Potential: Revealed

Strategic Thinking, Innovative Ideas, Growth Marketing, and Revealing of Potential

Archive for creativity

Not Fearless … “I Just Proceed Nonetheless”

One subject I’ve often discussed with friends and colleagues is about making difficult decisions, the reasoning behind those decisions, and the personal characteristics involved. What are the hallmarks of making good decisions in a challenging environment or situation?

There are many factors but for this post I want to refute – with the help of a wonderful example I found today – one factor that I think is either over emphasized or perhaps not really a factor at all. That factor is: fearlessness.

The definition is “to be free from fear”. If you are faced with a difficult decision whether in a personal sphere, in business, or other arena is a lack of fear a good thing? It certainly might help you get over the hump, so to speak, and to act upon a decision you might have based on your judgment, your morality or ethics, particularly if the consequences for failure are dire enough (e.g., failed business, failed relationship, even life-or-death).
This has always troubled me though. I just seems that as humans we all have fears and given they are seemingly universal then those fears are there for some useful purpose (and we should be paying attention to them!).

SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk sent the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station

Yet I like this interview of Elon Musk, founder of Paypal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors (and he’s only 41!). Especially the last line of this part of the interview:

“I wouldn’t say I have a lack of fear. In fact, I’d like my fear emotion to be less because it’s very distracting and fries my nervous system. I have this sort of feeling that something terrible could happen, like all of our flights could fail and Tesla could fail and SpaceX could fail, and that feeling of anxiety has not left me, even though this has been a great year. So I feel fear quite strongly; I just proceed nonetheless.

I would say that fear is part of what stokes Elon’s drive and his attention to what is important in his business decisions. Fear is a means but the end – the decision to and actually act – is all about bravery. To move ahead despite the risk, despite the fears is a concious act, not an unconcious act (as fearlessness seems to be, at least to me).

So, may you recognize your fears. Confront them and use them to inform your decisions. Then summon your bravery to act with confidence on the decisions you have made, or as Elon says “just proceed nonetheless“.

(P.S. read the rest of the interview with Elon Musk. It is quite interesting.)

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Beyond First Impressions

There are many stories that fascinate me about the tremendous potential of individuals being hidden behind personal peculiarities and foibles. Even more interesting are when two or more of these individuals are put together and become creators or catalysts of a great breakthrough.

This is fascinating to me for a couple of reasons. One is a common theme I like to write about which is the failure to see the potential of each individual when preconceptions or prejudice get in the way. The other is related: sometimes it takes individuals who are subject to the preconceptions or prejudice, thrown together for some reason (purposefully, through serendipity or other means), to mutually unlock the potential and power its fruition.

These individuals can often have singular talents which consume them in some way and lead them to ignore more mundane social or personal needs and habits. Think of Einstein, the brilliant theoretical physicist, who often could not recall how to get home after walking about and pondering a problem for hours, who didn’t bother combing his hair … or to wear socks.

Perhaps this ability (or inability?) to pay much attention to personal or social issues and norms – and further, not giving them attention in others — clarifies and focuses attention on some hidden potential buried in outside-the-box thinking, ideas, and visions.

One example is Johann Kepler and Tycho Brahe. Who are these guys? Tycho Brahe was the court mathematician and astronomer to King Frederic II and known throughout scholarly Europe at the time as the most knowledgeable person in the realm of the sky and the stars. He had meticulously and obsessively documented the movement of the planets, the moon, and the positions of all the stars that populated the nighttime skies. This repository of data and knowledge Brahe put together was in and of itself a marvelous feat of that or any time. He was a man of some means and had a world class observatory and institute of science and mathematics that he oversaw. It was home to many scholars and served to advance and spread knowledge about the heavens.

One young man who came to work with Brahe was Johannes Kepler. Where Brahe excelled in the detailed and meticulous world of scientific observation, Kepler was a theoretician who excelled in the world of conceptualizing and synthesizing many points of observation and fact.

Interestingly and by contrast, Brahe was an imposing figure – physically and in demeanor. He was seen as aristocratic and despotic, passionate and very eccentric. Kepler was thin, almost sickly, very near sighted, neurotic and disheveled. His father had been a solider for hire and his mother was an accused but acquitted witch who was said to enjoy psychedelic drugs. Perhaps the one common trait both had was a driven nature that conveyed to others arrogance and self-centeredness.

Kepler came to see that the observed facts Brahe had cataloged about the position and movement of the objects in the sky did not support the still widely accepted model of Aristotle and others that said the Earth was the center and the Sun and planets revolved around it. Nor did Brahe’s data support the newer model of Nicolas Copernicus (that Brahe believed in), developed by Copernicus a century earlier. Copernicus’ model rightly put the Sun in the center and Earth and the other planets orbiting around it. Copernicus’ model while correct generally, was flawed however, as it said the Earth and the planets traveled in perfectly circular orbits.

Kepler’s irritable and confrontational nature though made it difficult for him to get others to listen to his views and ideas. It was Brahe, for less than altruistic reasons (he feared his pupil might surpass him), who framed a challenge and focused Kepler on a part of the problem which led to a breakthrough model of the universe. One that is used to this day.

Brahe challenged Kepler to determine a model and equations that would accurately predict the path of Mars’ orbit. He knew that since Mars was close in proximity to Earth that a very precise model would be required to make accurate predictions. Mars would be the true test of Kepler’s ability to prove what he had been grumbling about. Kepler boasted it would take him 8 days to meet Brahe’s challenge. 8 years later, Kepler was still working out the solution.

Eventually, Kepler did come up with the model and equations to prove that the orbital path of Mars about the Sun was elliptical, not circular. Indeed the orbital motion of all the planets in our solar system can be described as elliptical. An interesting footnote is that Brahe died not long after issuing the Mars challenge to Kepler and did not live to find out whether his pupil met the challenge – and find out that indeed the student far surpassed the teacher in fame and stature.

Johannes Kepler is a key figure in the scientific revolution. His work provided one of the foundations for Issac Newton’s theory of Universal Gravitation. Imagine though if Brahe and others would have let their impressions of him lead them to disregard or sideline him. It can be argued that what he discovered might just have been found later and if so, today, 400 years later, we would hardly notice the difference or care if someone other than Kepler got credit.

It should be noted however, that in Kepler and Brahe’s time they were just emerging from a time well known as the Dark Ages. A time of scientific repression and repression of many other insidious sorts. A time in which someone of Kepler’s mind and approach would have been summarily dismissed – or worse – declared heretical.

The Dark Ages lasted more than 1000 years.

Odds are you nor I are currently working with or know the next Johannes Kepler. Yet we’ve all known or know people who have talents, sometimes singular and amazing, that fight to shine beyond personal faults and social awkwardness. Many of us have failed to recognize these talents. Either in hindsight or in the moment we chose the easy path of discarding the whole person, along with their potential, to avoid dealing with their perceived negative traits. As a leader, colleague, friend, and mentor I for one want to do a better job of dealing with others on their merits, even when they are hard to see, and resisting the easy path of avoidance or disregard.

Working Together: Great Potential Revealed

Spring and summer have been busy work-wise, and lazy otherwise. The combination of hard work and the opportunity, through abundance of summery weather and a relaxing time away with family, to do nothing much has also given me time to read some interesting books.

Recently I’ve gotten hooked on science and history – in particular the rise in the early 20th century of quantum mechanics in physics. I have been amazed at how individually brilliant these scientists were and how incredible their vision and discoveries were. Imagining and then doing the math and experiments to prove what they imagined, in a time with no computers, little funding, and few sophisticated laboratory tools is the epitome of the human spirit and thirst for knowledge and understanding.

What I’ve also learned that was true and critical to the discoveries made was the collaboration and sharing that occurred. There were plenty of rivalries and some conflicts but given the stakes – and the potential for fame – there was more openness than secrecy. These remarkable men and women – Einstein, Curie, Fermi, Szilard, Meitner, Oppenheimer, Dirac and many others – were of varying nationalities and located across Europe, plus America and Asia. Again in a time of no computers or internet, they made a conscious investment – which was non-trivial given the communication challenges of the age – in publishing their discoveries, writing to each other regularly, and attending formal and informal gatherings where theories, approaches and findings were presented and debated.

 
They seemed to know that their ideas were worth far less if they hid them. They knew they’d be more valuable if they invited others to learn about them, debate or challenge them and add to them. Or perhaps that their individual ideas and theories were just small parts of a huge body of unknowns that one of them could not possibly explain alone. If they wanted to be successful – be part of explaining the universe – they had to cooperate with others.

Together they were discovering more deeply how the universe works, at the atomic and then sub atomic levels. Imagining and then proving that atoms existed and contained electrons, protons and neutrons. Imagining and then proving that even smaller things existed such as quarks, gluons and other interestingly-named particles. Imagining and then proving that atoms could be split – and fused. Some, such as Einstein, at times wished they’d never had their great thoughts or published them — since it led in 1945 to the deaths of more than 100,000 Japanese citizens in a matter of seconds with dropping of bombs. Bombs with innocent sounding names like Fat Boy and Little Man.

Yet there is no denying that there have been many positive aspects to what these people discovered and helped the world to understand. It has and continues to change the world as we know it.

And their approach to innovation and knowledge sharing can teach us a great deal about what can happen when the potential of new ideas is fueled by a spirit of cooperation and sharing for the common good.

If you are interested at all in what I’ve been reading, here’s a few selected titles:

The Story of Science: Einstein Adds A New Dimension by Joy Hakim – actually a great middle school to early high school text book. If all children had books written by and teachers like Joy Hakim, we’d have more kids interested in science. Her writing is fun and informative.

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson 

A Short History of Almost Everything by Bill Bryson

Do it your way

A little while back I read an article about Brett Favre, quarterback now for the Vikings but for most of his career the star of the Green Bay Packers. It was a very personal profile. More recently there was an article about Ringo Starr, who will soon turn 70. Ringo of course was the drummer for the Beatles. (Trivia: he was not the original drummer! Do you know who was?). After reading both I had similar reactions and thought I’d write about it.

Both clearly had much potential – potential that was fully and famously revealed by each in their own unique ways.

They were similar in some respects: both grew up in families and surroundings of modest means. Ringo perhaps more so but Brett didn’t have any silver spoons either.

They had different influences though. Ringo said Liverpool was rough and at times violent and unsafe. But he has clear memory of loving and kind people, in his family and from his neighborhood growing up.

Brett had an excessively tough father who was his high school football coach and life long (tor)mentor. His father was critical and unforgiving well into Brett’s adult life and professional career. In one famous incident, he criticized his son’s play and abilities despite Brett having the best year of his career and having just won the league Most Valuable Player award for the 3rd time.

What does this say about revealing one’s potential? It doesn’t matter if you are loved or ridiculed and it helps to start out by growing up poor and then striving hard enough to be successful beyond expectations?

I don’t think so. Something else that they had in common seemed more like the key.

Brett did not have good football passing mechanics. In fact they were unusual and not very pretty. What he possessed was an unusually powerful arm and knack for improvisation, and he could throw the ball farther and more accurately than any rival. He said he simply loved throwing the football. Always had and still does. It is what drives him to compete despite recently turning 40 – and compete at a level that nearly took him to yet another Super Bowl in 2010. He listened to – and focused intently on – this love he had.

Ringo was not a classicly great drummer. Many have said he was the “weakest” Beatle, musical talent-wise. Of course he’s competing with the greatest song writing duo in modern music history (Lennon and McCartney) and a multi-talented artist (George Harrison) so it might be fair to cut him some slack. It’s like saying Dimaggio was only the 4th greatest baseball player – behind Ruth, Williams and Aaron.

But Ringo said he loves drumming. Always had and still does. He has for many years since the Beatles broke up put together a series of touring bands he’s called the All Starr Band (usually packed with contemporary greats from the 60’s and 70’s such as Joe Walsh, Dave Stewart, Gary Wright and Edgar Winter, and from more recent times such as Ben Harper, Joss Stone, Don Was and Benmont Tench). The reason why all these great musicians want to play in his All Starr bands is because Ringo is so fun to play music with. He brings out the best in them because his drumming is there to complement and enhance – not overshadow – his band mates’ playing and singing. He’s considered a pioneer of this style. I’m sure John, Paul and George felt this when they were writing, creating and playing all those great Beatles tunes together. His love of drumming and the role it plays in making great music with great musicians drives him, despite the fact that he is soon going to turn 70 years old.

What’s the lesson? One is a common one: do what you love and follow your passions. Potential and success are often revealed if you do. An important corollary seems to be: don’t worry if how you do what you love is “flawed” or “different” somehow. If Brett and Ringo had let that stand in the way, think of all the potential greatness we would have missed.

Imagination

Albert Einstein once wrote that in science “imagination is more important than knowledge”. That’s a powerful thought. I suppose you might expect nothing less from an intellectual giant such as Einstein.

What resonated with me, as someone who often not only wants to understand but who finds fully understanding something (i.e., “knowledge”) to be particularly satisfying, is the caution it offered about seeing knowledge as the only worthy end (to some research you’ve conducted, a project you’ve managed, a business problem or opportunity you’ve worked hard on).

Further, in reading more about the context of Einstein’s writing this line, he is saying bluntly that science like many pursuits in life is really just a journey, full of unknowns and unfolding unendingly. At any given point in time there are many truths or facts that are well-accepted and proven but an infinite number more truths and facts that are quite unknown and sometimes seemingly unknowable. Particularly in science there are many areas of study that deal with phenomena that are not readily or directly observable.

Einstein,and other great scientists, made many of their most astounding breakthroughs using their imagination rather than getting stuck trying to understand the seemingly unknowable. They would imagine some alternative reality to what was known at the time, think through how this alternative world might look and how it might operate if it were discovered to be true, then go about experimenting, searching and testing as if the alternate view were indeed true. This gave them great freedom to work creatively rather than be confined by the “known”. As a non-scientist, for me at least, this was very revealing and refreshing – creativity and science go together! I think I thought before this that they were mutually exclusive.

I began to relate this to my work with business clients where we might be talking about a new product or concept, or a new approach to promotional marketing and other challenges where some facts are well known and many others are for practical purposes unknowable. In such a situation how do you proceed? Einstein would say, if I may be so bold as to speak for him, to first beware of investing all your time into trying to know everything. This is similar to the common advice to avoid “analysis paralysis”. He adds to this common wisdom a more unique point of advice: use your imagination and then be bold enough to just try it out! Experiment. Try. Fail. Try again with another approach.

This is of course no guarantee of success. Your imagination might fail you. But when faced with a big challenge, using your imagination can be a powerful tool to spur action and overcome inaction. At the very least, doing so will give you a taste of how Albert Einstein thought and that alone will be fun!

Creative friction

Recently I posted about an interesting research article on “The Contradictions That Drive Toyota’s Success“.

In summary the authors describe three “forces of expansion” (defined as those that lead the company to instigate change and improvement) and three “forces of integration” (defined as those that stabilize the company’s expansion and transformation). The countervailing nature of these forces allow Toyota to be widely and sometimes wildly innovative, creative, and constantly renewing itself, without undue chaos or losing its very clear and constant cultural identity. In the previous post I focused on the Expansion forces. Now a thought about Integration forces.

The Integration forces are listed as Values from the founders, Up-and-in people management, and Open communcation. Each are interesting but a part of the description of Open Communication was of most interest to me. A specific aspect of open communication was “give people freedom to voice contrary opinions”. It struck me as contraditory — ah, the authors’ title for the article was starting to make sense! — that being contrary with one another would serve to integrate the culture.

Then it reminded me of the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s thoughts about creative destruction. Schumpeter asserted that the process of innovation and growth in a capitalist economy was a strong mixture of both descruction and creation occuring simultaneously. And bringing these contradictory forces together results in a stronger, more vibrant and growth-oriented economy.

In fact in the Toyota example there are several examples cited of how allowing contrary opinions had positive impact. One I particularly enjoyed was of the new head of U.S. sales ignoring “everything those top executives told me” about what should be done to succeed in the U.S. market. It had to be clear to his bosses in Japan that the U.S. sales executive was contradicting their orders long before the results of his decisions played out, yet they allowed him to make his case and then go with his own ideas. He could have been wrong, but then if he was following some of the principles from the “Forces for Expansion” (discussed in the previous post), particularly to have an experimental attitude and approach, he would have a built-in mechanism to manage the risk of failure and to continually adjust or abandon his ideas if needed.

Most organizations and leaders will say they want to “hear” contrary opinions. Few in my experience want to “allow” those contrary opinions to be freely acted upon. And in Toyota’s case it is apparently beyond allow, but to “encourage” their people to act on their contrary opinions and ideas.

Latent value, by definition, has to be revealed. Reveal is a verb and connotes action. Toyota is a great example of an organizational approach and culture that personifies, through their actions, continually discovering and “revealing potential”.

Do you agree? Are there other ingredients that lead to unlocking latent value?