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.
“I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Oliver Wendell Holmes
As Hannibal Lector explains to Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, the Roman emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, endorsed the idea of focusing on the essence of a subject. The French later formulated the concept of the précis. Still later, Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, “I would not give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” All this serves to create a context, a frame of reference, for Ken Segall’s brilliant analysis of what drove Steve Jobs to create an insanely great company that continues to produce insanely great products.
As Segall explains, “Simplicity doesn’t spring to life with the right combination of molecules, water, and sunlight. It needs a champion – someone who’s willing to stand up for its principles and strong enough to resist the overtures of Simplicity’s evil twin, Complexity. It needs someone who’s willing to guide a process with both head and heart.” These are among the passages, themes, and concepts that caught my eye throughout Segall’s lively and eloquent narrative:
o Standards Aren’t for Bending (Pages 15-16)
o Small Groups = Better [Collaborative] Relationships (35- 38)
o The Perils of Proliferation (52-54)
o Thinking Different vs. Thinking Crazy (74-77)
o Simplicity’s Unfair Advantage (93-95)
o Never Underestimate the Power of a Word (123-125)
o Death by Formality (132-135)
o Technology with Feeling (138-140)
o Ignoring the Naysayers: Inventing the Apple Store (180-184)
I have read all of the books written about Steve Jobs and Apple and reviewed most of them. In my opinion, with the exception of Walter Isaacson’s definitive biography, none provides a more thorough explanation of Jobs’s values, standards, and motivations than does this one. As Segall suggests, Jobs’s greatest achievement is that he “built a monument to Simplicity.” As Jobs invariably had the last word at the conclusion of conversations and meetings, it seems appropriate that he also have the last word now: “Simplicity can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end, because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Be•Know•Do: Leadership the Army Way: Adapted from the Official Army Leadership Manual
United States Army (Author); Frances Hesselbein and Eric K. Shinseki (Introduction), and Richard E. Cavanagh (Foreword)
Jossey-Bass/Leader to Leader Institute; 1st edition (2004)
How to develop leaders who have character, competence, knowledge, and results-driven initiative
I recently re-read this book, curious to know to what extent its content remains relevant. My conclusion? It is even more relevant today than it was when first published in 2004. In Richard E. Cavanagh’s Foreword, he recalls a discussion during dinner with Peter Drucker and Jack Welch who shared the same opinion that the United States military services do the best job developing leaders. What we have in this volume is an adaptation by Frances Hesselbein and General Eric K. Shinseki (USA Ret.) of Field Manual 22-100, Army Leadership, with assistance from Alan Shrader. Hesselbein and Shinseki also wrote the Introduction. The material is carefully organized within seven chapters, followed by a Conclusion that reviews the most important points, correctly noting the unique and compelling role that the U.S. Army has played since June 14, 1775, when the Continental Congress authorized enlistment of riflemen to serve the United Colonies for one year.
With regard to the book’s title, “Army leadership begins with what the leader must Be, the values and attributes that shape a leader’s character…People want leaders who are honest, competent, forward-looking, and inspiring…People willingly follow only those who know what they are doing. One of the quickest ways for a leader to lose trust and commitment of followers is to demonstrate incompetence…Character and competence, the Be and the Know, underlie everything a leader does. But character and knowledge – while absolutely necessary – are not enough. Leaders act; they Do…They solve problems, overcome obstacles, strengthen teamwork, and achieve objectives. They use leadership to produce results.”
I realize that these concepts seem simple. In one sense they are. However, in this context, I am reminded of what Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” The challenge to any organization when developing leaders is to guide those involved to the other side of complexity.” The composite of excerpts from Be•Know•Do identifies core concepts, to be sure, but it also describes the character, competence, knowledge, and results-driven initiative that the U.S. Army seeks to develop within every one of its soldiers, regardless of rank. “No one is only a leader; each person in an organization is also a follower and part of a team. In fact, the old distinction between leaders and followers has blurred; complex twenty-first-century organizations require individuals to move seamlessly from one role to another in an organization, from leadership to `followership,’ and back again.”
Hesselbein and Shinseki are to be commended for their skillful adaptation of Field Manual 22-100, Army Leadership, but also for the inclusion within the narrative of relevant material from sources outside the U.S. Army organization. For example, they quote prominent business thinkers throughout the narrative: James Kouzes and Barry Posner on leadership by example (page 24), John Gardner on the importance of a shared vision (page 30), Patrick Lencioni on teamwork (page 86), and John Kotter on a leader’s “quest for learning” (page 132). Readers will also appreciate the provision of various “Exhibits” such as 5.1 that provides a brilliant illustration of Team-Building Stages.
Those who share my high regard for this volume are urged to check out Frances Hesselbein’s other works and the wealth of resources available at the Leader to Leader Institute, a non-profit and tax exempt organization. Also, Warfighting: The U.S. Marine Corps Book of Strategy (Tactics for Managing Confrontation) published in 2004.
Two recently published books, Paul Schoemaker’s Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure and Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business co-authored by Thor Muller and Lane Becker, have much of value to say about innovation but approach that subject with quite different perspectives.
According to Schoemaker, “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?’” He advocates making what he characterizes as “deliberate mistakes” but they should not be viewed as “failures.” Rather, as planned experiments by which to create valuable learning opportunities.
Note the reference to “far side” in the book’s subtitle. Perhaps Schoemaker has Oliver Wendell Holmes’s observation in mind when referring to simplicity on “the other side of complexity.” Yes, Schoemaker uses the word “failure” in the book’s subtitle but only in reference to learning nothing of value from a planned experiment.
According to Muller and Becker, “planned serendipity” involves “a set of concrete, attainable business skills that cultivate the conditions for chance encounters to generate new opportunities. Planned serendipity also provides you with the ability to recognize and put these opportunities to good use by showing you how to create and maintain the kinds of work environments, cultural attitudes, and business relationships that value and reward serendipitous occurrences.” Planned serendipity cannot guarantee success (however defined) but it can improve substantially the chances for success.
Thomas Jefferson once observed, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” However, what many people view as “luck” is, in fact, the result of a great deal of hard work – best viewed as preparation – that reaches an intersection with opportunity. Many (most?) of the so-called “overnight sensations” in the entertainment world, for example, spent sometimes decades in obscurity before taking full advantage of a breakthrough opportunity. The “10,000-Hour Theory” is hardly a theory, having been indisputably verified by hundreds of thousands of hours of rigorous research, including the efforts of K. Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University.
Brilliant Mistakes and Get Lucky are two of the most important books (not just business books) published in recent years.
How and why to cultivate conditions and develop skills for chance encounters that offer new business opportunities
Almost a century ago, Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” I thought of that observation as I worked my way through this book in which Thor Muller and Lane Becker introduce their concept of “planned serendipity.” That is to say, “a set of concrete, attainable business skills that cultivate the conditions for chance encounters to generate new opportunities. Planned serendipity also provides you with the ability to recognize and put these opportunities to good use by showing you how to create and maintain the kinds of work environments, cultural attitudes, and business relationships that value and reward serendipitous occurrences.”
To paraphrase Holmes, Muller and Becker help their reader to transcend a faith in blind luck with an understanding of serendipity “on the other side of complexity.” The business skills to which they refer are eight in number and, mercifully, are not the mind-numbing admonitions that so many authors recycle. In fact, each is less a skill than a component within a sequence by which to initiate and sustain planned serendipity. Muller and Becker devote a separate chapter to each.
Although both individuals and organizations cannot control much (most?) of the major events and developments they experience, Muller and Becker assert that decisions can be made about allocation of resources such as hours and dollars, division of labor, determination of priorities, what is – and isn’t – produced, and the philosophy or framework by which such decisions are made. According to a Hebrew aphorism, “Man plans and then God laughs.” Not always. Thomas Jefferson once observed, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” Taking full advantage of planned serendipity requires working hard, of course, but it also requires working smart.
Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out a Harvard Business Review article, “The Making of an Expert” (July 2007), co-authored by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely as well as Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan (Second Edition), Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods, and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.
How and why our digital footprints and shadows “constitute our permanent imprint on the world”
As I began to read this book, I was again reminded of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ observation almost a century ago, “I wouldn’t give a fog for simplicity on this side of complexity but would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That was true then and is even more relevant now in an age, at a time, when many (most?) of us frequently feel overwhelmed by the complexities in all areas of our lives. In this volume, Erik Qualman identifies, thoroughly explains, and strongly endorses five separate but related habits of digital leadership, and broadly defines “leadership” to include but by no means limited to one’s supervisory responsibilities in the business world. Probably for the first time in human history, a person’s private and public life are one and the same. This is what Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz had in mind when responding to a highly confidential executive memo that had been leaked: “Nothing is confidential. This is the new reality.”
Here are the STAMP habits. Qualman devotes a separate chapter to each:
SIMPLE: “Make everything as simple as possible but no simpler.” Albert Einstein
TRUE: Be true to your passion, with values and behavior in alignment
ACT: “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Thomas Edison
MAP: Know how to get from where you are to where you want to be
PEOPLE: The greatest success is achieved in collaboration
I especially appreciate Qualman’s skillful use of various reader-friendly devices that serve four very important functions: they highlight what is most important, they consolidate key points in context, they provide valuable supplementary information, and they facilitate, indeed accelerate frequent review later. These devices include “Digital Deeds Sidebars,” “Life Stamps,” and “a “Key Takeaways” section at the conclusion of each of five Sections.
In Chapter Nine of Section Three, for example, the Sidebar mini-commentaries include “Finding Your Passion,” “Wikipedia – Where Are You?” and Who Likes You Enough to Link?” Then in Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen, there are “Life Stamps” profiles of Oscar Morales (a software programmer in Columbia) and Ric Elias (a survivor of US Air Flight 1549), both exemplary digital leaders.
Throughout the narrative, Qualman takes a multi-dimensional approach to explaining how and why our digital footprints and shadows “constitute our permanent imprint on the world.” His ultimate objective is clear: He wants to help as many people as possible to ensure that their “digital stamp,” their legacy as a human being, is positive (i.e. principled) and productive (i.e. has had a beneficial impact on the lives of others). Of course, it remains for each reader to determine whether or not to become a digital leader, and if so, to what extent they committed to achieve that admirable but demanding goal.
As I finished reading this thoughtful and thought-provoking book, I was reminded of I was reminded of Rabbi Hillel the Elder’s questions, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
Getting to “the other side of complexity
Almost immediately after I began to read this book, I was reminded of two quotations, the first from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I do not care a fig for simplicity this side of complexity but I would give my life for the other side of complexity.” Also from Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Further along into John Maeda’s discussion of each of the ten “laws” and his explanation of why he thinks that “simplicity = sanity,” I was reminded of this passage from William Butler Yeats’
“The Second Coming”:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
Are full of passionate intensity.”
Holmes was right, acknowledging how difficult it is to proceed through complexity to simplicity. In fact, I view complexity in that context as a crucible. More specifically, as container into which alchemists once placed raw materials and subjected them to intense heat, hoping to produce a pure and precious metal, perhaps gold. Like the falcon in Yeats’s poem, the human mind circles high above more than it can possibly absorb and process, then make sense of. This is what William Wordsworth suggests in “The World Is Too Much with Us”:
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”
And this is why Maeda believes that “simplicity = sanity.” In a world that seems to become more complex each day, his on-going journey of discovery he realized how complex a topic simplicity really is, “and I don’t pretend to have solved the puzzle…[and] am inspired to grapple with this puzzle many more years…Like all man-made `laws’ [mine] do not exist in the absolute sense – to break them is no sin. However you may find them useful in your own search for simplicity and It would be a disservice to Maeda as well as to those who read this review to list the ten “Laws.” They are best revealed in context, within the frame-of-reference he creates for each. The same is true of the three “Keys to achieving simplicity in the technology domain” with which Maeda concludes his narrative. “Rarely do I have answers, but instead I have a lot of questions just like you.” I am amazed by how much material he provides within only 100 pages. Additional resources can be obtained (at no cost) by visiting lawsofsimplicity.com.
It is worth noting that when Maeda “set out with youthful zeal to attack the simplicity question, [he] felt that complexity was destroying our world and had to be stopped!” Presumably others have experienced the same frustrations I have encountered when struggling to understand the directions provided in an operations manual or terms and conditions of a service warranty or when struggling to obtain assistance from a customer service representative who speaks slowly enough and clearly enough to be understood. Why does it have to be so (bleeping) complicated? After speaking at a conference, Maeda was approached by a 73-year old artist who took him aside and said, “The world’s [begin italics] always [end italics] been falling apart. So relax.” Maeda suggests that his reader take the same advice “and try to LEAN BACK while you read this book, if you can.”
John Maeda may not get you to the “other side of complexity” but he can help you to preserve your sanity meanwhile. If that isn’t a value-added benefit, I don’t know what one is.
You may also wish to check out his most recently published book, Redesigning Leadership, in which he shares his thoughts and feelings about what has happened (and not happened) since he stepped down as head of MIT’s Media Lab to became president of Rhode Island School of Design.