What You’re Really Meant to Do: A Roadmap for Reaching Your Unique Potential
Robert Steven Kaplan
Harvard Business Review Press (2013)
To paraphrase Walt Whitman, “We are large, we contain multitudes.”
Self-improvement initiatives or, if you prefer, self-fulfillment or self-actualization initiatives, are best viewed as an on-going journey, not as an ultimate destination. Many authors of books about that process invoke the map or road map metaphor, and rightly so, because it implies and (yes) enables all manner of appropriate dimensions of internal as well as external exploration and discovery. This seems to be what Robert Steven Kaplan has in mind when observing, “I have come to believe that the key to achieving your aspirations lies not in ‘being a success’ but rather in working to reach your unique potential. This requires you to create your own definition of success rather than accept a definition created by others…This approach takes courage and hard work. It does not yield easy answers or get you to a final destination. It is, instead, a multistage, lifelong effort. It involves developing a different mind-set and a new set of work habits.”
At this point in my brief commentary, I want to express appreciation of Kaplan’s previous book, What to Ask the Person in the Mirror. Its title refers to anyone who seeks both knowledge and wisdom that will improve quality of life as well as standard of living. What Kaplan offers in abundance is assistance with framing questions that can help to achieve those worthy objectives. Those who read the book will be much better prepared to ask them; better yet, they will be much better prepared to obtain the right answers to them. In this book, as its subtitle suggests, he offers “a road map for reaching your potential,” one that is accompanied by a wealth of information, insights, and counsel as well as self-diagnostic exercises to help his readers determine what they are really meant to be and to do. As Oscar Wilde so wisely advised, “Be yourself. Every one else is taken.” But as Darrell Royal once observed, “Potential” means “you ain’t done it yet.”
These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to indicate the scope of Kaplan’s coverage.
o Who Defines Your Success? (Pages 18-22)
o Five Suggested Rules of the Road (24-30)
o Assessing Your Strengths and Weaknesses (31-37)
o You Don’t Have to Be Good at Everything (56-57)
o The Pursuit of Passion, and, Understanding Your Passions (63-66)
o The Power of Narrative: Three Steps (85-97)
o Being at Your Best (102-105)
o Dealing with a Painful Setback, and, Dealing with Injustice (126-129)
o A Star Wants to Realize His Potential (138-142)
o The Power of an Ownership Mind-Set (149-150)
Note: Our lives tend to be the result of our decisions. There is also great power in taking personal ownership of accountability for those decisions.
o Values, Boundaries, and Your Philosophy, and, Character and Leadership (156-162)
o Try Building Your Relationship Muscles (173-175)
o Creating Supportive Relationships (181-182)
o This Book: It’s About You (196-198)
o Next Steps (201-203)
While reading and then re-reading this book, I was again reminded of many of the observations shared by other authors in their books, notably Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Life, Bill George in True North, James O’Toole in Creating the Good Life, Randy Pausch in The Last Lecture, and Clayton Christensen in How Will You Measure Your Life? However different they and their works may be from Kaplan and his, all of them — they and he — stress the importance of continuous self-improvement to serve purposes and to achieve goals worthy of our very best efforts. For the title of this review, I chose a paraphrase of Whitman’s line in “Song of Myself” because it correctly suggests almost unlimited potentialities for personal growth and professional development. Robert Steven Kaplan wrote this book to help each of us to fulfill as many of them as we can.
When concluding his book, he observes, “If you follow your own path, I don’t know how much money you will accumulate, how much stature you will achieve, or how many titles you will garner. But if you’re true to your convictions and principles, I know you’re far more likely to feel like a big success. In the end, that feeling will make all the difference.”
To Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, coauthor of How Will You Measure Your Life?, a primary task of leadership is asking questions that anticipate great challenges. Here is a brief excerpt from an interview conducted by Art Kleiner for strategy+business magazine, published by Bain & Company. To read the complete interview, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register for email alerts, please click here.
Photograph by Evgenia Eliseeva
* * *
This is the second interview we’ve published with Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christensen. The first appeared back in 2001. Four years before, Christensen had published The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Harvard Business School Press, 1997). When his keenly original theory of disruption first appeared, it seemed like an audacious and counterintuitive view of organizational change. But it soon evolved into conventional business wisdom. And now he is applying it to a deeper question: “What is life for?”
In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen argued that as companies focus their attention on their best and most reliable customers, they can all too easily overlook the threat of disruption from young upstart competitors. Those competitors, exercising their creativity, develop innovative capabilities and reach customers that the incumbents ignore. Sooner or later, the upstarts steal the market with their better, less-expensive new ways of solving customers’ problems.
Christensen has always had an entrepreneurial bent, and this clearly colors his approach. Before arriving at Harvard Business School, he founded the CPS Technologies Corporation, a manufacturer of thermal management materials (originally called the Ceramics Process Systems Corporation), and he is a cofounder of a small Boston-based consulting firm called Innosight. His ideas are particularly valuable for established industries that seek to respond effectively to the disruption coming seemingly out of nowhere.
In recent years, he has applied this approach to healthcare (The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care, with Jerome H. Grossman and Jason Hwang, McGraw-Hill, 2008), education (Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, with Michael Horn and Curtis W. Johnson, McGraw-Hill, 2008), and, most recently, the personal side of leadership.
Written as a reflection on the fulfillment of life’s purpose after a series of severe medical problems (including cancer and a stroke), Christensen’s most recent book, How Will You Measure Your Life? (coauthored with James Allworth and Karen Dillon, HarperBusiness, 2012), has struck a chord with many business leaders. It links the discipline of managing disruption to the kind of long-term thinking that is necessary if one is to step past today’s pressures and build a strong personal and professional legacy. In late 2012, Christensen spoke with strategy+business by phone from his home outside Boston.
* * *
S+B: How did you develop the concept of measuring your life?
Christensen: I had always aspired as a researcher to develop models that were robust enough to relate to any level in a hierarchy, from a national economy to an industry to a corporation to a business unit to a team. A good theory is really a fundamental statement of causality, and it ought to be as applicable to a business unit as it is to a nation, or vice versa.
In all my work, I’ve looked for universal principles—starting with my doctoral thesis in the early 1990s, which was the original study of disruption in the disk drive industry [which I wrote about in The Innovator’s Dilemma]. I was trying to explain why it was so hard for successful disk drive companies to sustain their success, generation after generation. I’d concluded that the success of their past practices made it difficult to react effectively to new disruptive competitors.
At first, when I finished, I thought I had a model that applied only to the disk drive industry. Then I remembered that during the Cuban missile crisis, which had happened when I was a boy in 1962, my neighbors hired a steam shovel to dig a bomb shelter in their basement. The steam shovel was manufactured by Northwest Engineering, a company that died in the early 1980s because its products were made obsolete by hydraulic excavators. So, later, when I knew someone who worked for an excavating company, I went over to see him one night and described what I’d found in the disk drive industry, and he said the same thing had happened with big digging machines. “There must be something to this,” I thought, “if it explains hydraulic excavators and disk drives.”
* * *
To read the complete interview, please click here.
Whitney L. Johnson dared to dream when she began her Wall Street career as a secretary. With courage and persistence, by her forties she had risen to become an Institutional Investor-ranked sell-side analyst. Whitney is the president and co-founder of Clayton Christensen’s investment firm, Rose Park Advisors, a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review and the Harvard Business Review blogs, and the author of Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream, published by Bibliomotion (May 2012). Whitney was recognized by Inc. magazine as one of “12 People to Follow on Twitter in 2012″ and one of Business Insider’s “54 Smart Thinkers Everyone Should Follow on Twitter.” For more, follow her blog, find her on Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter. Having invested in her own dreams, Whitney is passionate about encouraging others to take stock in theirs. She and her husband reside with their two children in Boston, Massachusetts.
Here is an excerpt from my interview of her. To read the complete interview, please click here.
* * *
Morris: Before discussing Dare, Dream, Do, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
Johnson: I started to write — my husband. Crossed that out, thinking my parents. Scratch that, because it’s my children. Or maybe… it’s. Scores of people have influenced my personal growth, but alas, I must list my parents as I think most of us must.
They provided me with many opportunities apart from school, including sewing, piano, and ice skating lessons. But as the oldest child of parents who married because my mother was pregnant with me, and then later divorced, I always wondered if there might have been a different outcome had I been brilliant or attractive enough.
Though these memories pain me, I recognize these formative experiences have shaped who I am and what I value. My desire to have a happy marriage and a happy family life is resolute. Period. When someone I know is affected by divorce, I understand. I know the situation is complicated, regardless of why the marriage is dissolving. My drive, my intense focus on improvement is likely a means of trying to measure up, and I’m quite certain my laser-like focus on encouraging and mentoring is my attempt to be the encouraging voice I wanted to hear. Without a doubt, my parents have had the greatest influence on my personal growth. But my husband is a close, and crucial, close second. It is he who has helped me grow into a person that believes she measures up – at least most days.
Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
Johnson: Michael Brown, one of my bosses at BA-Merrill Lynch. I was already an award-winning equity analyst, but I still didn’t quite see my potential. He challenged me to step up my game – not in a you-can-do-better military style. Instead, he was the first boss to ask for my ideas, and gave me the latitude to go do them. During his tenure, I significantly outperformed myself in every measurable category. The slope of the trajectory of my career steepened significantly because of Michael Brown.
Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
Johnson: My husband and I arrived in New York twenty years ago, so he could pursue his PhD at Columbia. I would never have gone to New York on my own, and I was terrified. But someone had to earn the bread, so I began to look for a job. We were in New York; I wanted to work on Wall Street.
But there were a few problems. My degree was in music – meaning I’d never stepped foot in an accounting, finance or economics class, I had zero connections in New York, and women who came to Wall Street in the late 80s — became secretaries. Which is what I did.
Across from my desk at 1345 Ave of the Americas, there was a bullpen of up-and-coming brokers, essentially a locker-room for twenty-something guys aspiring to become masters of the universe. In order to open accounts, they’d dial the phone, people would hang up, dial, hang up. When they finally got someone on the phone, the pressure was so intense in this testosterone-filled room they inevitably went for the hard sell. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see this is a good investment.” I’d always know the prospects were waffling, when I’d hear “throw down your pom-poms and get in the game.”
Initially I was offended, because I was a cheerleader in high school. But one day after hearing “throw down your pom-poms” yet again, I thought – when am I going to throw down MY pom-poms – and get in MY game. After all, my husband’s degree will take 5-7 years. Why would I earn x if 10x is possible?
That was my turning point. I began to take accounting and finance courses at night – and three years later – I had a boss who was willing to sponsor me in making the jump from secretary to investment banking analyst.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Johnson: Early on in my career, my musical training (practicing piano three hours a day, understanding music theory and music history, learning to sight read, to accompanying vocalist and instrumentalists, playing in a jazz band, playing a senior recital with 45 minutes of music fully memorized) was of little use.
But once I had the investment banking technical training (building a financial model, etc), my formal musical training allowed me to really kick up my career. As Howard Gardner’s posits in his theory of multiple intelligences, musical intelligence isn’t “just about composing music, playing an instrument, singing well, or even learning a new language, the principles of organization involved in almost any kind of public presentation, whether organizing a conference, producing a play, or giving a speech have their origin in musical structure.” Now, whether writing a research report, coaching entrepreneurs on how to pitch their ideas, or giving a speech, I have an innate sense of an idea’s arc and the requisite musicality in order to communicate my ideas. Meta – but invaluable.
* * *
To read the complete interview, please click here.
Whitney invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
To visit her homepage, please click here.
To visit her Amazon page, please click here.
To visit her HBR blog page, please click here.
To visit the Rose Park Advisors page, please click here.
Todd Henry is the founder and CEO of Accidental Creative, a company that helps creative people and teams generate brilliant ideas. He regularly speaks and consults with companies, both large and small, about how to develop practices and systems that lead to everyday brilliance. Todd’s work has been featured by Fast Company, Fortune, Forbes, HBR.org, US News & World Report, and many other major media outlets. His book, The Accidental Creative: How To Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice, offers strategies for how to thrive in the creative marketplace and has been called “one of the best books to date on how to structure your ideas, and manage the creative process and work that comes out of it” by Jack Covert, author of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time and founder of 800-CEO-READ. You can connect with Todd here, or learn more about how to hire him to speak at your event or train your team.
Here is my interview of him. To read the complete interview, please click here.
* * *
Morris: Before discussing The Accidental Creative, a few general questions. First, Who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth?
Henry: I have a counter-intuitive answer to this. Probably the biggest influence on my personal growth was a 20th-century mystic and monk named Thomas Merton. It seems strange that a man who lived the biggest part of the late years of his life in isolation and contemplation would have much to say to a 21st-century, tech-immersed creative, but I found his writings to be deeply reflective on the nature of humanity, and also an illumination on the mechanics of doing important work.
If I were talking only about contemporary influences, I would have to say that I’ve been incredibly blessed to be around a group of mentors who, over a period of several years, really made it a project to develop me and help me understand both my capacity and my limitations. It was in this virtual incubator for leadership that I first discovered my voice and began reflecting deeply on the creative process.
Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course that you continue to follow?
Henry: I was a leader in an organization trying to scale a team while helping them handle the pressures and demands we were facing, and in my effort to do so I reached out to several other creative directors who I knew would be dealing with the same issues. My biggest question for them was, “How do you serve your team, and help them do their best work without burning them out?” They stared at me like I was from another planet. “What you mean?” they almost unanimously asked. In other words, it had never occurred to them that it might be possible to exist in any create on-demand environment and be simultaneously healthy in the way you approach your work. This began a long journey for me of exploring whether or not it was possible to be prolific, brilliant, and healthy simultaneously in life and work. This research eventually led to my company, which now shares these insights with teams around the world, and then eventually to the book, The Accidental Creative.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have accomplished in your life thus far?
Henry: It may be cliché but I believe that the biggest contribution formal education made to my career accomplishments is that I learned how to structure my uncertainty and questions into a format that could be pursued and digested effectively. I learned to deal with ambiguity and suffer through process. When I was in school, information wasn’t so readily available, and there was more risk involved in pursuing a specific avenue of research. It was much more difficult (and costly!) to pivot mid-course, so it forced me to stay focused while going about my work. This allowed me to develop the capacity of deep, intermittent focus that has served me in my work as a professional creative.
Morris: In your opinion, what are the most significant differences between creativity and innovation?
Henry: The definition of innovation I use is “progressive and useful change” which typically involves (or at least begins with) a creative act. Creativity, at the heart of it, is problem solving. A designer might solve a problem visually, while a manager might do so by thinking up a new system. But that creative act is only innovation once it’s applied and creates useful change.
Morris: What do you say in response to someone who says, “I’m just not creative”?
Henry: I would say they are wrong. We are all creative, because we all have the ability to solve problems and create value with our mind. I think the biggest reason people say “I’m not creative” is because they confuse creativity with art. The very act of holding a conversation – which most of us can do – is a creative act, because it’s based on improvisation! Once we re-frame creativity as problem-solving, it helps people see their own creative capacity in new ways.
Morris: Isaac Asimov once observed, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, ‘hmm… that’s funny…’” Do you agree with him?
Henry: Yes! Steven Johnson has called this the “slow hunch” and I agree. Brilliant work is most frequently the result of focused, laborious effort punctuated by moments of insight, all of which is driven by curiosity sourced in the slow hunch. It’s only when we stay with the problem long enough to recognize those anomalies that we are positioned for breakthroughs. To do this we must develop the ability to ask incisive questions. The questions are – in my opinion – far more important than the answers. Every answer must lead to a new question.
Morris: Here is another quotation, this time from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “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.” By what process can one get to “the other side of complexity”?
Henry: The trouble is that we get to the other side of complexity for a moment, only to find that there’s far more complexity to be conquered. The creative process is the perpetual assault on the beachhead of apathy, which means that we must fight a daily battle against our natural desire to stay in our comfort zone. Steven Pressfield calls this battling “Resistance” and I’m in 100% agreement. To get to those flashes of clarity – simplicity – requires persistent daily, and sometimes seemingly fruitless effort. At the same time, I don’t know that the illusion of simplicity lasts for long. Most creatives I know experience a brief, shining moment of satisfaction before they begin to see holes in their work. That’s what propels us to keep striving – the promise of greater clarity and simplicity.
Morris: Many major breakthroughs in creativity and innovation are the result of counter-intuitive thinking. For example, combining a wine press with separable type (Gutenberg and the printing press), removal of burrs from a pet’s hair with an attachment (George de Mestral and VELCRO), and leather softener with skin care (Mark Kay Cosmetics).
Here is my two-part question: What are the major differences between intuition and counter-intuition? What (if anything) do intuition and counter-intuition share in common?
Henry: I think intuition and counter-intuition are all about framing. A problem framed in a certain way leads to an intuitive solution. When framed in a different way, the same solution appears counter-intuitive. I believe that so much of this is determined by the focus of the individual solving the problem, and the stimuli that prompt their search for a solution. That’s why I believe it’s critical to maintain a proper level of focus on the true problems you’re trying to solve. If you don’t regularly define your work, you’re likely to drift and you’re less likely to notice those moments of intuitive or counter-intuitive serendipity.
Morris: Of all the books you have read, from which one have you learned the most about creativity and innovation? Please explain.
Henry: From an innovation standpoint, it’s really hard to top The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. He thoroughly nailed the dynamics of living and working in a marketplace that requires perpetual reinvention, and I believe also unintentionally defined the single biggest factors that cause creative professionals to feel frustrated, under-utilized, and disengaged in their daily work. Purely from a “mechanics of creativity” standpoint, I’d say that I learned the most from Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono. I also greatly enjoyed Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which is a synthesis of his research into creativity across multiple domains.
Morris: Within the last few years, there have been several excellent books published in which thought leaders such as Roger Martin, Chris Brown, and Roberto Verganti discuss the design of business. In your opinion, why has this subject attracted so much attention?
Henry: Over the past many years it’s become obvious that design can’t be an after-thought, because it’s actually good business as well. We are in an age where ideas flow freely and with less friction, and many of the traditional means of creating and distributing goods were based on creating friction rather than eliminating it. Great design is about eliminating friction so that consumers can identify, connect with, and consume what they want when they want it. Good design, from operations all the way through the final point-of-sale communication, is critical in eliminating that friction, especially now that consumers have so many choices.
Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a workplace environment within which creativity and innovation are most stimulated, nourished, and when necessary, protected?
Henry: There is no one-size-fits-all solution, though many still try to find it. In my experience, the most innovative and productive workplace environments have less to do with physical space than psychological space. Is there clarity of purpose? Are we rewarded for the things that move the needle, such as taking measured risks, asking good questions, and spending ourselves on behalf of the work? Do we foster an environment of conversation, or of secrecy? No one goes to work in the morning hoping to crank out a mediocre pile of misery, yet over time our work environments either reward continual growth, or encourage systemic mediocrity. You’re either growing or dying, there is no stagnancy. But growth is difficult and messy, and requires persistent effort. Many give up when it’s “good enough.” (One of the best examinations I’ve read of teams who accomplished great, innovative things is Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman.)
* * *
To read the complete interview, please click here.
Todd cordially invites you to check out the resources at The Accidental Creative website by clicking here.
Here is a brief excerpt from a brilliant article by posted by Des Dearlove and Stuart Crainer. It is featured at the Thinkers50 website. To read the complete article and check out the wealth of resources, please click here.
* * *
Who is the most influential living management thinker?
That is the question that the Thinkers50, the biennial global ranking of management thinkers, seeks to answer. But does the ranking or the ideas it celebrates really matter?
It’s a fair question. In an age of awards overkill, it is tempting to see the ranking as just another example of hubris in the business world. All the more galling when many businesses are struggling.
But, celebrating the very best new thinking in management matters for three reasons.
First, ideas are important. They have the power to change the world. Think of Copernicus, Socrates, Aristotle, Newton, Galileo, or Einstein. Think of Charles Darwin, the ultimate disruptive innovator. Ideas define our humanity. They shape the way we think and see our place in the universe.
Equally, in the business world, too, ideas matter — from Steve Jobs to Tim Berners-Lee; and Google to Facebook — new thinkers and new ideas challenge and redefine how we work and live. An idea can change an entire industry and ideas, from kaizen to the balanced scorecard, continually transform the way we work and lead our businesses.
Second, management matters. It has become fashionable in some places to mock management. Ask someone in the UK what is wrong with the National Health Service, for example, and you are likely to be told that there are too many managers and management consultants and not enough doctors and nurses. Managers are the fall guys, the scapegoats for organizational excesses, failures and inefficiencies.
Yet, the reality is that management gets things done. The moment you move beyond one or two people working together then some form of management is required. There is nothing new in this. From Alexander the Great to the modern day, the elements of management – from organizational behavior to supply chain management — have made the difference between success and failure.
Just because management has always been with us, it is easy, too, to dismiss the progress that has been made in the last century. Management is often seen as a poor man’s science. (Not so long ago economics suffered a similar fate.) Critics lampoon the latest management buzzwords, labeling them as pretentious and shallow. In truth, though, management has made big strides.
A hundred years ago, we were in the thrall of scientific management. Had there been a Thinkers50 in the early twentieth century, it would have been dominated by one name — Frederick Winslow Taylor. We have moved on since then. One of the achievements of management in the last 20 years is the recognition that management is a fundamentally human activity. It is as much an art as a science.
It is easy to underestimate the influence of management ideas in that process. Notions such as empowerment, championed in the 1980s, and emotional intelligence in the 1990s seem self-evident now. But we have come a long way from Scientific Management and using a stopwatch to manage performance. Ideas like Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory laid the foundations for that.
Or consider the influence of Clayton Christensen, who tops the Thinkers50 ranking. Christensen’s influence on the business world has been profound. In The Innovator’s Dilemma, he looked at why companies struggle to deal with radical innovation in their markets. The book introduced the idea of disruptive technologies and disruptive innovation to a generation of managers.
Some ideas make us reappraise what we thought we already knew. Until very recently, for example, most managers were (and many still are) convinced that fear and greed were the two primary levers for motivating people. But Dan Pink’s recent book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us tackles the perennial subject of motivation, and argues that we need to abandon the ineffectual carrot and stick approach, and the importance of doing something we love for a career.
* * *
Des Dearlove and Stuart Crainer ( http://www.crainerdearlove.com/) are the founders and directors of the Thinkers50. They are adjunct professors at IE Business School. Stuart is editor of Business Strategy Review. Des is an associate fellow of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by James Allworth for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
* * *
The “zone.” Flow. Whatever you want to call it, at one stage or another, every one of us aspires to get there. It’s when we do our best work, achieve our peak performance. Last weekend, I competed in the New England Masters Swim Championships, and for the past eighteen months I’ve been co-authoring a book. Both of these are endeavors that rely extensively on an ability to get in the zone; they can truly make the difference between a good day and a great one.
But getting there is hard. How can you do it reliably? I’ve had that thought rolling around in my mind for the past couple of weeks since seeing Dharmesh Shah of HubSpot on Twitter wondering aloud about exactly this. Now, you will often hear people talk about the zone in the context of intellectual or athletic pursuits, but rarely both. I’ve been able to apply tactics from each sphere — in sports and in business — to improve my performance in the other, and I wanted to capture some of what I have learned. My experience is that are three broad rules that you have to understand in order to get in the zone:
There’s no zone for new activities: The first time you sit down to do something, you’re not going to find flow; nor the second, or the tenth, and probably not even the hundredth. Why? Getting in the zone requires activating the subconscious part of the brain. The very nature of it requires you not to be trying, not consciously thinking about what it is you’re doing — instead, you’re just doing it. Obviously, it is infinitely more difficult to achieve this if the activity is one at which you’re unpracticed: I am almost certain that nobody dives into the pool for the first time in their life, having never swum before, and manages to achieve flow. There’s simply too much of their conscious brain at work; their brain is working overtime, thinking about everything required to keep them afloat. It works the same way with intellectual pursuits; if you’re an unpracticed writer, or coder, it’s not going to happen the first time you sit down to do it. You’ve got to be at the point where you’ve put in the ten thousand hours of practice or have formed the necessary myelin pathways to have a shot of getting there.
The Zone requires your subconscious: Flow only works when the subconscious takes over from the conscious mind. Being practiced at what you do is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. This is where other techniques start to kick in: meditation is a well-known way of doing exactly this; visualization is, too. But they’re far from the only ones. I’ve heard of a number of unconventional ways of using imagination to great effect. A friend of mine who is a very good swimmer — and also who loves driving cars — doesn’t swim his races by thinking about swimming, as such. Instead, he imagines himself “driving” his body through the race in what he describes as an almost out-of-body experience. He even imagines a “Go Baby Go” button for his finishes (from Gone In 60 Seconds). I thought it pretty funny when I first heard that, but I certainly don’t relish racing against him.
This mechanism doesn’t just work in athletic pursuits, either. There’s the famous example of Steve Jobs, disappointed with the boot time of the Macintosh. He walked into the cubicle of Larry Kenyon. Kenyon was trying to explain why it took as long as it did — but Jobs cut him off. “If it could save a person’s life, would you find a way to shave ten seconds off the boot time?” Kenyon ended up finding the time; and not just 10 seconds, but 28. I can’t help but wonder whether he actually imagined saving someone’s life as he wrote the code.
The Zone is emotional. Some emotions will help you find flow; others will scare it off. One field in which finding flow can be absolutely essential to success is presenting — and good presenters who love their job will talk about their ability to drop in on the zone as one of the best parts about their jobs. Being passionate about the topic, and a deep, almost-religious conviction in what they are talking about seem to be the common ingredients of those who find flow while presenting. What’s interesting is that in talented amateur presenters, you can often see the progression into the zone — at first, they’re worried about what people are thinking, and this feeling of self-consciousness just stops them from finding flow… until, they relax, they realize they’re doing OK. They find their feet and slip into the zone.
* * *
These are all hypotheses based on personal experience, and those of some friends and colleagues who I have spoken to on the subject. I know that everyone is going to have different experiences within the categories (e.g. different music!) — and even different categories altogether. I’d love to hear what you have found to work — and what you think I’m totally wrong on. What puts you in the zone?
* * *
Allworth then offers and discovers five specific tactics that have been very successful for him and other results-driven people. To read the complete article, please click here. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book How Will You Measure Your Life? with Clayton Christensen and Karen Dillon (May 15, 2012). He has worked as a Fellow at the Forum for Growth and Innovation at Harvard Business School. Connect with him on Twitter at @jamesallworth. To check out more blog posts by James Allworth, please click here.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Scott Anthony for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
* * *
“Make sure you ask the right questions at the right time.”
That’s one memorable piece of advice from a leader at a global innovation powerhouse. Unfortunately, it is a piece of advice that is heeded too infrequently inside large companies.
At many companies, the idea evaluation process revolves around detailed Excel spreadsheets, comprehensive PowerPoint documents, and an orchestrated sequence of pre-meetings leading up to a decision meeting. This kind of disciplined approach works very well when companies have knowledge that lets them be precise in their analysis, and executives have the relevant domain experience to make informed decisions.
Applying this same discipline to nascent opportunities in new spaces can be disastrous. People spend days discussing Excel spreadsheets that are nothing more than mathematical relationships between made-up numbers. Managers working on ideas discover that detailed PowerPoint documents are their biggest enemy, because the details act as bait for nit-picking devil’s advocates. Endless pre-meetings crowd out action-based learning.
The general way around this problem seems simple enough — have a process by which you evaluate ideas in different ways at different stages of development (most call this a “stage-gate process.”). You might have a “front end” process where you rapidly iterate and evaluate lots of ideas and a more detailed “launch” process to optimize the few that make it through the early rounds. This kind of process can help successfully move an idea from a Post-It note to the market
What does that actually mean in practice? The rest of this post will show how Innosight’s venture investing arm sifts through ideas, as a kind of guide. (Next week’s post will apply lessons from this approach to large corporations.)
Innosight’s venture capital “team” is a two-person shop in Singapore. I sit on the Investment Committee, along with Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen, primarily getting involved when we are getting close to a big decision about a current or potential portfolio company. The core team, Pete Bonee and Piyush Chaplot, scour Singapore to find the best investment opportunities. In the past two years, they have looked at more than 200 potential investments.
The first decision is whether to have a meeting to evaluate a company. Answering this question is pretty simple. Our fund specifically looks to seed businesses that have the potential to disrupt existing markets or create new ones. So, if Pete or Piyush believes that the material they’ve seen to date (which can be a one-page executive summary, a 20-page pitch document, a rough website, or even an email description) fits our strategy and has some potential, they will proceed with a meeting.
Then, the bar goes up. The next decision is whether to formally investigate the company. We’ve developed a qualitative screen with about 20 characteristics that blend the theory of disruptive innovation with what we have learned in five years of investment and incubation activities. Based on what we’ve seen, we evaluate whether the idea is negative, positive, or neutral in each of those characteristics.
[To read the complete article, please click here.]
* * *
Scott Anthony leads Innosight’s Asian operations. His fourth book on innovation, The Little Black Book of Innovation, has just been published. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottDAnthony. To check out more blog posts by Scott Anthony, please click here.
How to develop and then apply the skills needed to create “something different that has impact”
I have read and reviewed all of the other books that Scott Anthony has authored or co-authored and think this is the most valuable…thus far. In ways and to an extent even Clay Christensen hasn’t, Anthony has embraced his reader and said, in effect, “I am now going to share with you everything I have learned about what innovation is…and isn’t, what it does…and doesn’t do, and how you can master the skills of innovative thinking.” He immediately establishes a direct and collegial rapport with his reader and then sustains it throughout the lively and eloquent narrative.
Although his book is technically not a memoir, Anthony draws heavily on his own experience, sharing anecdotes from defining moments and memorable relationships throughout his “personal innovation journey” that “began in earnest” during an airline flight more than a decade ago. He was carrying with him and began to read a copy of Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. He was among the students enrolled in an experimental course (“Building a Sustainably Successful Enterprise”) at Harvard Business School taught by Christensen. Thus began a personal as well as professional relationship with him that continues to this day. Anthony’s aforementioned “journey” since that day (October 20, 2000) enabled him to learn “the truth” about innovation (especially from academic researchers who have “decoded” many of its mysteries”) that has prepared him well to help each of his readers to embark on a comparable journey. As he explains,
“Much of this learning is out of reach for the layperson. It is locked up in books that are too dense, or even worse, it is locked up in the heads of individuals. The Little Black Book of Innovation aims to address this issue by providing the tools and giving you [his reader] the confidence to more reliably turn your dreams into reality.”
After establishing his book’s “foundation” in Part I, he introduces a 28-day innovation program in Part II. Here are the primary goals for each of the four weeks:
Week 1: Discovering the Opportunities (“Wrap Up” on Page 126)
Week 2: Blueprinting Ideas (“Wrap Up” on 165)
Week 3: Addressing and Testing Ideas (“Wrap Up” on 206)
Week 4: Moving Forward (“Wrap Up” on 245)
Anthony introduces each of the four (“This week will help you to accomplish the following [objectives]”) and devotes a separate chapter to each of the 28 days, posing a “Central Question” followed by a “One-Sentence Answer” as well as a set of “How-To Tips.” Within this framework, he provides an abundance of information, insights, and recommendations based on real-world situations that illustrate what innovation is…and isn’t, what it does…and doesn’t do, and how almost anyone can master the skills of innovative thinking.
This four-week/28-day program will be of substantial benefit both to individuals and to teams. If a senior-level executive reads this book and decides to create and lead a project team whose objective is to develop a game plan to increase and support innovation throughout the given enterprise, I presume to suggest that Anthony’s previously published book, The Silver Lining: An Innovation Playbook for Uncertain Times, also be read. In it, he also offers a wealth of advice. For example:
o Identifying the “different approach to take when prudently ‘pruning’” by obtaining the answers to five questions (Pages 30-31)
o What the four business unit portfolio “traps” are and how to avoid or escape from them (Pages 34-35)
o Four specific analyses that can help to determine the degree to which an existing business has unexploited or under-developed potential (Pages 38-39)
o Three important lessons for cost cutting to be learned from the basic pattern of disruptive innovation (Page 52)
o The three-step process to drive “intelligent cost cutting” (Pages 52-63)
o The three-step process that innovators have used to drive disruption to create “spectacular success” (Pages 75-82)
o Four common strategic traps that may appear (Pages 96-98)
Mind you, all this is provided during the first hundred pages.
With all due respect to the other books that have been written about these and other issues, if you will read only one, I think it must be The Little Black of Innovation. If you read only two, The Silver Lining is my recommendation.