Intentionally connecting the dots in life and in organizations
Author: leadership dots by dr. beth triplett
I'm the chief connector at leadership dots where I serve as "the string" for individuals and organizations. Like stringing pearls together to make a necklace, "being the string" is an intentional way of thinking and behaving – making linkages between things that otherwise appear random or unconnected – whether that be supervising a staff, completing a dissertation or advancing a project in the workplace. I share daily leadership dots on my blog to provide examples of “the string” in action.
I use the string philosophy through coaching, consulting and teaching to help others build capacity in themselves and their organizations. I craft analogies and metaphors that help people comprehend complex topics and understand their role in the system. My favorite work involves helping those new to supervision or newly promoted supervisors build confidence and learn the skills necessary to effectively lead their team.
My friend recently purchased a truck and suddenly I see hundreds of white pickups on the road. They used to all look the same but I quickly learned to train my eye to the Ford logo on the grill. If it wasn’t there, then it wasn’t him. If the white truck was a Ford, then I could scan for the half-door instead of a full four-door back seat, and if it met that layer of distinction then I moved on to other features until I could tell at a glance if it was “the” white pickup that I should wave at. The trucks all looked the same – until they didn’t.
Did you know that zebras are the same way? Each individual animal has a different pattern and the more you look at them the more their uniqueness stands out. As a herd or contrasted with giraffes, a dozen zebras look identical but up close, you could pick “your” zebra out of the savannah. A zebra isn’t black with white stripes or white with black stripes – it’s both, and neither – as it is a collection of characteristics that are true only to it.
If appreciating the differences by recognizing individual nuances works for trucks and animals, think of how powerful it is with people. Work to move from “all” to “this one.”
The movie Deepwater Horizon provides a dramatized account of the tragic 2010 BP oil rig fire. Of course, there is much action and flames, but before all the explosions the movie sets up the almost inevitability of an accident.
The project was 40+ days behind schedule so the BP executives were anxious to finish the drilling and move the rig to the next site. As a result, they cut corners and skipped the “cement test” that would have highlighted the failed integrity of the main pipeline. When a faster test was demanded by the crew chief, executives convince the others that the perilous readings are so far out of line that they must be the result of a false gauge instead of ominous implications. (They weren’t.)
Throughout the project, the rig is beset with mechanical failures that the crew “bandaids” together to keep things functional, but when safety features are needed, they aren’t working. A warning is sounded but instead of resulting in crew action, they respond with “It’s that faulty alarm again.”
Ultimately, the entire rig was engulfed in flames and 210 million gallons of oil were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico as it gushed out for 87 days – becoming the worst drilling disaster in history.
The Deepwater Horizon serves a lesson to pay attention to the safety plans. The preparations and testing often get pushed aside in favor of pressing, immediate concerns but they should never be taken for granted. Your work may be routine – until it’s not – and the efforts you made before the trouble play a large role in how you come through it. (While 11 lives were lost, amazingly, 105 people survived because fortunately, the evacuation plan was the one thing they did get right.)
The movie also drives home the point about not ignoring evidence. It may be tempting to rationalize abnormal data, ignore frequently-malfunctioning alarms or to buy into alternative explanations from those in authority – but think long and hard before discounting what is in favor of what is supposed to be.
Your work may not be as dramatic as life on an oil rig – in normal or extraordinary times – but you should approach your safety plan and response to warnings as if your life depended on it, too.
Long before vision boards became popular, the principle behind them rang true. The more clearly you can picture what you hope to achieve, the more you become focused in such a way that propels the universe to help you achieve it. Visualizing something with great clarity often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I thought about this while reading Isaacson’s biography of Einstein. The genius married Mileva Maric – the only woman in his physics class – but eventually, he grew more interested in his scientific pursuits than in her. He asked for a divorce and she would not grant one so he made an unusual proposition: if she would divorce him, he would give her the money from the Nobel Prize that he would win.
She agreed, and 17 years later, he kept his part of the bargain.
When Einstein made his offer to Mileva, his vision of winning the Nobel Prize was crystalized in his mind. He knew he would achieve it, and focused all of his efforts toward that end – even at the expense of his marriage.
Of course, I’m not advocating that you put your relationship on the line or that you naively boast about winning a prestigious prize but I am encouraging you to develop the same level of clarity that Einstein had about his future. He achieved greatness because of his brilliance in physics – and, perhaps, because of his genius-level ability to visualize his goal.
Over 20 years ago, author Sally Helgesen shared her theory of organizational structure in her book The Web of Inclusion and it still has relevance today. She contrasted the traditional hierarchical model with a web organizational model, maintaining that the later provided more strength and engagement for all involved.
Picture the traditional model – all in boxes – vs. a web model where there is complexity and interconnectedness. The traditional model has only one “Big Cheese” whereas in the web everyone has influence and can lead from the middle. Straight line communication is contrasted with collaboration and interdependence. In the hierarchy, the top leader is the focus whereas in the web model the organization revolves around its purpose.
Ideally, the entire organization would be structured around a web model, but if your leaders aren’t that enlightened yet, think about what you could do to create such a framework in your area of influence. How can you become an “organizational spider” and weaver those connections within your community? What mission or purpose remains in the center of your “web”? Who are other “spiders” who have the potential to help you build webs? (Never underestimate anyone!)
You also need to be on guard for “arachnophobia” and pay attention to people who want to kill the change-making spiders or who simply resist change. Not everyone will embrace the web-making so it’s important to have the persistence of the Itsy Bitsy Spider who kept climbing that water spout over and over.
In the end, empowering others to be part of a web lends strength and purpose to everyone. It’s worth the effort to weave – one strand at a time.
When problem solving, we often only think of solutions that we have used before instead of reconceptualizing the question entirely. La Paz, Bolivia can provide a good example of what happens when you think creatively.
Late night host John Oliver shared the story about the Mama Zebra Project in Bolivia where the solution to gridlock and pedestrian safety was resolved through the use of “traffic zebras” who inject levity while addressing a very serious issue. It’s worth your 5 minutes to watch here.
The Zebra Project addresses several issues at once – lightening the mood of drivers, ensuring the safe passage of pedestrians and giving work to a hard-to-employ population. It’s a win-win for everyone.
As Oliver says, I’m sure that “traffic zebra” didn’t jump in your mind as the first solution to this problem but keep it in mind the next time you’re faced with a vexing issue. Maybe the best solution is one that is the most out of the ordinary.
For the past week or so, a herd of goats has been cleaning the countryside along a road I travel. It is fascinating to watch them performing “sustainable vegetation management” as they munch away on weeds, thistle, grass, ragweed, poison ivy, honeysuckle and more. The “Goats on the Go” business moves their herd to different locations throughout town as an eco-friendly way to clear growth. I love this idea!
Goats have really come into their own lately. What used to be seen as a lowly farm animal is now used for brush-clearing as well as goat yoga classes where the animals help people to de-stress while they stretch. The products from goats – milk and cheese – are in-demand food items, and their coats yield cashmere fiber that can be spun into yarn for knitting. They are so much more than the head-butting animals in the petting zoo trying to nudge their way into your food supply!
Is there an equivalent “goat” in your organization – something that has been underutilized for years but can provide value when applied in new ways? The voracious appetite of the animal has proved to be a lucrative business model instead of a liability. Their desire to climb all over everything has endeared them to a new market of yoga participants. Consider the downside of your resources and reframe them in a way that converts it into an asset.
When we’re face to face with colleagues, we act as if we’re building connections – a quick hello or “how are you?”/”fine” – but those interactions really aren’t creating the meaningful relationships that we desire. Such exchanges of niceties are merely rote actions without real engagement. The remote environment has highlighted that we don’t always have the connections that we thought we did – and now we’re on screen in full view of having to create them. It’s part of why video meetings are so exhausting.
While it may be tempting to jump right into tasks when starting a Zoom call, it is more important than ever to build connections first. Author and thought leader Shenandoah Chefalo recommends that you flip the usual ratio of meetings to make it 2/3 relationship building and 1/3 task functions. “Connection, connection, connection,” she says. “Build the relationship first, then task.”
It may seem strange to dedicate time toward getting to “know” someone with whom you have previously worked with in person, but chances are there is still much about them that is new to you. What are their current challenges working from home or in the midst of social change? What’s the best part of life today? What have they learned lately?
Or you could reprise a highlight from grade school and take advantage of the opportunity to do “show and tell.” In my classes, I met my students’ children, guinea pig, cat, and dogs as well as saw bookshelves and new décor – none of which would have been possible in person.
Zoom is exhausting! But perhaps not for the reasons you initially thought. Take the time to build more meaningful connections that will last far beyond the virus and help you be more effective with your tasks now.
As part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, I heard journalist Maria Ressa reflect on how the information infrastructure has changed. She noted that journalists are no longer the gatekeepers rather, the technology (social media) companies are, but they are not moderating the posted content.
As a result, it has become a vicious circle on both sides of the aisle; lies are targeted to you, thereby people begin to doubt themselves and their own beliefs, and it creates a fake bandwagon approach so others believe it as well. “Exponential attacks on social media have to stop or we will lose democracy,” she warned.
Her talk was still resonating in my mind when I read the following statistic: “The average person will spend a total of approximately 6 years and 8 months on social media over their lifetime!*” If it’s anywhere close to true, it is an astonishing figure and accounts for why the country has become so polarized. If for literally years, you hear one point of view, targeted to you, you are likely to accept it as the only truth even if there is another perspective.
Now more than ever, you own the responsibility to analyze and curate the news that you absorb, and to be intentional about seeking out multiple points of view. Follow thought leaders on social media from different demographics than your own. Seek out reputable sources beyond the easy-access pervasive apps. Question what you hear and consider what is missing from the coverage. If journalists have been replaced by propaganda machines, it’s up to you to be the gatekeeper.
*Source: Snack Fact from Robinhood Snacks, July 6, 2020
One of the recurring themes at the Aspen Ideas Festival was, of course, change. Between COVID and the race equity revolution, there was plenty for speakers to discuss.
For me, activist Stacey Abrams succinctly captured the crux of the issue. “There is an amazing tension around what should be and how quickly it should happen,” she said. “We agree that things should change, but to what?”
Defining the details is where the challenges lie for all leaders. People are much more adept at describing what is bad than they are at articulating what the desired state looks like, let alone having agreement on the process to get there. But the more clarity you can achieve about the end goal, the more likely you are to overcome barriers to achieve it. Foster informal conversations about what “it” looks like. Have people write white papers to clarify their thoughts (in their own minds as well). Spend a staff meeting creating vision boards. Make lists of the key characteristics you’re looking for in the solution or objectives you’re trying to meet.
Georgetown Professor Michael Dyson noted that “sudden is not sudden; it is a build-up” with movement that has been out of sight for years finally coming to the surface. Even if the necessary change in your organization isn’t imminent, it’s worth your time now to start sketching what the future looks like. It’s much easier to obtain buy-in when people can help fill in the detail than after you present them with a completed painting.
As part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, two speakers made comments that stuck with me – and as I later pondered how to incorporate them into my life, I realized that they were in direct opposition with each other!
One idea came from opera director Yuval Sharon who spoke about the concept of “doubling” that he used in the development of his recent production. He literally doubled his core artistic team, hiring two directors, two writers and two composers for his opera Sweet Land, intentionally done to create a dialogue between different points of view.
In contrast to working in pairs, historian and author Erik Larson spoke of how he does not use research assistants for his work. Even though scouring the archives can be extensive and tedious, he is not convinced that someone else would have his instincts and look for the same things so he does all of his research himself.
It was fascinating to me that on this national platform, one person applied the strategy of doubling in the artistic field where individuals are often heralded as the stars for their work, and another advocated the process of working solo in research which is often a team effort.
Maybe the real lesson is that those who shine in their field are the ones who utilize methods outside of the norm; who break the boundaries of what “should” happen and find ways to find new insights – either by including others or excluding them in certain phases. Don’t approach your projects by rote; rather intentionally consider whether your work could benefit from doubling or independence. There is no one formula for innovation.