Monday, June 21, 2010

Your boss’ boss wants you to succeed.

Your boss’ boss wants you to succeed. Maybe your boss’ boss’ boss. Regardless, there is someone lurking in your organization who is hell-bent on your success. You just have to find him or her.

Come to this person–your ultimate champion–with a pronouncement that you have just created additional revenue and you will most likely get a giant pat on the back. Tell this same person you have creatively rearranged pallets of inventory and they will nod politely and check their Blackberry. However, if this new design also saves or generates those millions, your shoulders will get dusted off at the next team gathering.

That creative discovery won’t happen by doing the same thing, the same way every day. It will signal a shift in thinking, a new type of performance, created by a new type of learning. Not just a new course, but a new type of learning. That type of learning is different, challenging and often scary to implement. It requires a tolerance for change and ambiguity. It may also mean trying this approach on little or no funding.

I once worked along side a colleague who one day showed me an example of the work his team had just produced in Marketing. It was a beautiful, four-color magazine, with enough dye cuts to embarrass an origami artist. I was suitably impressed. The campaign later failed and was ultimately scrapped due to poor customer response. More specifically, customers hated it.

To the uninitiated or misguided leader, it’s the show that matters, not the rehearsal. It’s the victory that counts, not the practice. Those of us in education understand things clearly; mastery at one leads to the other.

The result is that many of us learn how to be creative. We innovate to survive, at times surrounded by departments funded like lottery winners. Scarcity of time and resources forces us to be nimble, adaptive and supremely creative. The best designers I know are not the ones with unlimited budgets, but the people who can, as a creative designer at an entertainment giant colorfully put it, turn “farts into fairy dust”.

Adversity is a great teacher and organizations that truly value creative talent and innovation will emerge from any down economy stronger and more competitive as a result.

American businesses are crying out for innovation and better solutions, while China and India, with hungry, creative talent, eats our proverbial lunch. With that kind of competition, the challenge is clear, extreme and unremitting. I see two emerging trends that, taken together, may systemically and permanently a better way to approach and value adult education while addressing the needs of corporate America.

First, the Internet–more accurately, its audience–has spawned a generation of social communities bound together solely by technological applications. We are observing learners who rapidly engage disparate content from multiple sources, and then synthesize it into meaningful applications. Educators are still grappling with best practices that can work in this new world, but the momentum requires us to apply lessons as they are learned, rather than ignore these trends and wait for the answers.

Second, and most important to me, is the growing zeitgeist within the business community that the old B-School mentality needs a swift kick in the right brain. A complex world requires people schooled in design thinking: holistic approaches that address challenges from a more creative perspective.

As a former MBA student, I can attest that my education was focused on two lessons: quantitative analysis and learning how to handle excessive workloads without suffering a mental meltdown. In fact, a professor of mine once confirmed that part of the curriculum was sheer volume, an exercise to simulate multiple, simultaneous real-world stressors. Personally, I would have preferred a day or two learning those lessons in a jet fighter plane rather than two semesters of cash flow valuation.

Yet I can’t fault him or the school. Semantically parsing the term “business administration” we most logically conclude the goal of an MBA program is to create administrators or managers, not leaders. The post World War 2 work environment, the era when most of these programs were designed, required a great deal of human administration: input, control and quantitative analysis. Hence, our schools have carried forward a scholastic tradition that rewards excellence in accounting, analysis and control.

If we want leaders in a world of technological change and complexity, we need to design curricula that reward multi-disciplinary problem solving and higher-level design skills. Someone who gets lost in the numbers won’t see potential, only chaos.

Leaders like Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, is a champion of design-based thinking and "the opposable mind”, the ability to use both sides of the brain to lead. The school now seeks to create individuals who can assess and balance conflicting ideas, business models, or strategies and come up with an new way of doing things.

Likewise, design schools are also seeking to bridge the talent gap from their perspective. In Sarasota, Florida the Ringling College of Art and Design hosts an annual Design Summit for business executives, and is now offering “Business by Design” a course that seeks to explore the role of artistic thinking in a competitive business environment.

Your boss, or boss’ boss, perhaps MBA-educated, feel the pressure to be more creative, more “design-like” in their approaches. Enter you. I see gold in your training department and your experience as an educator. Not in the tools or dry erase pens (if there was gold in there, educators would be the last to let their employers know). Let’s break it down.

If your organization has a great talent development team, then it most likely has employees who already know how to creatively solve problems within extremely limited budgets. They are addressing emerging technologies, not through command and control, but by watching how customers and other employees leverage them. They have spent a lifetime innovating and designing solutions that enhance human potential and performance. I believe educators are our best, underutilized resource for success in an emerging era of design-based thinking.

Your boss may be reading this. Perhaps he or she knows the world of business needs people like you. They want–desperately need–employees who can look over the horizon to anticipate the impact tomorrow of decisions implemented today­. It’s an education you have gained by leading the learning process. I bet you have those critical skills.

Your next challenge is making sure your boss, or your boss’ boss, discovers this fact.

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