connecting the dots
I have recently been investigating and visiting universities with my eldest daughter, who is currently a Senior in High School. Last week we visited Stanford University (an amazing experience I will post about soon) and then spent a week in Northern California on vacation. After being home for a day and a half I am currently in Texas for a week of team meetings and training. The first night of a trip I seldom sleep, so I was listening to the song, “Don’t let it bring you down” by Annie Lennox, which is a cover of a Neil Young song. That led to a Youtube search for the original Neil Young version, which led to me listening to the song “Old Man” – a favorite song of mine for over 30 years. That led to some reflection, which ultimately led to this post.
The reason that I mention this is because it is an example of the tangential thought process (which is generally viewed as a negative trait) that occurs naturally for me. It is something that helps me “connect the dots” more naturally. It is part of the non-linear thinking associated with ADHD (again, something generally viewed as negative). The interesting thing is that in order to fit in and be successful with ADHD you tend to develop logical systems for focus and consistency. That has many positive benefits – such as creating repeatable processes and automation.
The combination of linear and non-linear thinking can really fuel creativity. The downside is that it can take quite a while for others to see the potential of those ideas, which can be extremely frustrating. But, you learn to deal with that. The upside is that you tend to create relationships with other innovators because they often tend to think like you do. The world is a strange place.
It is funny how there are several points in your life when you have an epiphany and things make complete sense, which causes you to realize how much time and effort could have been saved if you had only been able to figure that out sooner. As a parent I am continually trying to create shortcuts for my children so that they can reach those points much sooner than I did.
I started this post thinking that I would document as many of those lessons as possible to serve as a future reminder. But, like most children, they will each learn in their own way and at their own pace. So instead, I decided to post a few things that I view as foundational truisms that could help foster that growth process. So, here goes…
- Always work hard to be the best, but never let yourself believe that you are the best. Even if you truly are, it will be short lived as there are always people out there doing everything that they can to be the best. Ultimately, that is a good thing. You need to have enough of an ego to test the limits of things, but not one that is so big that it alienates or marginalizes those around you.
- Learn from everything you do – good or bad. Continuous improvement is so important, and by focusing on this you constantly challenge yourself to try new things and find better (i.e., more effective, more efficient, and more consistent) ways to do things.
- Realize that the difference between a brilliant and a stupid idea is often perspective. Years ago I taught technical courses, and occasionally someone would describe something they did that just seemed strange or wrong. But, if you took the time to ask questions and try to understand why they did what they did you would often identify the brilliance in that approach. It is something that is both exciting and humbling.
- Incorporating new approaches or best practices of others into your own proven methods and processes is part of continuous improvement, but it only works if you are able to set aside your ego and keep an open mind.
- Believe in yourself, even when others don’t share that belief. Remain open to feedback and constructive criticism as a way to learn and improve, but never give up on yourself. There is a huge but sometimes subtle difference between confidence and arrogance, and that line is often drawn at the point where you can accept that you might be wrong, or that there might be a better way to do something. Become the person that people like working with, and not the person that they avoid or want to see fail.
- Surround yourself with the best people that you can find, but look for people with diverse backgrounds and complementary skills. The best teams that I have ever been involved with consisted of high achievers who constantly raised the bar for each other while simultaneously creating a safety net for their teammates. The team grew and did amazing things because everyone was both very competitive and very supportive of each other.
- Keep notes or a journal because good ideas are often fleeting and hard to recall. And remember, good ideas can come from anywhere so keep track of the suggestions of others and make sure that attribute those ideas to the proper source.
- Try to make a difference in the world. Try to leave everything your “touch” (job, relationship, project, whatever) in a better state that before you were there. Helping others improve and leading by example are two simple ways of making a difference.
- Accept that failure is a natural obstacle on your path to success. You are not trying hard enough if you never fail. But, you are also not trying hard enough if you fail too often. That is very subjective, and honest introspection is your best gauge. Be accountable, accept responsibility, document the lessons learned, and move on.
- Dream big, and use that as motivation to learn new things. While I was funding medical research efforts I spent time learning about genetics, genomics, and biology. That expanded to interests in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, neural networks and interfaces such as natural language and non-verbal / emotional. Someday I hope to tie these together in a way that could help cure a disease (Arthritis) and improve the quality of life for millions of people. Will that ever happen? I don’t know, but I do know that if I don’t try it will never happen because of anything that I did.
- Focus on the positive, not the negative. Creativity is stifled when there is fear of blame.
- Never hesitate to apologize when you are wrong. This is a sign of strength, not weakness.
- And above all else, honesty and integrity should be the foundation for everything you do and are.
Hopefully this will help my children become the best people possible, and hopefully early-on in their lives. I was 30 years old before I feel that I really had a clue about a lot of these things. Until then I was somewhat selfish and focused on winning. Winning and success are good things, but they are better when done the right way.
Let me preface this by saying both are important in business, and both are complementary roles. But, if you don’t recognize the difference it becomes much harder to execute and realize value / gain a competitive advantage. Having great ideas that are not understood or validated is pointless, just as being great at “filling in the gaps” to do amazing things does not accomplish much if what you are building achieves little. This post is about Dreaming Big, and then turning those dreams into actionable plans.
The visionary person has great ideas but doesn’t always create plans or follow-through on developing the idea. There are many reasons why this happens (distractions, new interests, frustration, lack of time), so it is good to be aware of that as this type of person can benefit by being paired with someone who is willing and able to understand a new idea or approach, and then take the next steps to flesh out a high-level plan to present that idea and potential benefits to key stakeholders.
The insightful person sees the potential in an idea, helps others to understand the benefits and gain their support, and often creates and executes a plan to prototype and validate the idea – killing it off early if the anticipated goals are unachievable. They document, learn from these experiences, and become more and more proficient with validation of the idea or approach and quantification of the potential benefits. Neither of these types of people are affected by loss aversion bias.
It’s amazing how frequently you hear someone referred to as being Visionary, only to see that the person in question was able to eliminate some of the noise and “see further down the road” than most other people. While this is a valuable skill to have, it is more akin to analytics and science than art. Insight usually comes from focus, understanding, intelligence, and being open minded. Those qualities are important in both business and personal settings.
On the other hand, someone who is visionary looks beyond what is already illuminated and can be detected or analyzed. It’s like a game of chess, and the visionary person is thinking six or seven moves ahead. They are connecting the dots while others are still thinking about their next move.
The interesting thing is that this can be very frustrating situation for everyone. The person with the good idea may become frustrated because they feel that they are misunderstood or ignored. The people around that visionary person become frustrated, wondering why that person isn’t able to focus on what is important or why they fail to see / understand the big picture. Those visionary ideas and suggestions are viewed as tangential or even irrelevant. It is only over time that the others understand what the visionary person was trying to show them – often after a competitor has started to execute on the idea. And, the insightful person that wants to make a difference can feel constrained in environments that are static and have little opportunity for change.
Both the insightful person and the visionary people feel that they are being strategic. Both are focused on doing the right thing. Both have similar goals. That’s what is truly ironic. They may view each other as the competition, rather than seeing the potential of collaborating. This is where a strong management team can have a positive impact by putting these people together and providing a small amount of time and resources to explore the idea. When I had my consulting company I sometimes joked, “What would Google do?”
The insightful person may see a payback on their ideas much sooner than the visionary person, and I believe that is due to their focus on what is already in front of them. It may be a year or more before what the visionary person has described shifts to the mainstream and into the realm of insight – hopefully before it reaches the realm of common sense (or worse yet, is completely passed by).
My recommendation is that people create a system to gather ideas, along with a description of what the purpose, goals, and advantages of those ideas are. Foster creative behavior by rewarding people for participation, whether or not the ideas are used. Then, review those ideas on a regular basis. With any luck you will find some good ideas – some insightful and possibly some even visionary. Look for commonalities and trends to identify the people who are able to cut through the noise or see beyond the periphery, and the areas with the greatest potential for innovation. This approach will help drive your business to the next level.
You never know where the next good idea will come from, and supporting efforts like these provide opportunities to grow – people, products, and profits.
When I started consulting an experienced consultant told me, “The best Consultants are experts at becoming Experts.” I started my consulting career with that goal in mind. After a few years realized that, “Good consults are people who can learn enough quickly to ask intelligent questions and connect the dots faster.” What you quickly learn in business is that this is a great skill for anyone to have.
It’s impossible to be an expert at everything. I believe that it is important to have great depth in a few areas (true expertise), and breadth of knowledge in many areas (enhancing context and insight). Both types of knowledge alone are valuable, but combined add a dimension that I believe allows a person to be more effective and potentially much more valuable. You develop the ability to pick-up on the dependencies and nuances that others miss.
Just think – How much more effective a salesperson is that understands technology and project management concepts when working to demonstrate fit and create a sense of urgency. Or, an Attorney that understands the complexity of service offerings and delivery – enhancing their ability to construct agreements that are highly protective yet not overly complex or onerous. Or, a programmer that thinks beyond the requirements and looks for ways to improve or simplify the process. Extra knowledge helps with the big picture understanding, and that often leads to providing more value. Additional knowledge and skills helps us become more effective, no matter what we may be doing.
Increased knowledge, combined with a desire to do amazing things, creates opportunities to make a huge impact. Sometimes it is because you are asking the questions that others may be thinking but cannot clearly and simply articulate. It helps you see the gaps and holes that others miss. And most importantly, it helps you “connect the dots” before others do (often many months before something obvious to you becomes obvious to others). A large consultancy once used the phrase “seeing around corners” as their attempt to make this concept tangible.
So, if you buy into the concept that knowledge is good, the next question is usually, “What is the best way to learn?” People learn in different ways so there really is no best way to learn. Understanding how you learn best helps you learn faster.
I’m a fan of reading. A good book may reinforce ideas you already know, introduce you to a few concepts or ideas that seem like they could help (giving you something to test), and often present many ideas that you know or feel just won’t work. Even bad books can have their value. Just don’t become one of those people who changes their beliefs and approach with every book they read.
I’m also a fan of hands-on learning. The experience of doing something the first time is important. Keeping detailed notes (what works, what doesn’t make sense and what you did to figure it out, work-arounds, etc.) enhances the value of that experience. It’s amazing what you can learn when you “get your hands dirty.”
What about formal education? I’ve never been a fan of the person who wants to get a degree in order to get a promotion. There are certainly some professions where education is critical to success (often through legitimacy as much as anything else). I believe that the best way to get ahead is to learn the position, innovate, optimize, and then deliver incredible results. You won’t “knock it out of the park” every time, but those “base hits” will help you score and ultimately win. My advice to people is to work towards a specific degree because it is important as a personal goal, and because it might help you get a different or better job in the future.
This is not to say that formal education is bad, because I don’t believe that at all. I was working on my MBA at the same time I was extending my consulting business from the US to the UK. I had a concentration in International Business, so I could apply many things I was learning right away. This lucky coincidence enhanced my learning experience and helped me make better decisions. I was actually working on that degree to raise the bar for my own kids, so to me this was just a bonus.
There are also other great ways to learn – ways that are only require an investment of time. There are many good free online courses. If there is something you want to learn about, or need to know more about, there is almost always a place to find free or inexpensive training. These are great investments in yourself and your future, and a chance to learn to connect those dots faster.
Below are links to a few of my personal favorite free learning websites. Do yourself a favor and check them out. And, if you know of others leave a comment and recommend them to others. Enjoy!