Sunday, January 08, 2006

Sustainable Curiosity: Why Do We Need It?

Post-holiday, I've been hearing from quite a few people who don't want to be back at work. Collectively and with differing symptoms, my clients seem to long for what sounds like a sense of ownership.

This ownership goes beyond the usual jargon that indicates the freedom to independently direct a project or department. Otherwise, C-Level people wouldn't clamour as loudly as new employees.

Ownership in this case seems to extend to a feeling of being "more" oneself at work, of the ability to access more of the range of one's selves normally available outside the office walls.

What Does This Mean In Practical Business Terms?

Every situation has its own protocol of dress and behavior that offers credibility and authority. Obviously, if you show up in shorts at a Madison Avenue meeting, you're unlikely to be taken seriously or be heard.

There are exceptions, of course. Shorts are likely allowed if worn by someone who makes the rules -- a CEO or highly effective Creatives whose trademark is non-compliance, for example.

Why Do Most People Shrink To the Size of Their Suits?

Dress and behavior are more shell than core. So why do these external restrictions so often tie us up internally and limit our notion of who we are and of what's possible?

For one thing, there's a strong cultural belief that we are what we do. In a related vein, the more right answers we can prove, the stronger our value. The more we invest in being right, the more rigid and narrow our sense of strategic behavior. Clearly, this kind of thinking can discourage innovation.

Back to a Need for Change Management

Remember the fellow from the Change Management seminar who felt that the narrower his team's perspective, the more productive their output? This team was built of tremendously bright and well-educated tech people, and they were top in their field.

I'm loosely quoting, but here's the logic:

A. The goal at work is to be right.

B.To be consistently right, one must limit one's focus to the problems at hand. Any uncomfortable process or issue (eg unrelated topics) outside the problem at hand should be cleared away. The narrower the perspective, the stronger.

B . Being right involves innovating using only your head.

E. Emotional reactions are not only suspect but hazardous to problem-solving.

Ultimately, entertaining the value of new ways of seeing or learning is absolutely out. David Firth called it maintaining a work culture by "circling the wagons."

Does It Work?

David was called in because this sort of thinking isn't actually effective on a macro level.

In fact, some of the strategy isn't even possible. You can't separate your emotional system from your intellectual processes. After all, inspiration is the meeting point of emotional and intellectual insight. Venturing into the unknown might result in an answer that doesn't immediately work, but without it, there's no possibility for innovation.

What's more, intellectual conviction is often an abstract articulation of an emotional conviction anyway.

And Yes, There's (Always) More

Thinking is associative, innovation requires being on the look-out for new connections wherever they might lie. Most executives with whom I've talked prize the ability to innovate above all other qualities in employees. The narrower the focus, the less likely new connections will emerge.

So Why Limit Our Interest at Work to Our Job?

The simple answer seems to a combination of habit and fear. Culturally, we don't feel comfortable mixing office business with personal interests.

We also haven't been trained how to do it.

How many new (and old) employees throw themselves entirely into their new jobs to succeed? The more involved with work, the more face time, the longer the hours, the better the worker.

With this as criteria, how long does it take to forget who you were in college, what interested you on summers off, or your passions before you began your career?

Without maintaining engagement in varied interests, the field of possible connections becomes increasingly narrower. Is it a wonder that businesses crave the ability to make new connections?

Back to a Time Before The First Job

Considering ourselves to be singular -- rather than multi-faceted -- gets in the way of creativity. In particular, it's the belief that the singular self is defined by what we do that allows us to forget all the other selves we've got to draw from.

At the same time, we know better-- that's the beauty of multiple perspectives.

It's common sense that each person is made up of many selves. Our language demonstrates it in the way we describe our own behavior: I was beside myself, I wasn't myself, I have no idea why I behaved that way, I don't know what came over me.

The more limited our movement, the less frequent or diverse our adventures, the less likely we are to venture out into the unknown. The sense of singular self is, in part, the result of a kind of psychic repetitive stress syndrome. Without it, would there be mid-life crises? Without it, how many new connections would every worker be able to see?

Feeling Stuck: Getting Back to Sustainable Innovation

To work toward sustainable innovation,
How does one maintain access to a continuous sense of self -- and with it, the maximum range of resources -- for the sake of to creating new connections?

How does one maintain the ability to see things new after years of playing relatively similar roles? Or create a work culture that cultivates sustainable curiosity from the start?

More next week.

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