Thursday, February 15, 2018

3 reasons why managers don’t throw their toughest challenge to their teams

In my innovation and design thinking workshops, we end up running a short challenge campaign. Participants get to experience what it means to identify a challenge area important to them, frame a challenge around it, generate ideas, build low-cost prototypes and validate them with a few people. Then I ask them, “Why don’t you throw your top challenges to your teams?” Why isn’t it common to see top challenges displayed in organizations? Here are top three reasons I have gathered from them:

   1.      Lack of clarity: Managers are busy attending to a number of issues – some short term, some long term. In the process, they typically don’t get time to step back and reflect. As a result, they don’t have clarity on what could be their biggest challenge. I ask them a few questions like, “What is one pain point you would rather leave behind in the office rather than carrying it home?” Or “Which is one trend – technology or otherwise – that may make your business irrelevant in future?” This gives them a clue. Of course, many of them don’t need any clue. Time and space for reflection is enough to bring out their toughest challenge. Nevertheless, if you don’t have clarity on what’s your toughest challenge is then there is no confidence to take further action.

2.      Fear of perceived incompetence: Managers feel, “I am being paid to solve problems. How can I communicate that I can’t solve them?” There is a feeling that if I throw my challenge to my team, my boss and perhaps even my team may feel that I am not competent to do my job. Of course, what isn’t realized by managers is that taking a position on a challenge is an important element of their job. The focus it brings makes a huge difference in aligning the creative energies of the people around you.

3.      Solver’s bias: What is more important – defining the right problem? Or finding the right solution? Most of us carry a bias for the right solution. We like to say – It was my idea. Of course, idea could have meant the challenge. But mostly idea refers to the solution. Mathematics is an area where problems are known for the people like Fermat or Riemann who defined them first. In most other areas, solver is perhaps more famous than seeker. As a result, some of the key issues remain pending or stuck. When a manager throws a challenge to his team, it is quite possible that the team ends up making initial prototypes for free. Because they feel it is their idea. When a manager asks a team member to build a prototype of his or her idea, the outcome may not be that enthusiastic. Who wants to work on boss’ idea?

To summarize, Managers don’t open up their top challenges because of (1) lack of clarity (2) fear of perceived incompetence and (3) solver’s bias. And I feel they have a lot to gain if they can establish clarity on their topmost challenge and seek solutions from their team or even outside in solving it.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

My 3 takeaways from Kazuo Ishiguro’s class – My secret of writing

Last month I came across a session 2017 Nobel winner Kazuo Ishiguro held in Japan for budding writers titled “My secrets of writing”. It is available on YouTube in two parts: part-1 and part-2 (embedded below). I had read four of Ishiguro novels (some of them twice) when I watched part-1. Then I read his latest novel, The Buried Giant. And then I watched part-2 which refers to the novel. I am a fan of Ishiguro and I really enjoyed listening to the session. I thought the quality of questions was very good and that brought out interesting process Ishiguro follows for his writing. I am not a fiction writer (yet). However, I thought some of the elements Ishiguro mentioned could be relevant for anyone involved in a creative endeavour. Here are 3 of my takeaways from the session:

1.      2-3-4 sentence ideas: This is what Ishiguro said – “I try to make sure that the idea can be expressed very simply in 2 or 3 sentences. If it can’t then the idea isn’t very strong or it’s not yet mature.” And what criteria does he use for picking an idea? He said, “When I look at the idea on a page, I want to be able to feel a real potential, real emotion that comes from these sentences. I want to think that there is a whole world in there. I want those few sentences to trouble me and stimulate me. Then I feel I could build a whole novel on it.”

He gave an example of his most famous novel – Remains of the day. The idea can be expressed as: This is a story about a man who wants to be the perfect servant. And he is willing to sacrifice his personal life and many things to be an absolutely perfect servant.

The point is, the essence of an idea can be expressed in a simple way in a few sentences. And yet it may carry the potential to excite you, trouble you etc.

2.      Ideas can be re-located in time & space: Ishiguro says, “I made this discovery… The setting isn’t an essential part of the story. You can move stories to different settings, different places in history. And also I suppose different genres: sci-fi, gothic world, thriller world etc.” In fact, for his third novel, Remains of the day, he re-used his idea from his second novel - “The artist of the floating world” (location: Japan, time: 1950s, 60s) and relocated it in a different time and place (location: England, time: 1920s, 30s). This creates a huge canvas for his stories and also it creates a problem of “location hunting”. His last novel “The buried giant” is placed in 5th century Britain and belongs to a fantasy genre. It contains ogres, pixies and dragons.

3.      Metaphor as a criterion:  One criterion Ishiguro applies in selecting an idea for further development is by looking at its power as a metaphor. Ishiguro said, “As a writer, I am drawn to big metaphors that dominate the entire story. One of the ways I decide if an idea is powerful or not, is I ask - Is this a powerful metaphor for something important or something very big?” For example, he mentions his latest novel The buried giant presents a story where people lose memories very fast – in a day or so – because of the breath of a giant dragon living in the mountains. Some people want to kill the dragon to bring the buried memories alive, some others want to protect the giant because they feel it is keeping the society from going into a civil war. What is the right thing to do? Ishiguro feels that a story like this can be a metaphor for something all individuals and all societies face all the time. The metaphor is certainly relevant for the centuries old memories related to the communal conflicts and the caste conflicts in India which keep getting resurrected from time to time.

In short, writing the essence of the idea in 2-3-4 sentences, trying to relocate the idea in different time and space, using the power of metaphor as a criterion for idea selection are things any of us can try and experiment with. I certainly will.