Why Ignore the Obvious?

Margaret Heffernan wrote a book last year entitled Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, a look at how leaders have intentional blind spots. She queries why many people prefer ignorance over being well informed. In examining the Catholic Church, political despots, unethical corporate leaders, financial mismanagement, and the foibles of top military brass, Heffernan makes the tie between a leader’s choices and the impact on the organizations served. using psychology, researched accounts, and some intuition, she has been compared to Malcolm Gladwell and Nicholas Taleb and has received kudos from Dan Pink.

In an article published in Inc, she analyzes the General Petraeus fiasco and makes comparisons between others she covered for her book and the characters in the saga splashed across many websites, newspapers, and journals presently. Heffernan tries to get inside his head as to what he may be thinking about his new dilemma: soon to be unemployed and suddenly having destroyed a very accomplished career that others coveted until the story broke. 

Yet, was it so sudden? Hasn’t this revelation been building since the point of the first indiscretion? Digging more deeply, what was the thought process that led up to the first bad decision? Heffernan says she heard a CNN interview in which a Petraeus friend said that the general “sees this as a failure, and this is a man who has never failed at anything.” She asks the counterintuitive question–did he go wrong by never going wrong? An excerpt from her article:

If you have never failed at anything, then you haven’t been trying hard enough, aren’t very imaginative, or have had such extraordinarily good luck that you have come to believe you are invincible. And that, of course, is the problem.

“Success confers its own blindness,” Emily Brown told me. She’s a marriage counselor who has worked extensively with couples who have had the experience of infidelity.

“Successful people believe they can get away with it,” she says. “I talked once to a group of men who’d all become millionaires before the age of 40, and they’d had affairs. They don’t even see the danger! It isn’t a love of risk. They think: The wives will never know, so where’s the harm? Everything else in their lives has worked out, so they think they have some kind of magic, that their success has meant that they can have everything they want and they’re invulnerable. And they were completely blind to the harm they had done.”

Most of us make mistakes, and we should take some comfort in the fact that these usually remind us that we are fallible. If we are very lucky, we make mistakes from which we can learn and recover. Most of us have the oddly good luck not to imagine that we are infallible.

I’m a big believer in mistakes. Not just because I make lots of them–like everyone, I try very hard not to–but because every mistake contains learning. The best mistakes are the ones from which you learn the most and that you never forget. I would bet Petraeus thought that never failing was a sign of his genius. The truth is probably that he made mistakes, but he didn’t take time to learn from them. Or, hauntingly, he got away with mistakes by benefiting from everyone else’s care and attention, like a man who drinks too much but drives home safely.

No one is infallible. And those who think they are are probably going to be the most disappointed.

As you read about the former general’s mistakes, hopefully you can look at your own and have some perspective. Have you grown from them? Do others cover over your missteps — or do you have a circle close to you who will level with you at the expense of saying something that you may not want to hear in the short run?


5 Ways Creativity Training Accelerates Innovation

“Creativity and innovation training is a highly effective accelerant for business results.”

-Gregg Fraley

Contrary to naysayers’ beliefs, creativity is a skill set for which training can be developed, delivered, and deployed.  In fact, brainstorming is enhanced by training! Those who tout research saying that brainstorming is ineffective are usually quoting studies that were conducted in situations wherein no training was provided in advance.

Another fallacy that people latch onto is the thought that some people are innovative and others are not. Inside larger companies that tend towards bureaucracy and group think, it can be hard to jump start creativity and innovation. Yet, most will acknowledge that analysis sans insight has severe limitations. Fraley advocates for the principle that training can make a big difference in bridging the gap between market knowledge and potential.


As you can see from the study, creativity training (when done well) can be instructive for employees who need to learn how to think and express ideas in a more positive, focused, and spontaneous way. Breakthrough results often occur when properly fueled by a rapid, flexible, and structured process at the front end of innovation.

Most R&D or innovation initiatives include no budget for training. Since creativity can aid with problem solving and problem finding, organizations need to be awakened to the potential missed from failure to pre-train.  Fraley feels  creativity and innovation training accelerates innovation in five strategic ways:

  1. Improved creative thinking leads to enhanced innovation capacity, and with action, results.
  2. Training helps instill structured creative thinking and innovation process as a cultural value and habit.
  3. Training provides innovation teams with a common language and framework to solve problems, improve communication, expedite complex problem resolution, and moving new business concepts forward.
  4. Training corrects many of the myths that surround creativity and innovation. There is a science to this that is largely ignored. For those that learn and practice the science — it’s a competitive advantage.
  5. Team efficiency improves because a lot of useless chatter, debate, and conflict are eliminated.

Creativity is intimately related to change, decision making, and problem solving — it’s not just artistic self-expression!


SCARF Up Some Change

In an HBR blog post about organizational change this morning, Walter McFarland draws in the role of the brain in defining whether change efforts will meet with success. Some of the casualties of failure to adapt to changing market conditions he mentions include Sunbeam, Polaroid, and Circuit City. While each of these formerly strong companies is no longer in business, proponents of organizational change struggle to define why some are able to reinvent themselves and others are not, other than the nefarious “human element.”

Organizational change as a field of study has long maintained that change can be defined in linear, sequential terms and processes. What we are discovering, largely through examining principles of neuroscience, is that change is neither. Instead, McFarland, the board chair elect of the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD), argues that modern business dynamics would suggest that it is chaotic. It is the chaotic nature of change that creates the need for greater research. We live in a time when the need to constantly change is critical to competitiveness. Neuroscience may be a key to helping us steer organizations through adaptation more effectively.

Thompson and Luthans wrote that typical reactions to change “can be so excessive and immediate, that some researchers have suggested it may be easier to start a completely new organization than to try to change an existing one.” While industrial psychologists refer to this as “human resistance to change,” very few who study the phenomenon have identified how to lower the resistance consistently and pervasively. 

At the NeuroLeadership Summit, being held in New York this week, a panel discussion with senior executives and experts from The Conference Board, the Association of Change Management Professionals, Change Leaders, and Barnard College will explore the connection between neuroscience and organizational change, understanding how we can effectively deal with the human resistance to change. 

A new organizational change model is being proposed that takes into account how successful change functions in a modern organization, where work is conceptual, creative, and relational, and talent is portable. According to McFarland, activities that have contributed to the continuing poor performance of change initiatives include:

  • Perpetual underpreparation: change is always dreaded and a surprise to employees
  • A perceived need to “create a burning platform”: meant to motive employees via expressed or implied threat
  • Leading change from the top of the organization down: only a few individuals are actively involved in the change and either under communicate or miscommunicate with others

Top-down change (the traditional model) can trigger fear within employees because it “deprives them of key needs that help them better navigate the social world in the workplace. These needs include status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness” — the foundation of the SCARF model

  • Status is about relative importance to others.
  • Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.
  • Autonomy provides a sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness is a sense of safety with others – of friend rather than foe.
  • Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.

SCARF is a summary of important discoveries from neuroscience about the way people interact socially and is built on three central ideas:

  1. The brain treats many social threats and rewards with the same intensity as physical threats and rewards (Lieberman, & Eisenberger, 2009). 
  2. The capacity to make decisions, solve problems and collaborate with others is generally reduced by a threat response and increased under a reward response (Elliot, 2008). 
  3. The threat response is more intense and more common and often needs to be carefully minimized in social interactions (Baumeister et al, 2001).

Since organizational change is a significant social interaction in the marketplace, it is important to minimize perceived risk. Understanding how people tick, empowering them to vocalize their ideas, and creating better systems to engage them in the change process is best practice. More organizations need to get on board.


Sacrifice Opens Door to Opportunity for a Leader

You need not to have been on this planet very long before you will encounter adversity. One popular adage states that we become stronger by going through tough times. Yet, not everyone who encounters obstacles is able to surmount them and achieve success. In Obstacles Welcome, Ralph de la Vega recounts his own “pivot points,” born of a challenging early life that shaped and molded him into a very successful businessman (currently, he serves as the President and CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets. His positive responses to adversity formed the backbone of a successful values-based management system.

Rather than seeing separation from his parents at the age of four as a bad omen, de la Vega found a way to accentuate the positives in his life. He innately recognized that dwelling on negative thoughts and feelings was counterproductive. After that tough, early life challenge, he moved to Miami and had to overcome a language barrier in the classroom. He adapted again to his environment instead of letting it get him down in the dumps. 

Many people tack a passive approach to setbacks. They hope, wait, and some earnestly pray for a change in circumstances. The course our example provides, though, is one of planning, taking risks, and maximizing opportunities. In the book, he offers up the premise that obstacles should be embraced as a chance for personal growth. In the midst of living life, we come across those “pivot points” personally and professionally that define us–for good or bad. Getting in the right frame of mind can be achieved through his recommended 8 step process:

1. Hope is not a strategy. It is necessary to plan for success.
2. To achieve big goals and dreams, it is necessary to take calculated risks.
3. Big wins in life come from an ability to recognize opportunities. The most significant and important opportunities lie in problems that are waiting to be solved.
4. Embrace and overcome obstacles. Obstacles and adversity make stronger, wiser, and more capable leaders.
5. Be willing to unlearn old habits and relearn old lessons from life experiences.
6. Building winning teams involves effective, honest, and open communication.
7. The greatest successes always involve willingness to make sacrifices.
8. Leadership is not something inborn, but learned and practiced.

As a young executive at  Bell South Latin America, de la Vega experienced everything from military insurgency, economic meltdown, and political revolution, in addition to unstable markets, lack of uniformity in corporate leadership, and nonexistent profits. How did he respond? He took a chance and embraced the challenges as opportunities to lead an entire sector of the international communications market into profitability. What he advocates is to “become comfortable with being uncomfortable,” In order to do that, we may have to set aside what we feel we already know and become flexible in our approach to the challenges set before us.

A key habit to learn is to not allow the past to hinder the future. That is not to say, however, that our past(s) cannot be instructional. Previous experiences can help us deal with new situations only by using them to look backwards and forwards at the same time. It is important to think about how what we have done before might be useful down the road
in similar situations.  

Finally, de la Vega describes what he terms an “Extraordinary” leader, one who is able to consistently deliver excellence in all aspects of personal and corporate leadership. To achieve such status, a leader needs to do the following:

• Set the direction, create the vision.
• Establish values and lead by them.
• Select strategies and key initiatives.
• Build plans to achieve vision.
• Establish goals, priorities, and focus.
• Establish key metrics to measure progress.
• Align and inspire people.
• Empower and enable people to achieve vision.
• Create winning culture.
• Select, recruit, and develop other leaders.


Can Generalists Thrive in the Conceptual Age?

One of the questions I get most often is: “what do you do?” The answer to that question is not an easy one, as my work with companies ranges from start-ups to those almost middle market size, and the services I offer from advisory board member to turnaround artist. Yet, when my role is marketing consultant, I advise others to be able to answer the very same question crisply, concisely, and in a compelling way. What is poignant is that, as we gain more skills over the years, it becomes harder and harder to specialize. That is not to say, however, that I have not met people in business who are extremely specialized and who succeed in their field. For the moment, though, I want to write for others who have adapted to competitive market demands to embrace new skill sets, become masterful enough that others hire them to provide those new skills, and now are the proverbial “generalists.”

Don’t confuse “generalist” with “General,” however, as many generalists struggle to stay with one organization long enough to rise to the rank of top officer. Furthermore, a generalist has challenges in the unique realm of trying to keep up with evolution in many more topical areas, all of which are changing at a faster rate than at perhaps any time in history. The good news is that, as Daniel Pink points out in A Whole New Mind, we are now living in the Conceptual Age, having evolved from the Information Age to a day and time when creativity will be valued highly. Maybe that is not such good news for left brain folks who are not able to adapt, but for those (for whom the learning of new information was merely a means to an end, the end being to connect emotionally with others, build relationships, and find success while doing so) who embrace right-brained living, it is a brand new day!

Here are the new skills that are needed in the Conceptual Age:

  1. Design – the ability to create something that has significance as well as usefulness.
  2. Story – the ability to put facts into context and deliver them with emotional impact.
  3. Symphony – the ability to see the big picture, connect the dots, combine disparate things into something new.
  4. Play – sense of humor and laughter plus other components to balance the psyche.
  5. Empathy – standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes.
  6. Meaning – working for something in which one believes with others who have similar values.

As you can see from the list, the emphasis and value will be placed on original thought rather than automatable routines. Computer power has now rendered many repeatable acts less valuable (not unnecessary, mind you, just worth less than previously because either low wage earners or machines can perform them admirably). What will come to be increasingly important is the ability to think up a new concept, develop it sufficiently, and share it so that it resonates with the heart of another. 

What’s the role of the generalist in this new economy? That depends–can you adapt, or are you trying to pour new wine into an old wineskin? Those of us who can adapt will be able to answer questions like “what do you do?” with less of an elevator pitch and more of a carefully crafted story that captures the mind, will, and emotions of the intended audience, hopefully in a multi-sensory way!

Cheers to you as you embark on the journey to greater relevance, enhanced value to others, and — I sincerely hope — a much greater sense of doing something truly meaningful (other than just adding to your repository of information.)