Finding the Adjacent Possible

paintingdrippingWhatever field you work in, your expertise is expected, it’s a given. So too your diligence. It is your initiative and creative ability to bring unique and signature solutions to solve unexpected problems that is your brand, and increasingly your company’s brand and identity. The question is how to find it? Or a better question – how can we create collaborative learning environments where we can have new ideas on a regular basis? Not in a mechanized on-demand sort of way, but rather create an ecosystem which encourages exploration of the adjacent possible.  More on that cool concept here from Steven Johnson.

Bill Taylor’s new book, Practically Radical, talks about three key elements to drive successful innovation:

  • To become the ‘most of something’. Check out the most successful organizations and people. They are all the most of something. There is no place in today’s high-pressured, rapidly-changing, killer-competitive world for anything less
  • To embrace a sense of vuja dé. Vuja dé is looking at a familiar situation as if you are seeing it for the very first time. This instantly opens up limitless imagination, and fresh insights and ideas
  • To look for fresh, new ideas in new places. Never compare yourself with what or who is considered best in your field. Learn from people and organizations that are way outside your field

If Bill is right (and I think he is) this has implications for how we develop learning environments for people in our organizations. The future of learning is must be to provide conceptual and powerful learning opportunities; opportunities which offer insight, ideas, and parables intended for inference and application by the learner. The outcomes of this kind of learning are quite unexpected, and by its very nature, bring in fresh insights and solutions. This is what makes the whole learning experience unique and beautiful.
To create the shift to conceptual learning, is to essentially balance the spoon-fed, outcome-anticipated, specific-competence results-oriented learning environments with more conceptual learning environments. This will treat learners as ready and able to distill ideas into their own signature integrated solutions, which are applicable for their line of work both internal and external. Success ensures that the experience is meaningful. This will then bring about the total shift to conceptual learning.

Tom Kelley, CEO of IDEO, a premier product and services innovation company, has been a long advocate of this approach. In his book, The Ten Faces of Innovation, he describes a particular persona called the “Cross-Pollinator”. Cross-Pollinators are those people who are inquisitive beyond their particular domain expertise and explore ideas from industries outside their immediate purview. They understand and learn the technology, device or methods employed elsewhere and figure out how to incorporate these ideas into their own work.

Go. Find the adjacent possible.

The Innovation Midwife

AMA Corporate Learning recently surveyed over 1100 senior managers and executives on the topic of leadership succession planning and discovered only 14% described their organization as properly prepared to confront key leadership loss, and over 80% said they were either “somewhat prepared” or “not at all prepared.” In the case of Steve Jobs, confidence appears reasonably high that Tim Cook is prepared to lead Apple through Jobs’ health break. Yet, 14% nationally reflects a pretty sad confidence level in our leadership pipeline.

I’m reminded of the development culture at U.S. Cellular which dictates the both/and equation when it comes to business results. In their culture a defining metric of goal success is both achieving the business objective AND developing people in the process. The goal is considered incomplete if you ink a deal but the people growth component isn’t there. There is a clear expectation that business drivers include the people development part. Because people aren’t assets, they’re well…people. As Jonas Ridderstrale likes to say, “If you are doing your job as a leader you shouldn’t be needed.” What he means is that if you stock the organization with both high-will ecosystems and high-skill individuals and collaborators, you won’t be needed. The point at which the leader makes their most valuable contribution is to be the midwife of innovation. The leader acting as innovation midwife cannot possibly provide the answer or prescribe the insight, since that approach lacks the originality of the democratic process, and isn’t born from the mind of the contributor. In this capacity, the innovation midwife plays inquisitor – asking the kinds of honest probing questions that yield the birth of ideas.

And there’s another role for the midwife – finding the home and support for the idea. At the same time the innovation midwife is coaxing powerful new ideas into the world, she has to also be finding those sponsors and champions within the organization who are willing to nurture, feed and shelter these ideas so they can become big enough to surprise the world. To quote Ridderstrale again, the TBUS (Time Between Unexpected Surprises) is shrinking every day.

Building Urgency for Enterprise 2.0 Adoption

We had a fantastic interaction and presentation with Andy McAfee, author of Enterprise 2.0, this past week. He delivered a live, interactive webcast to our global audience of over 500 organizations. He opened by debunking a fairly straightforward idea that we hear constantly, “It’s not about the technology.” This is a common idea paraded about in organizations to demonstrate that while, yes, technology is of course changing, it is more about the business models, ideas, and market landscape that surrounds the changing technology.

Myself, I’ve been sucker to that same argument when talking about the importance of recognizing technology as a tacit enabler, but not the point itself. McAfee wants to point out that…now…more than ever before, the technology itself is changing at such a logarithmic rate, that indeed it has powerful impacts on the services and product innovation we provide.

Take at look at the graph – when we weigh infrastructure asset prices of industrial, transportation and infrastructure costs against the cost of available technology, clearly online technological costs are plummeting, and that has profound implications about how we can, and should, do business. And importantly, how we interact as communities in the emerging Enterprise 2.0 environment. The price crash of collaborative technologies based on peripheral equipment like computers (iPads!, NetBooks!) has opened up immense opportunities for people to congregate virtually, share expertise, practices, and insights – and if they choose, to also collaborate in competitive ways in the market.

With the advent of online collaborative environments we are seeing heightened competition from everyone, everywhere, for everything. If you thought your market niche was product based, or particularly regional in scope, think again. With cool collaborative innovation sinks like InnoCentive, people can build iterative new products and services leveraging expertise around the world in a flash. So as you and your business consider integrating Enterprise 2.0 initiatives, consider that the alternative could be obsolescence.

The Pie of Life

There’s an old saying that goes, “How you spend your day is how you spend your life.” And researchers have shown (try Dan Gilbert) that we, predictably, are poor predictors of what will make us happy. The world is full of miserable lottery winners and yet we still think if only we have the house, the car, the spouse, the job, the vacation – whatever – we’ll be soo happy. And yet consistently many of these dreams fail to deliver joy upon arrival – or at least sustainable joy.

Turns out we aren’t very good at remembering how happy we were either. We fairly consistently recollect memories as joyful, when in fact the majority of the actual time spent was of a more mundane variety.   We have the experiencing self in real time that has opinions and emotions, and we have a remembering self that recollects events and provides us with advice about the quality of that experience and how to make future choices.

So to figure out how happy we really are on a moment to moment basis, researchers Alan Krueger and Daniel Kahnman conducted a study in which they asked 4,000 participants to categorize their days into 15 minute increments and value them based on how they felt at those moments. The slide here represents those findings. Ouch – we really only spend less than 30% of our day engaged in activities we characterize as either enjoyable or meaningful? And yikes – almost a third of our day is spent wandering through the “conveyer belt” of life, which to the average of those 4,000 interviewed meant work or school.

Todd Kashdan, author of Curious?, suggests it doesn’t have to be this way. The world over, people say they want happiness, health, and wealth – in that order. Todd is making a strong argument for the power of curiosity to be the sustaining key to happiness, joy and lifelong fulfillment. He reminds us that not only can we learn new things, open our minds, build more positive mood states, and generally find novelty in the world, but that it takes work. We have to apply ourselves to the game of learning curiousity, and the results can be profound – not only greater happiness, but closer and more fulfilling relationships, and even healthier bodies.

Try this for just five minutes.  When engaging in an activity you regularly do (walking to the mailbox, washing dishes, whatever) look for something new in the experience.  Slow down and be present for something you have never noticed before.  For example, Todd has a great story of a guy he interviewed whose job was to spot irregular potato chips on a moving conveyor belt and remove them to ensure product consistency.  I mean, that’s GOT to be up there with tollbooth operator on the boredom factor.  The guy said he loves his job.  Loves it.  He plays a game in which he tries to spot famous faces in the potato chips (Hey, there’s Ernest Borgnine!). OK, maybe not your idea of fun but it was for him. Find something new in each experience. Sometimes it’s only a slight turn of the head.

Find your wings, then set out with courage

Courage is nothing more than your faith reaching THROUGH your fear, displaying itself as action in your life. It’s okay to be afraid, but ACT. – John Hope Bryant

I had an interview and collaboration with John Hope Bryant recently, and the world is a better place because of his message and energy of hope.  This is someone who has created an organization which has raised 500M for financial literacy to help alleviate poverty in the U.S. and beyond.  His foundation, Operation HOPE,  was founded in the wake of the civil unrest of 1992 Los Angeles and dedicated to alleviating not just the poverty, but the social pain of the ‘other’ America.  That is – to bring hope and meaning to the other America that lives in constant economic and social pressure.

He told this marvelous analogy about eagles:  Most bird species learn to fly in small ground bursts building confidence, or like ospreys can be coaxed from their nest by food, but not eagles.  Eagles are literally kicked out of the nest by momma and forced to leave their comfort zone while the father circles diligently below in the event they falter and need to be caught.  Eagles must be pushed to leave their comfort zone and exercise their innate capabilities which they have yet to realize.

John Bryant believes in the same kind of idea.  He urges leaders to first allow people to find their own seat and role of comfort, instead of being shown specific tasks and procedures.  “Let them find their seat and then approach them.”  Think about the importance of Autonomy in building engagement: let people choose their task, their team, their technique.  And then push people to reach beyond their comfort zones to learn to fly.  Everyone will make mistakes and it might not be graceful at first, but if you first allow people to choose their place of comfort and then push them in the direction of their possibilities, people can show that innate creativity and learn to soar.

Learnerprise – Beyond Neologism to Collective Understanding

New Research Shows Corporate Training Budgets Are Misaligned
Although 64% of Learning Executives Believe Informal Learning Approaches Have Higher Impact, More Than Two-Thirds of Corporate Training Budgets Are Spent on Traditional Formal Training
Bersin & Associates

Props to Dan Pontefract who pretty much inspired this whole post about the mashup of Andy McAfee’s Enterprise 2.0 notion and Learning 2.0. This is to contribute to Dan’s argument to help bring this word, “Learnerprise” from lonely neologism into the general vernacular.

The first steps of the emergent Learnerprise organization must include federating the LMS and integrating learning opportunities ubiquitously throughout the organization in rich social media environments.  But to ensure success, the savvy Learnerprise architect has to understand that whatever opportunities are provided, formal or informal, they are competing against not just their own learning offerings, but also the wild social web.

Let’s unpack this.  Any learning opportunity initiative – let’s say the corporate university just released a presentation coaching two-day classroom workshop, coupled with a communications e-learning certificate package, and supplemented with an informal use-as-you-choose books/video library on effective presence, and promoted in a push campaign alerting associates of that availability – must understand that it is competing with a compendium of other resources that the now-socially empowered free agent of the organization can reasonably garner from any number of outside resources.

And so, to build a compelling webscape of learning, we need to create mechanisms for the collective wisdom of our colleagues to enhance the intrinsic drive of those we hope to inspire and change.  Remember it’s the intrinsic personal interest that we need to be enabling in eventual service of the organization, not what we think people need to be learning.  That is, the learning organization (the new Learnerprise) shall provide the environments and opportunities in which people can satisfy their own emergent drives and interests to learn.

Recognizing intrinsic drive suggests that ideas and skill-development resonate not when the royal we of organizational learning thinks it needs to happen, but rather when people are ready, willing and eager to absorb and integrate new ideas into their behaviors – which is why a group of people can participate in the same learning campaign, and yet only a portion of that audience find stickiness and ah-ha!  Which again, explains why despite the best efforts of the learning organization assigning prescriptive learning, only a portion emerge effectively engaged in the “intended” outcomes.

Clearly now in the conceptual age, following the readily available knowledge age, to remain relevant, learning initiatives need to engineer in all varieties of disparate possibilities for the individual to parse what matters to them, and to apply to their work.

Personally, I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught. – Winston Churchill

Step Up Change Agents

Dream well. You may find yourself there. -Neal Bushoven

“Companies are people” is a popular expression to celebrate that the engine of a company is the people who work there, and it’s success or failure is built on the collaborative, innovative and actionable power of those people.  But remember, a Company is a kind of legalized fiction – a set of codified relationships between shareholders, employees and customers, bound together by contracts – the value of which is predominantly wrapped up in future deliverables – yet to be fulfilled.  Sure enough there is brand, reputation, and pent-up expectation, but the future employee contribution or innovation, the equity value yet to be delivered to the shareholder, and the product or service value to be delivered to the customer, all make up the promise of a Company.

These are much more manageable deliverables than managing the fickleness of people.  People, on the other hand, are people – and susceptible to having babies, or heart-attacks, or mid-life crises, or jumping to the competition, or opening yoga studios, or whatever else strikes their fancy.  A Company’s ability to first: attract and retain the best and brightest, and then: allow them to collaborate in innovative and actionable activities together, is what comprises all those promises codified in the contracts upon which the Company is based.

So let’s look at the people.  The people are “consumed by more fear-based motivation than I’ve seen in my lifetime” said Robert Reich in a presentation today.  There are 77 million baby-boomers working today who were born between 1946 and 1964 and they are:

  • retiring later because their 401K has evaporated (exaggeration – but diminished indeed)
  • more worried about losing their jobs than any time in extant memory
  • unable to borrow yet more from their home equity against diminished home values
  • trying to escape from existing debt load

The result of all is that fear has become a primary motivating force and change agents are becoming more scarce, and yet more valuable than ever, because bold idea makers are shackled by fear.  The biggest barrier to change is past success.  That’s right, when things are good and products and services are moving along at a nice clip, companies encourage more of the same – more of the past successes to fuel growth.  But what if what worked, doesn’t work any longer?  This is when idiosyncratic change agents are most needed. Now more than ever, change agents can be more effective in innovating and bringing new opportunities and actionable ideas because companies are hungry for emergent successes.

The ability to envision how to do new things effectively is now more valuable than ever.

Conceptual Learning is Beautiful, Unique and Meaningful

Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, recognized the role of conceptual output as early as 1997 in a speech at the University of Connecticut when he said “The growth of the conceptual component of output has brought with it accelerating demands for workers who are equipped not simply with technical know-how, but with the ability to create, analyze, and transform information and to interact effectively with others.” By 2004, he had developed his views on the topic, referring to reductions in manufacturing in the United States, outsourcing to India and China, excess of supply and the global marketplace, all leading to the increasing conceptualization of economic output.

Taking a page straight from Dan Pink and Gary Hamel, knowledge and even expertise are common, expected, cheap (sometimes free) to source, and no longer represent lasting competitive advantage. We have moved from the knowledge age to the conceptual age where creative, symphonic thinking – the ability to harness sometimes seemingly disparate pieces of information and ideas and mash them into wholly new iterations that can be applied effectively to solutions and results – are in fact the individual and organization’s competitive advantage.

Whatever field you work in, your expertise is expected, but your initiative and creativity to bring unique and signature solutions to solve unexpected problems is your brand, and increasingly also your company’s brand and identity. If this is true (and you better believe it), the future of learning is to provide more conceptual and powerful learning opportunities in which the expected learning outcomes are by nature, unexpected. Sometimes called chaotic or unstable by design, this construct suggests building learning opportunities which offer insight, ideas and parables intended for inference and application by the learner.

This calls for balancing the spoon-fed, outcome-anticipated, specific-competence results-oriented learning environments with more conceptual learning environments which treat learners as ready and able to distill ideas presented into their own signature integrated solutions applicable for their line of work and customers, whether they be internal or external.

Tom Kelley, CEO of IDEO, a premier product and services innovation company, has been a long advocate of this approach. In his book, The Ten Faces of Innovation, he describes a particular persona called the “Cross-Pollinator.” Cross-Pollinators are those types who are inquisitive beyond their particular domain expertise and explore ideas from industries outside their immediate purview, come to understand the technology, device or methods employed elsewhere and figure out how to incorporate these ideas into their own work.

How might this look like in learning environments?  To compete with the wild web, these learning environments will provide media and socially rich environments which aid learners to deduct applications from disparate sources.  The conceptual age learning environment will offer a deep portfolio of ideas and solutions garnered from varieties of domains. For example, a sales learning environment will not only offer presentation tips and niche industry knowledge but perhaps also ways in which organizations well outside their own have leveraged technology to gain their customer attention. For example, Sugarloaf Ski resort has been admired for their ability to use social media to update the faithful.

Foremost, emerging learning environments will understand that people have their own intrinsic motivators, often contrary to what their company or manager thinks is their primary motivator (drop the carrots and sticks paradigm).  When really what motivates the learner is passion, purpose and curiosity.  Learning opportunities will only resonate when they intersect with someone’s current passion, fulfills their sense of purpose and giving, and piques their curiosity.

Learning opportunities are plentiful and the expectations are rising, and to be compelling whatever you are offering must be beautiful, unique and meaningful.