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.
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 If journalists have been replaced by propaganda machines, it’s up to you to be the gatekeeper.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.
As part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, author and NPR science reporter LuLu Miller shared her Dandelion Principle. Most people think of the yellow plant as nothing but a stubborn weed, but Miller uses them as an illustration that worth is always subjective.
“To a gardener, a dandelion is a weed that needs to be pulled and thrown away, but to a chef, it provides pepper to spice up a salad; a painter may find it as an artistic subject and a herbalist sees the plant as a soothing digestive ailment,” she said. “There may be value there beyond our comprehension; a deeper connectivity that we cannot see.”
It reminds me of the teachings from the authors of Leadership on the Line. In times of conflict, Heifetz and Linsky encourage people to learn the story of those who have a different point of view from your own. Others are acting rationally based on their values and beliefs; if you can come to understand why they think differently you are more likely to find common ground. In other words, try to learn why they treasure this thing you think is just a weed.
Our reflexive response is to view the totality of an item through our own value lens and not consider that others may see something in an entirely different way. The dandelion can serve as a visual reminder that there are many perspectives for everything.
Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, 2002
A simple yet effective mind game that I play with myself all the time is that of doing “every other” task that needs to be done.
I write the week’s leadership dots by first writing one for every other day, making it much easier to complete the week by filling in the holes. I’m writing 1000 postcards encouraging people to vote and addressed all first-time voters first, making it seem faster to complete a page of addresses because many of them are already done. I clean my house by doing every other room, and then it seems to finish painlessly when I go through and connect the missing rooms.
I know that I’m doing the same amount of work and spending the same amount of time, but the emotional drain is less. See if you can do some mental gymnastics with yourself and make Swiss cheese out of your next task list. It doesn’t have to be every other one in the literal sense, but alternating your work is far less daunting than facing a big task all at once.
If COVID taught us nothing else, it made it clear that things are able to change much more quickly than we had accepted in the past. We’ve become microwave decision-makers – altering long-standing policies and practices at record speeds. Between the virus and race revolution, things such as to-go cocktail regulations, virtual notarizing, working from home, NASCAR policies, decades-old brand packaging, statue displays, and even state flags have changed more quickly than you can zap a pizza. Which is good…
…and it’s not.
I am cautious about this lightning speed of altered direction. I have always valued a bit of time to ponder the implications of a decision – almost anyone can convince you that something is a good idea if they are only presenting a singular point of view. The real trick in decision making comes in when the decider has to wrestle with multiple points of view and long-term consequences of the choice, something that is difficult to do under pressure or without the opportunity to hear different perspectives.
I get it that people want things to change quickly – not just on the current big social issues, but in general, an answer never comes soon enough for those wanting the choice to be made. But having to reverse a decision when new facts come to light makes it worse for everyone. There is untold wasted energy, the leader loses credibility and a wishy-washy culture inhibits others from putting the next idea forward or speaking up.
If you’re the leader, be intentional about the expectations you set around making decisions in your organization. Some things are better when they are slow-cooked instead of microwaved.
It was a most unexpected answer. When former Admiral William McRaven — a Navy SEAL, leader of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, part of the Saddam Hussein capture and the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips — was asked what he worries him most about what’s going on in the world, he didn’t list China, Russia, Iraq or Iran – in fact, he didn’t list a country at all.
McRaven said that he has long seen K-12 education as the “number one national security issue” facing the U.S.
“Unless we are giving opportunity and a quality education to the young men and women in the United States, then we won’t have the right people to be able to make the right decisions about our national security. They won’t have an understanding of different cultures, they won’t have ideas, they won’t be critical thinkers. So, we have got to have an education system within the United States that really does teach and educate men and women to think critically to look outside their small microcosm, because if we don’t develop those great folks, then our national security, in the long run, may be in jeopardy.”
McRaven illustrates a perspective that more leaders should have. It’s not just about the issues that are facing you today; it requires thinking about the challenges that you could have many tomorrows from now. It’s also about considering the inputs that will make your work possible instead of just focusing on the outputs that you hope to have.
Enjoy one of these beautiful summer days and escape somewhere to do some real reflection. What is the #1 issue that you should be worried about? Then go about five layers deeper to uncover the real answer – and craft a plan to do something about it. Your true issues probably aren’t in some faraway land, rather in your own backyard.
Listen to his conversation at the Aspen Ideas Festival here.
I worked at four universities that had nursing programs and invariably we saw a handful of prospective students who quickly discovered a mismatch between their image of the profession and the reality. Students would plan to major in nursing because they wanted to “help people” and while that is certainly true, what’s less obvious is that they also had to succeed in one of the most rigorous science curriculums on campus. Nursing is about far more than “being nice” and includes courses in pharmacology, anatomy and physiology, organic chemistry, statistics and diagnostics – just to earn a degree, never mind the extensive clinical hours and state licensing test. Oh yes, and there is blood involved – something that seemed to surprise someone every year!
I think about all this today, on National Nurses Day, and while those in the profession are on the frontlines of the battle against COVID. I wonder how often are they taken for granted or seen as not as important as a doctor when in practice their roles are just as vital. I am reminded of the line Temple Grandin’s mother oft-repeated about her autistic daughter: “She’s different, not less.”
So, in addition to celebrating any nurse you know, keep the “different, not less” mantra in mind when interfacing with others who are not viewed as high in organizational prestige. The receptionist may not be the manager, but she has likely mastered a dazzling amount of information to have at her fingertips in order to do her job well. The mid-level supervisor may not have the glitz of a CEO but is responsible for much of the organization’s productivity. The public works staff may toil behind-the-scenes but their mastery of mechanics and chemicals makes it possible for a city’s infrastructure to function.
Make it your practice to honor others for their contributions, in whatever form they take.
By definition, in order to have a peak, you need to have a downside. Without it, the graph would be flat or the landscape just a rolling hill.
Too often, people have this image of the peak in their mind and may even consider the climb to get there, but they overlook the journey down. In the office environment, this may manifest itself as a letdown after the big push on a project or a void to fill following achievement of a quota. Personally, it could show up as a regression on health or fitness goals after running that marathon or reaching the desired weight. You could experience it as the post-holiday or post-graduation blues when the buzz ends and everything feels ordinary.
Keep climbing that mountain and pushing the graph upwards – and keep in mind that if you reach a peak, the only way to go (at least temporarily) is down.