The power and value of serendipity on the other side of complexity
As I began to read this book, I was reminded of an observation by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity but would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” This is what Soren Kaplan has in mind when suggesting that the single most important factor in fostering true game changers in innovation is “the way leaders and organizations handle the discomfort, the disorientation, and the thrill (and pain) of living with uncertainty, finding clarity from ambiguity, and being surprised.” Very few business leaders and their organizations are both willing and able to work heir way through the complexity of what I view as “the fog of innovation” until, finally, there is a business breakthrough.
In Leading Change, James O’Toole suggests that many change initiatives fail because of cultural resistance that results from what he so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Kaplan duly acknowledges that leapfrogging – “the process of overcoming limiting mindsets and barriers to create business breakthroughs – is almost never easy. On the contrary, the status quo always has staunch defenders and many of them reside in the C-suite. More often than not, the current status quo is one they created by the same process of transformation to which Kaplan refers. That is, in response to what was then the status quo, they and their associates “delivered exactly what groundbreaking innovations always deliver: something new, something powerfully effective, and – most important – something [begin italics] unexpected [end italics].” Now the target is on their backs. Moreover, the greatest threat the organization now faces is not from a competitor. Rather, it is internal: an obsolete mindset among its leaders who cannot respond effectively to “an age of wrenching change and hyper competition.”
Kaplan inserts real-world examples of business executives in dozens of quite different organizations (e.g. DuPont, Four Seasons, Google, Kimberly-Clark, KIPP, PepsiCo, and Unilever) who struggle – with mixed results – to “harness the power of surprise for business breakthroughs.” These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye:
o Breakthroughs Can Come from Anywhere (Pages 17-22)
o Big Surprises Can Come in Small Doses (41-45)
o New Mindsets Are the Missing Link (52-54)
o The LEAPS Model (58)
o Liberating the Brain Delivers the Big Picture (64-69)
o “Leapfrogging Tools” (77-79)
Note: Kaplan adds to his reader’s “tool box” with other “tools” on Pages 98-103, 121-125, 150-153, and 176-180.
o New Insights Come from Pushing Beyond Comfort Zones (87-91)
o Small Steps Can Lead to Big Things (107-110)
o External Criticism Is Rooted in Old Assumptions (161-166)
o Humility Opens Us Up to Seeing Surprise [and Being Surprised] (161-166)
o The Paradox of Surprise (188-189)
Readers will also appreciate Kaplan’s strategic insertion of “Questions to Consider” sections within – rather than one at the conclusion of — Chapters 1-8 that will facilitate, indeed expedite review of key points and issues later. Moreover, of equal importance, the questions enable the reader to interact with the material by thinking about how best to apply appropriate portions of it within the reader’s own organization.
Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out three others: Peter Sims’s Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, Jason Jennings’ Think Big, Act Small: How America’s Best Performing Companies Keep the Start-up Spirit Alive, and Paul Schoemaker’s Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure.
“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”
The Lombardi remarks help to explain why Bob Vanourek and Greg Vanourek urge all leaders as well as those who aspire to become one to “chase perfection” at a time when “we live in a world that is overmanaged and underled.”
By the way, this is precisely what J. Keith Murnighan has in mind, in Do Nothing!: How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader, when observing, ”Things are simpler when other people are in charge and you don’t have to make big decisions. Taking over as a leader means that you must depart from the comfort of the status quo, and the anxiety, fear, and uncertainty that accompany your excitement really are noxious. To avoid these feelings, people naturally fall back on what’s familiar and certain – that is, what they know how to do. Unfortunately, this can be truly counterproductive.”
Readers will appreciate the abundance of information, insights, and counsel that the Vanoureks provide, much of it based their wide and deep experience with C-level leadership worldwide as well as their interviews of leaders at 61 quite different organizations based in 11 countries. These organizations include Cisco, eBay, Google, KIPP, Xerox, and Zappos. Readers will also appreciate the provision of “Practical Applications,” an end-of-chapter section that suggests options for implementation relevant material, Chapters 1-10.
Here are some of the several dozen passages that caught my eye:
o Chapter Road Map (Pages 13-16)
o Benefits of Triple Crown Leadership (36-37)
o Chapter  Supplment: Interviewing for Heart (59-60)
o Getting Beyond [One's] Natural Leadership Style (90-92)
o Personal Breakdowns and Organizational Breakdowns (151-152 & 152-154)
o Turnaround Adaptations (176-184)
o TripleCrown Social Impact (218-226)
No brief commentary such as this can do full justice to the nature and extent of invaluable material that the Vanoureks provide in this volume. They strike me as being world-class pragmatists who have an insatiable curiosity to understand — insofar as great leadership is concerned — what works, what doesn’t, and why. They are eager, indeed obsessed to share what they have learned with as many principled, results-driven executives as they can. They immediately establish a direct and personal rapport with their reader. In fact, most of those who read this book will feel — as I did — that the book was written specifically for them.
Presumably Bob and Greg Vanourek agree with me that it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to apply everything learned. Although the core values remain the same for all organizations (i.e. Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring), it remains for each reader to select material that is most appropriate to the needs, interests, resources, and values of the given organization.
Long ago, Oscar Wilde offered excellent personal advice: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” The same is true of organizations and especially true of companies such as Cisco, eBay, Google, KIPP, Xerox, Zappos…and yours.
Here is a brief excerpt from my interview of Coyle. The complete interview is also available.
Morris: As a father of four and grandfather of ten (so far), I have a special interest in knowing your response to this question. What are the implications of the talent code insofar as pre-collegiate education (especially at grade levels K-4) concerned?
Coyle: The talent hotbeds I visited are proof of the importance of the early years, for two reasons. First, the moment of ignition – when someone falls in love with a task – happen at a surprisingly young age. The moments when our own identities become linked with those of the people around us – when we decide we want to become a great musician, or writer, or businessman – happen at a surprisingly young age. To be in a rich environment, full of role models (think of a child growing up in Florence during the Renaissance, or a kid playing baseball in the Caribbean today), is like a turbocharger.
That’s not to say it can’t happen later – it does all the time. But with youth comes opportunity.
The other implication, I think, has to do with the way we teach. In our culture we are taught (in books, in movies, in school) that talent is something you are born with. But the lesson of the talent hotbeds – indeed, of modern neurology – is vastly different. Schools like KIPP that teach that the brain is a muscle – that you have to stretch and reach and struggle and repeat in order to grow your skills – succeed because they are telling kids the truth about themselves.
For the last 150 years, our culture has been ruled by the idea of the gene. I hope for the next 150 years a new idea might take hold – that of the 100,000 miles of wiring contained inside each human mind. That 100,000 miles (enough to encircle the earth four times) is a true measure of human potential.
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If you wish to read the complete interview, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Coyle invites you to visit http://www.thetalentcode.com.