Coming Up With A Vision

As I spend time with family and enjoy the holiday, in my spare thoughts, I think about how the initial spark of much of my work started this time six years ago. I was going to build a personal website for a relative as a Christmas gift. Of course, I tried to find something already in the market. The problem was there was not a service with all the functionality I needed – a multi-dimensional resume, portfolio, online identity, so my solution was to build a personal website platform. Within a month, I had a 10-page business plan (which approached 100 pages by the end of the year). Within three months, I had a demonstrable concept. For the first couple of years, I was working fourteen-hour days developing, writing, and building awareness of this new concept.

I think the lesson is new innovative concepts do not require applying the Scientific Method, but can come from simply recognizing an opportunity and working extremely hard to seize it.

Leader's Vision
Leader’s Vision

To differentiate the personal website platform I was constructing, I first conceived Skills-Based Approach℠ – a methodology centered on the development of a skill set throughout education, higher education, and a career. A personal website supports each of the stages. Skills are now becoming a focal point of education and higher education reform and policy.

The last two years I have been laser focused in applying Skills-Based Approach as standalone website and mobile applications. This year I built two supporting apps: Skills Label℠ and Skill Syllabi℠. In addition, I have assembled a considerable following in social media, a blog, and given webinars and presentations on the micro (for individuals) and macro (for community and workforce development) benefits of Skills-Based Approach.

I think the lesson is sometimes coming up with new ideas has a snowball effect. Once you get past the initial inertia (something like writer’s block), it becomes easier to come up with new ideas and processes. Sometimes you have enough ideas where you must choose which ones to allocate your time and resources.

I had much of my vision established in these two concepts and a personal branding concept within three years. For the ensuing three years, I have continued to evolve the underlying foundation of these core concepts. I become animated when I talk about my vision; I am passionate about my vision.

I think the lesson is it takes considerable to time to come up with a true vision. (This is my one argument against a serial entrepreneur and my frustration in competing against a large company.) Sometimes you add concepts that add breadth, sometimes you add ideas that add depth to your vision. There is nothing wrong in being repetitive with your core premises; it shows you have conviction.

‘Being Social’ Is Not Everything

Some people are social, some people are less social. There is a lot of chatter about all leaders having rock star participation in social media. But there are a lot of smart people who have vision, without social skills. Think of all the hacker introverts. They think, design, and build concepts. Aren’t they leaders too? Yes, in their own way. (In my opinion, you build a team with social and visionary leaders – elevate the collective intelligence of the team. Guess I also think a team is comprised of leaders – a flat hierarchy. A leader’s role is defined by his or her strengths.)

4Ps of Leadership
4Ps of Leadership

Some gripes I have about this rally cry that everything must be social:

There are elements of a popularity contest. Gaining attention in social media requires posturing. Those who have a large number of followers exert significant influence. Some of these influencers do not necessarily have the best idea or insights, but are highly likeable. Popularity is valuable. Good ideas are valuable.

‘Being social’ is a time consuming process. It requires finding content, networking, conversing, etc.. Building an audience takes many years of hard work. Is ‘being social’ always worth the investment in time and resources? Spend time where you make the biggest ROI for the company.

Status still has a major impact on how content is consumed. ‘Rock stars’ in social media have high Klout scores; some companies are willing to pay them to endorse their products. It can be frustrating to get your ideas out because of the competition for an audience. Leave broadcasting ideas to those who are skilled at making an impact with an audience.

I do think there are aspects of social that are good for all of us.

Building connections and relationships is nurturing. Obviously, this is huge. Social media facilitates the process of building and maintaining relationships; of course, some are deeper than others. It can be reaffirming when your connections share a similar sentiment.

Getting a personal boost (nudge) when you need it. You can jump on social media at any time of the day and immediately participate in a conversation or chat.

It is exhilarating when you get engagement from an audience. This is true especially when you are the primary source of the content. A back and forth conversation nailing down a concept collectively is also rewarding.

You can build a network from scratch and reach an audience (if you want to). Social media is a platform to get your ideas out to a target audience.

In a recent HBR article From the Knowledge Economy to the Human Economy, the author talks about how companies must commit to humanity. Yes a valid point, we should embrace being social and connected – what makes us human. Still we must continue investing in deep and critical thinking. Otherwise, we might fall into the trap of following the herd and disregard the necessary thinking to truly evolve in a meaningful way (which also contributes to humanity). Moving forward is not all about being social and gaining consensus, it’s also about improving ideas.

Meaningful Work

A typical worker is driven to do meaningful things, at least in my opinion. What a worker looks for in a job has changed through the generations – from lifelong employment to getting money to doing something with purpose (admittedly, these are big generalities). Actually, an ideal job has aspects from all three generations: career security, comfortable pay, and impactfulness. Purpose, sometimes defined in a mission statement, should be part of a company culture. Moreover, it should be used as an instrument to attract and retain talent. Millennials are thinking about the purpose of a company; according to a Deloitte Survey:

Millennials overwhelmingly believe (75 percent) businesses are focused on their own agendas rather than helping to improve society.1

Meaningful Work
Meaningful Work

There is a Greek parable about Sisyphus often referenced on the subject of work engagement. Sisyphus is a man condemned to roll a boulder up a hill. Right before it reaches the top, the boulder rolls back down to the bottom. He repeats this over and over again; never accomplishing the task. Ultimate futility…

In our modern workplace, the outcome might be losing a bid, having a project mothballed, getting ignored by an audience, etc. Sometimes compensation satisfies the sting, but not always. Leadership has to be cognizant of this demoralizing effect and step in to alleviate the effects of deflated workers. This can be accomplished in a few ways.

First, give internal recognition. For example, if a project is mothballed, invest the time and resources to acknowledge the participants. Setup an event and presentation to talk about what was accomplished (at least conceptually).

Second, salvage anything of value. Knowing it affects the morale of those involved, set aside time to find resources. Then publish, share, and learn whatever you can.

Third, change the game from ‘finite’ to ‘infinite’ whenever possible. This means find ways to make a better move against the competition. For example, if a worker loses a sales bid, repackage the proposal, make it better, and bid again.

Fourth, validate skill competencies. Identify and endorse skills each worker acquired while working on the task; experiences always involve knowledge gains. If possible, let workers take over possession of the resulting product – something they can share as a work sample on a personal website and/or LinkedIn profile.

I wrote this piece a couple of weeks ago and was surprised to read a NY Times article referencing the same Greek parable, where the author made a counter argument:

Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane.2

His point has some takeaways. If you do a basic task, then you might as well do it as best you can, take your pay, and find other ways to satisfy your curiosities. (To apply “compensation” in the parable above, Sisyphus can take consolation in being one of the fittest men in ancient Greece!) In the modern world, many recent college graduates are underemployed and asked to do boring work; according to the same Deloitte survey, “Only 28 percent of Millennials feel that their current organization is making full use of their skills.” Best thing they can do is to show grit, build skills, and find purpose in other areas of their life.

Work is meaningful to us on an emotional, personal level. There are many routine, mundane, and uninspiring things we do as part of a job and simply getting paid is a motivator. Yet, deep within us, most of us yearn for some satisfaction and purpose in our career. Popular marketing guru Seth Godin calls it art. I agree. In a lifetime, you want to use your talents to create things and reach people in a positive way.

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Moving Forward With Talent

A sequence in starting a business might be to: come up with ‘that idea’, create a MVP (minimum viable product), get funding, and hire talent. These actions still happen, but the notion of hiring talent is much, much deeper. Acquiring talent (like actualizing ideas) should be an integral part of a company strategy.

Moving a Startup Forward
Moving a Startup Forward

Hiring is not simply a formality. It is about building a relationship between management and employees with trust as the foundation. Getting talent is a high stakes competition for most companies, especially in technology industries. The velocity at which new services are introduced combined with a huge advantage in being a ‘first mover’ makes the acquisition of talent of huge strategic importance. Leadership cannot sit on a concept.

Back in the late 90s’, I remember reading about what Sass Institute did for their employees: free meals, help with menial tasks, programs after work, etc. Sass pioneered this commitment of providing a holistic lifestyle for its employees. Now we hear about all the amazing things technology companies do for their employees in Silicon Valley. It is a requirement because of the fierce competition to attract and retain talent. Why would a company incur all this extra expense? Talent is critical for the success of this type of company.

I read the book The Alliance: Managing Talent In The Networked Age written by Reid Hoffman (a cofounder of LinkedIn), Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh. They share a model for an employee and employer relationship called an ‘alliance’, more specifically a ‘tour of duty’. It is an implied contract (ethically and morally, but not legally binding) between management and each of its workers. It lasts for a defined period of time (2 – 3 years). At the end of the period, there is renegotiation of the terms of employment – enter into another tour of duty with the company or leave for another company. While employed, there are clear expectations for a manager and an employee. Everything is discussed in conversations.

There are many advantages of this approach. First, there is a mutually beneficial relationship between managers and their employees. Employees know their employer is investing in their future, outside the confines of an employment arrangement. Second, there is clarity in expectations. Third, employees are empowered and thrive. They have latitude in choosing their own projects and become ‘intrapreneurs”; there is a better chance they share new ideas to make the company and its products better. Fourth, it puts employees on the ‘fast track’ to start making a contribution. From the beginning, employees know what they are supposed to be doing throughout their ‘tour of duty’. Finally, it handles the huge ambiguity of an employee’s tenure (and all the behind-the-scenes maneuvering caused by uncertainty).

This last point is significant from the point of view of an employee and an employer. As an employee, you only start looking for jobs as the end of a ‘tour of duty’ nears (if necessary). So you concentrate on your current role and expect a smooth transition if you decide to leave at the end of your tenure. As an employer, you have an engaged employee who does not quit in the middle of a project.

I think this concept of a ‘tour of duty’ is a direct, honest way to manage talent in this fast-paced work environment. (Within a ‘tour of duty’, I still think the context of performance reviews should be based on a Skills-Based Approach; it is a precise way to lay out career development and expectations.)

Build a reputation with your company that attracts talent like a magnet. With a strong online presence, talented individuals learn about your culture and mission and want to work for you – a way of pulling talent to you. If you are starting out, much of creating buzz should be directed at bringing in talent. Professionals find and even suggest positions, then apply to them all based on their own initiative.

I suggest reading The Alliance: Managing Talent In The Networked Age to learn more about ‘an alliance’ and ‘tour of duty’.

Getting New Ideas

I am a firm believer in sharing knowledge as opposed to hoarding it (especially within the confines of a company). Knowledge is power, so many of us are reluctant to give it up. Leadership should concentrate on building a collective intelligence, as opposed the combination of individual intelligences; this is obvious, though the strategies to improve a collective intelligence are not.

To conclude my series of blogs on actualizing ideas (and its relevance as part of a company strategy), I wanted to share some insights from Andrii Sedniev in his book The Business Idea Factory. He is a smart guy who has devoted himself to the art of generating ideas. Early on he makes a point that hits home with what I have been saying:

Companies succeed because of great ideas and go bankrupt because of lack of them.

New Ideas
New Ideas

He refers to Walt Disney’s three stages of thinking: dreamer, realist, and critic. You start with creative energy as you seed ideas; have an open mind (do not squash ideas). During the next stage, you figure out how to move an idea forward – realize it. In the final stage, you reflect on the idea: determine pitfalls and weigh competing ideas. (Now you do the squashing.)

Sedniev says great ideas are an extension of our life experiences. This is true. What you have and are experiencing consumes your thoughts, so new ideas are naturally sprung from these experiences. To seek inspiration, you immerse yourself in experiences related to the problem you are trying to solve – technology, applications, processes, etc. An example in my work is creating a user interface. I have to spend time tinkering with actual processes to generate new, user-friendly interfaces.

No matter what anyone tells you, great ideas are “either modifications or combinations of the old ones”. The takeaway here is twofold: be willing to adapt and evolve preexisting ideas and the novelty of an idea does not always equate its value. Few ideas do not have precedence. Just think how few thinkers foresee the future ten years in advance.

I like the “100, 20, 5, 1” rule for a group brainstorming new ideas. It says you start with 100 ideas then break the list down to 20 ideas, then 5 ideas, and finally the one idea you actualize. Admittedly starting with 100 ideas seems like a lot, so you may scale down the ratios. (I combine this rule with Disney’s three stages of thinking in the graphic above.)

He also talks about idea bombarding (rapidly coming up with a lot of ideas), an idea snowball effect (one idea leads to others), and the importance of engaging others (casual conversations). I love bouncing ideas in random encounters because you get candid, unadulterated feedback.

Finally, I hope this quote from the book is inspiring:

The world’s best thinkers are able to generate successful ideas not because they are geniuses, but because they think about ideas daily and have trained their creative muscles more than other people.


Let’s Come Up With New Ideas Together

Earlier in my career, I worked at a startup that struggled to survive (like most startups do). One thing I remember from this experience was how unified and committed we were to get better. Every day the four to five of us went to lunch together. This is when we bounced ideas on each other. No one was squirrely about sharing because we had mutual respect for each other and had common goals. (So now I always ask in an interview: “What do you guys do for lunch?”)

New Ideas
New Ideas

Ideas are critical to success; actualizing new ideas should be part of a company culture. It is something many technology companies try to nurture and build into their normal routine. Here are some of the things they do:

  • Use enterprise systems to promote internal communication. IBM has Verse (an email platform) and Connections (micro blogging, social media, wiki, etc.).
  • Create an office layout where employees ‘bump into each other’. Apple built an amazing circular campus where employees cannot help but have random interactions.
  • Get paid to develop your own ideas. Google gives you a day every week. LinkedIn lets you take a day off to volunteer or ‘explore new ideas’.
  • Provide assistance with menial tasks (laundry service, food preparation, etc.), so you spend more time being brilliant.
  • Promote mindfulness activities (yoga, resting pods, working out, games, etc.).
  • Facilitate gatherings outside of the confines of the office. Zappos bought a whole neighborhood in Las Vegas for this purpose.

In the book Non Obvious: How to Think Different, Curate Ideas, & Predict the Future, Rohit Bhargava shares his “five habits of trend curators”:

  1. “Being curious”… Always understand how things work. Ask the right questions.
  2. “Being observant”… Nitpick on the details and methods behind processes. Take little for granted.
  3. “Being fickle”… A subtle, but important habit. Too many times ideas get tossed too early because of a gut reaction. This why the smartest people are not necessarily the ones who actualize the best ideas
  4. “Being thoughtful”… It is important to rationalize and reflect on ideas. Setup debates to hash out other perspectives and arguments.
  5. “Being elegant”… Find ways to simplify and illustrate an idea. Try creating a model, something that is easy to remember. Try communicating the idea using visual media: a video, graphic, etc.

Some arguments against making ideas the focal point of a company:

  • Too many ideas creates too much noise. It takes many bad ideas to get good ones. Employees need to feel welcome to share their ideas. It is worth the added expense of filtering out bad ideas (or better said: ideas that cannot be actualized at this stage).
  • Employees will just take their good ideas and do something on their own. On occasion, this will happen. It is important to build in reward and recognition for good ideas, while also ensuring the sharing goes up and down the ladder (make sure employees feel empowered and trusted).
  • Some employees just want to do their job. While idea sharing is an important part of company culture, it is not mandatory. Employees decide their own participation.

The concept behind Become An Idea Machine by Claudia Altucher is to build “idea muscle” by committing to a regiment of coming up with ten ideas a day. I agree with her that ideas are the “currency of the 21st century” and it is necessary to be insightful, but not sure about the level of commitment for most individuals. Though I full heartedly agree in applying her concept to teams.

We are moving away from an employer-employee relationship where an employee is confined to a standard routine: clock-in, do a job for an eight hour shift, clock-out, and then go home and forget about work. Employees are human – have values and ideas and want to be heard. Companies must invest in its collective intelligence by promoting the circulation of new ideas.

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