Monday, April 27, 2009

Beginner's Mind

“In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few.”
-- Shunryu Suzuki

This quote better than any other I know points out a necessary ingredient to innovation, as well as an essential quality of great leadership. A true leader and innovator has a "beginner's mind."

Yet, I'll be the first to admit that from many years of experience in my chosen profession, my mind tends toward "been there, done that" when an employee suggests an idea I've tested in the past that "we tried and it didn't work." I always hated hearing it, so why would I say it?

What is ironic about this mindset is I've seen two people try the exact same idea; for one of them it worked, for the other it did not. The successful one found a way to execute the idea effectively, perhaps with a subtle change in approach, a different angle or simply more persistence. Or maybe the times or conditions had changed such that this time the ideal environment existed for the idea to work. Had the "expert" advice of "we tried that and it didn't work" been followed, an innovation would have died.

Knowledge and experience contribute to competence and wisdom, but they can also be a trap. They can inflate our ego leading to a closed "expert's mind."

Maintaining a beginner's mind takes great strength. It requires us to set aside our hard-earned expertise and face each business challenge, idea or opportunity as though we had never seen it before. . . even if we have, many times.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Right Concentration

Don't just do something. Sit there.

More often than not my most creative moments occur when I'm alone in a hotel room at night, sitting on a plane or waiting in the airport, at a mountain cabin, driving with the radio off, hiking, ostensibly meditating, or in bed and can't sleep unless I get up and write down my inspiration.

Great ideas rarely come when I'm "in the heat of battle" with emails, phone calls, appointments and staff interruptions -- activities which, by the way, can easily fill an entire day, not to mention many days strung together.

That said, innovation doesn't arise from "the heat of battle" activities. It arises during the calm silence, the concentration that is possible in the open, quiet space between such activities. If no such space is made, the result is more of the same.

Create space -- even if only 20 or 30 minutes, but preferably more -- for a retreat every work day. Find an empty conference room, go to a park or a coffee shop. You can stay in your office if you can maintain privacy, but it's not ideal. Don't take your computer or your crackberry unless you must. Bring only a pad a pen.

Then, just sit. In the open, quiet space, inspiration will come -- or it won't. The purpose is to practice creating the space, not specific outcomes.

Delegation Plain and Simple

If someone else can (and should) do it, don't do it -- no matter what.

If you have taken any management courses or read any management books at all, you've been told delegation is a key to executive productivity. Yet, as is so often the case, some of the simplest concepts are the hardest to implement -- like, "live in the now."

Apply the principle above with discipline. Focus just on this principle for 21 days and apply it unconditionally. Get used to hitting the "forward" key in your email and voicemail systems. Be strong.

Here are some pitfalls to avoid:
  • "It will be faster for me to do it than take the time to show someone else." Take the extra time to show someone else.
  • "This is urgent and requires immediate response." Make sure a staff person responds anyway and emphasize the time factor. Train the sender to not expect an immediate personal response from you.
  • "The customer expects personal attention from me." Train them to expect personal attention from someone else. (ex., "John on my staff will respond to you on this.")
  • "This just requires a short, one-word answer." Have someone on your staff respond with a short answer. This trains the sender to go to that staff person for answers from now on, not you. The length of the response has nothing to do with the application of the principle.
Keep this simple: if anyone other than you can handle the task, don't do it. No matter what.