Kart #7

This past weekend I was the chaperone for my son and 24 of his friends for a go kart racing birthday party. The boys raced in groups of eight for the first hour or so, and then a few of them started to drop out or take breaks, so I raised my hand to jump in to one of the groups.

After I finished my race, an old friend who was on sidelines laughed as he chided me, “Wow, you really crushed those 13 year olds!”

It’s true, my competitive instincts had mingled with the smell of gasoline and the purring of the kart’s 25hp engine, and I’d driven to win. And win I did.

As I was bantering with my son and his buddies about my old man driving skills, a few of them quipped that Kart #7, which I had raced, was “much faster than all the other karts.”

(That may be, I thought, but that doesn’t explain why I kept lapping them. I’m just a much more experienced and better driver).

Near the end of the party, the last race rolled around and there was one empty kart left. By that point, my son, the birthday boy, had switched to Kart #7. As I buckled myself into another kart, I smiled at him jokingly and said, “Now you’ll see that it’s all about my driving skills!”

It’s true, I did win race #2. By a little bit. In the first race I’d finished nearly two laps to each one of theirs, while in the second race I might have passed everyone once.

But if you’d asked me after Race 1, I would have said that most of my success was due of my driving skill, and that Kart #7 might be a tiny bit faster. What I learned after Race #2 was that most of the difference was because Kart #7 was a lot faster, and I’m a tiny bit of a better driver than a bunch of 13 year olds.

I can’t help but wonder the extent to which many of the differences in the ways we see the world result from misattribution of the credit we deserve for our own successes. It’s nearly impossible not to overestimate the roles our intelligence, hard work and skill play in the results we achieve: a success happens, we were smart and tough and hard-working…so it must be that the primary cause of that success were our smarts, our toughness and our hard work.

The truth is that the veil of our own privilege is one of the the hardest veils to remove. Privilege is not something we can see all at once, and sometimes I wonder if we ever have enough perspective to see it fully.

Harder still, once we spot it, is to figure out what to do with it: the world neither needs us to apologize for all that we have been given nor to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Rather our job is to see ourselves – and others – as fully as we can, and then to use all our abilities and good luck and the gifts we have been given to make manifest the better, more just world in which we so deeply believe.

That’s me

The first time it happened, I was 25 years old and working in Spain on a consulting project for a big Portuguese telecom company.

I was on a small project team responsible for a pile of data analysis that would drive the main project recommendations, and we were nearing a final deadline. The analysis, it turned out, was way over my head. And yet, as I looked around the team and our small office for someone to tell me how to go about it, I had this sinking feeling that the person who knew best what to do was me.

It was terrifying.

Partially the fear came from objectively not knowing enough. I had neither the analytical chops to know how to proceed nor the network of relationships to quickly find someone who could help in time. And I was sure that our firm was getting paid far too much to make recommendations based on what I knew.

So while that moment, stemming from poor planning and preparation, is something to avoid, getting to have that feeling was priceless.

I still remember the quiet, mortifying stillness of, “It’s up to me.”

What an important feeling to be able to identify, because once you’ve felt it you can’t unfeel it, and then you can notice that feeling and notice how much easier it is to kick a decision somewhere – up, down, sideways – to gather more information or maybe to put off deciding entirely.

We kick this habit like any other, with both discipline and nuance.

If you want to learn to swim better, or hit a ball better, or do a yoga pose better, you start with the big muscle groups and body angles and work your way towards subtler adjustments. Just so in the workplace: you begin by making calls in the big, obvious moments where you’ve got no choice but to decide; and you work your way through to smaller moments of stalling, hesitation, and the magical sleight of hand we all engage in to open up “outs” in case things turn out wrong.

It is so much easier to avoid responsibility and future blame.  And it is so much more important to practice putting ourselves on the hook, to practice being the kind of person who makes calls, to practice stepping in to uncertainty.

Step up. Decide. Then make it great.

The person we’re waiting for? That’s you.

Havdalah Reflection

muslim-ban_havdalah

This weekend, I went with my family to the Havdalah service at our temple. Havdalah is a celebration of the end of the Sabbath, a quiet, simple, beautiful service that ends with extinguishing an interwoven candle in a cup of wine.

We were there with other Fourth Grade parents to watch the kids reenact Havdalah Hispana, a study of the Sephardic Jewish traditions that flourished in Spain. The kids spoke about the hundreds of years of convivencia, peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Jews and Christians in Spain from the eighth Century until 1492, the start of the Spanish Inquisition.

At the end of the service, standing holding hands in a circle surrounded by friends and strangers, practicing shared rituals, I felt safer, more at home, and a part of something bigger than myself.

And at that moment I couldn’t help but think how, at that same moment, in every single mosque in all of the United States, congregants were probably feeling less safe, less certain, less secure. That is why I am so angry, and why what is happening feels so counter to the ideals and the values for which this country stands.

And I ask myself:

Do the people supporting the Muslim Ban not understand the impact of what they are doing?

Or do they not care?

Or worse, is this exactly what they want?

The answer to these questions will help us understand the best ways to respond.

 

Mass protests, surgical precision, the right message

While I’m no expert in DC politics or protest movements, it feels impossible to do anything other than reflect on what’s happed in the US over the last few days, and try to make sense of how best to fight a new Administration that shows such blatant and unmitigated disrespect for anything other than its own ill-informed, hate-filled views. (Warning: this post will ramble more than most.)

To start, I’m struck and inspired by the power of the mass protests that broke out. This weekend’s demonstrations at airports around the US were both immediate and spontaneous, which made me feel, happily, that public, large-scale resistance will be the new normal.  A new standard of civic engagement would be a great thing in both the short-term (holding the line on policies) and the long-term (by creating a much more engaged and empowered population). This, combined with the ACLU’s immediate and effective actions that resulted in a nearly-immediate judicial response, is a template for future resistance.

Second, while mass protest is one important ingredient, we must remember, in the midst of our passion and our outrage, to keep our wits about us. While there are nuances of the inner workings of power and politics in DC that are foreign to me, one thing that has to happen is for a small number of elected Republican officials to feel that the cost of supporting unacceptable and un-American policies is too high (whether they take a stand because of principles or pragmatism doesn’t matter much). We must identify these individuals, understand what motivates them to act, and then engage in the actions that directly raise the cost of continuing to play along with the current nonsense. This is the kind of surgical precision that could quickly limit the power of the Executive Branch.

And third, the message. Hillary was ultimately brought down by a simple and repeatable storyline that had to do with an email server, Bengazi, and “corruption” at the Clinton Foundation. There might have been additional details, but the message that the people on the fence repeated to me was always short and simple. One risk in taking on the current administration is to be sucked into each individual battle while losing sight of a simple, repeatable counter-narrative that has just 3-5 headlines, not a hundred. “Alternative facts” feels like it’s already on the short list just a week in. What else will be the defining narrative that the opposition writes of this administration?

Beyond these three ideas, a few other reflections from this weekend, with no attempt to connect them to each other:

  • Steve Bannon is clearly Emperor Palpatine to Trump’s Darth Vader. Palpatine lurked in the shadows, was nearly all-powerful, and was always strategic. Vader was the figurehead, but he was flawed, stunted in his development, and he never showed much subtlety. But Palpatine was the guy who was really in charge. Whenever this administration does something outrageous, one must come up with a “why” on the assumption that there was a reason. So, while I wasn’t surprised, given Bannon’s record of anti-Semitism, that the White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day excluded mention of Jews, I let myself be outraged and forgot (until today) to think about the “why” behind it. Was this an intentional anti-Semitic nod to Bannon’s/Trump alt-right base? Was it part of a storyline that they’ll also create against Black Lives Matter? Did it have to do with Israel? An angry response isn’t good enough, we must understand the motives behind the actions if we are to respond effectively. (Similarly, why did the Administration include, against the advice of counsel, green card holders in the Muslim travel ban? Maybe it was a mistake and the protests were unexpected, but it could just as easily have been an intentional strategy so that the pull-back – which still leaves the US with a policy that’s both stupid and un-American – looks good by comparison).
  • I think it’s possible that a lot of good people just don’t know enough Muslims well enough to understand that this feels like an attack on all Muslims, especially those living in the US who woke up on Sunday feeling less safe and more fearful. A Muslim friend shared how Muslim friends of hers living in the Midwest, surrounded by a sea of Trump supporters were feeling more isolated than ever. It made me wonder if the appropriate response – if you have the strength for it– is to find a kind, good Trump supporter and speak to them in personal terms about how quickly what it feels like to be Muslim in America has changed. It’s a lot harder to spout generalized hatred when a person you know and like says, “This is what this feels like to me.” My personal experience is that, as a Jewish grandson of Holocaust survivors, the parallels between what’s going on now and what happened in the U.S. in the 1940s are chilling. And while I don’t yet personally feel less safe today, the line that I felt was crossed this weekend was one in which the President of the United States communicated wholesale prejudice against an entire religion and, in so doing, validated that kind of thinking and that mindset for millions of his supporters. This was underlined for me in the seven horrible minutes I spent reading David Duke’s Twitter feed this weekend, which, outside of making me feel physically ill, gave me a glimpse of a bile that I naively thought was no longer tolerated in modern America and which now seems like it being given voice by the President of the United States of America and his staff. This is terrifying and it threatens the very foundation of our democracy and the values upon which this country was founded.

And finally, my favorite sign from the weekend.

first-they-came-for-the-muslims

They

They didn’t listen.

They didn’t understand.

They are too set in their ways.

They are too persuaded by that one person.

They don’t trust me enough.

They don’t share my vision.

They don’t know what I know.

They aren’t willing to go out on a limb with me.

Yes, it’s possible that the world would be a better place if everyone just listened to you and did what you thought was best. Each and every time. Forever.

Or it’s possible that you’re ready to step up to a different yardstick, one in which you set aside excuses and start trafficking in results.

Because those you aim to serve don’t care who’s to blame, they care about what you are able to do, about what your organization provides to them and whether it makes a real difference in their lives.

Maybe, just maybe, you’re ready to start asking “I” questions: how could I have been more persuasive, more engaging, more understanding, or more supportive? How could I have partnered better, listened more deeply, made it safer to take that risk, told a better story, gone above and beyond a bit more? What am I not willing to do, what beliefs and values and stories am I not willing to let go of, in service of our work?

Oh, and lest we forget, to everyone else, each of us is just another “they.”

Some days

Some days you get a lot of praise for work well done.

It can feel like this praise isn’t deserved, or that it is for things that came easily to you, or that it is not worth all the fuss. Often this means that you won’t allow yourself to fully hear the gratitude and appreciation that someone expresses.

Other days you toil and sweat and put your heart and soul into a thing and nothing comes back. Or, worse, it’s exactly your best work that engenders criticism or nit-picking or downright resistance.

The thing to remember is this: gift-giving is circular. Your best ideas, your art, your emotional labor, your love, these things never come back to you in a binary way. Imagine instead that the positive words you’re hearing took a long, circuitous route to get to you. They are the winding, imperfect product of you putting bravest, truest self out into the world.

What we need from you is your continued courage, grit and determination.

And what we encourage is that you allow yourself to be sustained by the positive words that do come back your way, because the people sharing these words are, secretly, messengers for many.

Ingredients for an Innovative Culture

Where do good, new ideas come from? And how do we create a culture of innovation in an organization, big or small?

The clearest frame for my answer still comes, five years after I first read it, from Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, which still stands as the clearest articulation I’ve seen to this important question.

The book’s core assertion is that new ideas and breakthrough insights come at the frontier of the adjacent possibile via reassembly and reconfiguration of existing ideas at the edge of what you know: the printing press doesn’t get invented in 1493 without the pre-existence, and reassembly, of movable type, paper-making, and ink (all invented in China from the years 105 A.D. to 1041), together with the existence of woodcut printing presses and paper mills that proliferated in the 14th Century.

The implication is that in order to be a person who creates new ideas, you have to find a way to live and work at boundaries and points of intersection. This allows you to see a lot of different things and positions you to pull together seemingly disparate thoughts, technologies and ideas in new and different ways.

This is why Lin-Manuel Miranda is the only person who could have created the hit musical Hamilton: he not only inhabits the rarely-intersecting worlds of modern musical theater, hip-hop, and urban Latino culture.  He also was the kind of person who’d choose to lug the dry, slow-paced, 900+ page Ron Chernow Hamilton biography on his Caribbean vacation, would start reading it on that vacation, and then, most shockingly, at the end of the first few chapters would think, “I know! I’m going to turn this into a hip-hop album/musical about this unsung immigrant founding father!”

And yet, even if Lin-Manuel can uniquely have this sort of insight, the musical doesn’t happen with him alone. What then needs to happen is for this idea to germinate within a team. Lin pulls in folks like “orchestrator, arranger, musical director, conductor and keyboard player” Alex Lacamoire, and together they prod and reshape each idea, they push boundaries and whittle down the unnecessary bits until, ultimately, what results is a masterpiece.

This is the part of the story that is most relevant and accessible to each of us every day: not just the stroke of insight on the hammock under the sun, but the culture that we can create to support and nurtures good ideas each and every day.

I don’t have a perfect answer to how to create this sort of culture, but, having had the chance to work across a lot of teams in many organizations, I have observed some of the ingredients that are supportive of a culture of innovation, and others that are guaranteed to spoil the broth.

So, without further ado…

The Innovation Ingredient List

(aka how do teams that regularly create and develop new ideas behave?)

Diverse voices.  Everyone on the team regularly speaks up and shares their thoughts in various ways (in person and virtually).

Idea sources are plentiful and diverse. News articles, blogs, thoughts exchanged over dinner, a great conversation that someone writes up and shares with others… In every innovative team I’ve been a part of, while the form and flavor of sharing ideas differs, there’s always a culture of “hey, I just came across this! I think it will be helpful to us. What do you think?”

Get out of the building. Because of the “adjacent” in “adjacent possible,” for innovation and creativity to flourish, ideas need to come from all over the place. Customers, partners, an art installation, a sign on the subway…it doesn’t matter where, it just needs to be broad.

Thought partners. Multiple groupings of folks converse to make each other’s ideas better. This can be in-person, in writing, on a walk, a eureka moment in the middle of the night. The “how” doesn’t matter, but the passing of ideas back and forth does. There’s a sense of ongoing discussion of exploration and curiosity.

It’s personal. The team feels and acts as if the work they are doing is theirs. It reflects who they are. They are on the hook when things go right and wrong.

Ideas flow.  When a new idea enters the flow, it keeps moving. Folks jump in, add to or take away. The pace of all of this is quick. And, like a shark, the conversation around the idea keeps moving quickly to stay alive.

Yes, and… Like in improv, all ideas, even ones that at first blush don’t make much sense, get a “yes, and” response with an eye towards building on them, not tearing them down.

Zoom in, zoom out. At least some of the people around the table are good at digging into the details, and then stepping back to see the whole and putting this whole into focus. This is the bridging work between broad exploration and crystalizing around a few ideas that rise to the top. It literally feels like a camera lens that turns so that everyone involved can say, “Ah, now I see it!” This is a really important ingredient because it allows for lots of idea generation, and some churn, to happen without letting the group get lost or stuck for too long.

It’s Ok to launch, it’s OK to kill. This is a tough one to get right, but too much or too little of either creates either a culture of perfectionism or people getting spread too thin.

You have criteria for success. Related to the above…because you can only kill things if there are criteria in place to judge if they are working.

Solution dissatisfaction. While there’s openness and positivity, there’s also a need not to be easily satisfied with solutions that seem pretty good.  Some of this solution dissatisfaction comes from experience and pattern recognition, which together lead to an informed intuition that says, “we can do better than this, even though this is pretty good.”

 

Ingredients to avoid (aka things that spoil the broth)

If the above list looks unfamiliar, or hard to pull off right away, one way to approach change is to identify what is gumming up the works, things that you and some brave allies can work to change.

A culture of fear. Usually this is a fear of being wrong, fear of speaking up, fear of contradicting the most important person in the room.

A culture of recrimination. This goes hand-in-hand with a culture of fear. The thing people fear is being punished. There’s usually a bit of shame thrown in.

Things that feel static. This is the opposite of the ‘flow of ideas’ described above: if people throw ideas into the pot (in a meeting, in writing) and all that comes back is silence, or if the pace of dialogue gets too slow, eventually folks will stop sharing their best ideas.

Never pulling the plug on things.  If it’s impossible to stop things, at some point the (lifetime) cost of starting something is too high. Worse, if keeping all of today’s plates spinning is spreading everyone too thin, there’s no space for figuring out how to make things better.

Waiting for / blaming the “people in charge.” This can either take the form of waiting for someone else to tell everyone what to do (to be the source of insight, to walk out on the limb…“we’d do great work if only…”), or of knowing that someone else will criticize, fail to approve or otherwise undermine good work that is created by anyone else. This is the opposite of a culture of ownership.

Criticizing people, not ideas. In teams with a culture of fear, the criticisms are always a little (or a lot) personal. In these cultures, when an idea isn’t a good one, the thing that gets beat up is the person who had it. The two mistakes to avoid are: 1. Communicating “you are stupid” instead of “this idea needs work;” and, as problematic, 2. Hearing any critique of an idea as a personal affront.  This is a very hard balance to get right. The book Creativity, Inc, which describes how movies are developed at Pixar, is a great case study of how to design an organizational culture whose sole purpose is to produce the best ideas by structuring interactions in ways that foster diverse and generative input. One of the bits I like the best is that while script input comes from lots of people, including Pixar’s “stars,” what to do with that input (what to take on and what to ignore) is up to the author: there are no mandatory changes.

Thick skins. This is related to the above. A senior guy I know in the U.S. Army talks about how, before any After Action Review, the Army’s post-engagement process of reviewing what went right and wrong in an engagement, you have to “put on your thick skin.” It is because your best work is personal that it is so hard to be told that something you worked so hard to create could be better. But it’s important.

No, but. Most new ideas are met with some sort of negative language. Listen for the actual words, and if positive (“yes,” “and,” “also”) or negative (“no,” “but,” “maybe,” “however”) language is used more often.

I don’t care what was said, I care who said it. This is an easy one: if the validity of an idea is predominantly the result of who said it, you’re sunk.

To wrap it all up, I’ll defer to John Clease’s wonderful lecture on creativity, in which he describes the qualities of mind that lead to creativity and breakthrough: it’s a playful mind, a mind that explores, a mind that is comfortable with the discomfort of an unresolved question.

The hare brain loves clarity; it wants everything to be expressed in a very simple, straightforward clear way. Tortoise mind doesn’t expect clarity; it doesn’t know where the illumination is going to come from. The language of the unconscious is images. That also means a lot of times when you’re being very creative you can feel very confused. You don’t know where you are or where you’re going. And you can tolerate that and continue to defer the decision. Because you’re taking your time in tortoise mind, if you have a question, you’re much more likely to get interested in the question.