly after joining a new company, my boss asked me to take up the challenge of putting together a new organization from parts of several others. As we discussed the charter for the new org he said, “And you need to be working yourself out of this job.” Frankly, I was a little confused and concerned about that. And wondered how that could be a good thing for me.
But he was trying to make that same point I am here. You shouldn’t fear working yourself out a job. The skill of being able to find and grow leaders will always be in demand.
A couple of tips on finding your “Eddie(s)”:
Look for people that know something you don’t or guide them into becoming your “black belt” in some area. If you’re always the smartest person in the room, want to be or think you are, there’s a risk that you’re going to suck the oxygen out of every meeting with your team. Real leaders won’t tolerate that working environment for long. You’ll lose the really good ones, and the ones that do stick around will let you lead (and do all of the work). If you’ve added leadership positions to your team, yet feel like there’s still more to do than ever…take a hint.
Know the difference between leadership and management skills. You probably readily agree that these are two very different skill sets. And while most that have moved into “management” have both skills, it’s important to assess your leaders in order to be clear about their strengths and weaknesses. What you’re looking for is someone that can lead and manage. Some leaders are just “one of the guys/gals”. They have a tough time managing since being a manager means talking with people about areas where they can improve and, let’s face it, that’s not what gets most leader out of bed in the morning.
Now…some are heavy on the management skills. This can mean that they’re “by the book” or “by the numbers”. Which can make them somewhat isolated from the operation. I recall a meeting a few years ago where a couple of my peers were clearly (to me) prefacing all of their decisions about our various practices based on their skill at slicing the numbers a variety of ways. I thought they were trying to apply the same math to a variety of business models. As the day wore on, I grew more and more frustrated with my counterparts and finally said, “With all due respect to the MBAs in the room…you’re doing a great job of counting the beans on the table but, if you want to know how many beans are on the floor…I can help you with that!”
There’s a book I recommend named Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman and Greg Mckeown. If you decide to read it, don’t do what I almost did…since most business books don’t have enough good content to be more than a few chapters long, I find myself reading about half of most of them until I begin to see the main themes repeated and find multiple examples making the same point. About half way through this book I was chomping at the bit to get Multipliers into my boss’s hands…the authors had him pegged! But…I read a little too far and begin to see a pretty significant shortcoming in my own approach with a particular leader on my team. In fact, I called her and apologized…the approach I was taking was meant to allow her to put her own mark on the work. But I was really leaving her without a clear direction or feedback.
So it’s not as easy as finding a good leader and then leaving them to work it out for themself. You actually have to lead them too. But, if you want career options, you should start by finding your “Eddie”.