Monthly Archives: August 2012

Bridging Divergence and Convergence

Four years or so ago I was sitting at a cafe in Davos Switzerland with two junior executives from GE. Their main concern seemed to be getting access to a treadmill for their respective senior executives … which is a whole other story in itself. Anyways, we got to talking about the nature of creativity in corporations. They both had gone through the famous Crotonville training facility, which I first learned about in business school, so I was fascinated to hear what they think – especially in an environment famous for championing the whole six sigma thing.

One of the junior executives explained it all with a simple drawing that I have re-created above from memory. It went like this:

On the one hand you want to make things happen. You need people who can focus on the main task and get it done. They need to work together on a common goal, stay on schedule, and meet the deadline. They are people who converge towards a single solution. That’s the essence of six sigma – to achieve what is closest to perfection through strict processes.

On the other hand you want to have new ideas. You need people who are professional wanderers. Ones that can go way way way far afield and hunt for what might not seem obviously useful at first. They are the ones who diverge away from a common goal. They don’t want to travel the main road; they are comfortable being uncomfortable. And they often travel alone instead of within packs. That’s completely what a corporation doesn’t want to happen, but absolutely needs to happen for invention and quantum leaps in growth to occur.

I asked them, “So does that mean you need a concentration of one type of person versus the other? Do you need more convergers than divergers? Or vice-versa?” I enjoyed his response:

You need both types of people, and you need to be open that some of them are ambidexterous – they converge just as well as they diverge. But what you need the most is the people who function well as bridges. They are the people who connect the work of the convergers together with the work of the divergers. A good manager often serves this role; and great team members know how to do this without missing a beat.

So, I left them to their hunt for a treadmill for their executives. And ever since then, I’ve thought about how building bridges in everything one does … is everything, isn’t it? -JM

Your Ears Don’t Blink

Seeing the above clip the other day off of typographer Erik Spiekermann‘s Twitter feed reminded me of a talk I saw many years ago at the MIT Media Lab by a sound designer from Bungie Studios (the creators of Halo). I wish I could remember the person’s name but it doesn’t come to me immediately — I had posted on this point many years ago but my blog at MIT was deleted after I left there. Let me try to reconstruct …

This particular designer was making a case for the importance of sound design as a discipline unto itself — at the time (the early 2000s) computer graphics was elevated to the highest status on everyone’s radar, so I could sympathize with this particular guru of sound. Reading the recent obituary for the late Marvin Hamlisch, I drew a similarity to something that was said about Hamlisch’s work:

Despite the acclaim he often said he thought his background scores were underappreciated. He said he would love for an audience to “see a movie without the music” to appreciate how the experience changed.

What is underappreciated, according to this particular sound designer from Bungie, was the immense craft involved in making sounds that differs from that of making visuals. As he put it, the language of cinema enables enormous license for the visual designer to splice and edit in a variety of scenes — often discontinuous (like the above). He said that visuals, like those above, are completely okay for our brain to process — even though they are jumbled and erratic — because our eyes blink all the time. The fact that we can blink at a scene, or move while we’re blinking, means that we don’t go crazy if the scene changes *suddenly*. Try that for a moment. Close your eyes. Turn your head. Open your eyes. It’s all okay to you, isn’t it?

He then said, “Now think about your ears more closely. You know … your ears don’t blink. Your ears don’t blink, so when sound suddenly changes, you freak out. If you listened to a jumble of completely unrelated sounds, you’d be extremely uncomfortable. Because your ears don’t normally blink – so discontinuous sounds are quite out of the ordinary.”

I’ve held onto this thought for over a decade now. It has applicability somewhere else, I am certain. And so, one more time, I try to leave it on the Web for someone else to figure out how to use the thought. Or at least to let your mind blink once more today, like mine. -JM

No drinks or food in the house, please.

I recently attended a conference of 100 Internet-related innovators that was held at a private home in the Midwest. The couple who owned this venue were the kindest people one could imagine — opening up their entire home for a group of complete strangers to “unconference” in their living rooms and backyard for several days. Every morning — this older couple, let’s call them Irene and Harold — would reservedly and excitedly speak into a microphone to share their welcomes to launch each new day of activities. On the third day, all the visitors were feeling fully comfortable in the surrounds, and there was an exciting panel about to start with everyone buzzedly gathering on the tented lawn. Irene picked up the microphone looking uncharacteristically disappointed and without being able to get everyone’s focus and attention, spoke softly, “Excuse me. We have signs on the doors of the house to ask you to kindly not bring drinks and food into the house … can you ….” At which point the event’s organizer/emcee took the microphone from Irene and said in a slightly louder voice, “Excuse me everyone.” People immediately took attention as this was coming from the organizer who arranged the event — the one who got his longtime friends Irene and Harold to co-host and cover all the costs for this gathering.

“Excuse me everyone,” the organizer said sternly. And then softened. “Who here thinks that our friends Irene and Harold have been the most wonderful of hosts for all of us here?” We all naturally raised our hands. “Good,” he said smiling, “And now, who here feels that Irene has greeted us every morning with kindness and grace that has made you feel truly welcome in her home?” We all began to cheer, and Irene broke out into a brilliant smile. He went on, “Who here … will do anything for Irene to thank her and Harold for these past few days?” The entire group applauded. “And who here thinks that spilling drinks on Irene’s carpet when all the doors have signs that clearly read ‘No drinks or food in the house, please.’ runs counter to honoring our hosts’ simple request?” A resounding “YES” resulted. “Let us now enjoy this panel, and thank you all for your attention. And thank you, again, Irene and Harold!”

The brilliance of the organizer’s interjection, in my mind, was twofold:

1. The organizer made the co-hosts feel proud of their act of hospitality by recognizing them and honoring them broadly. Irene’s request was couched within the overall respect the crowd owed to her — and was unfortunately starting to blissfully ignore their debt.

2. The organizer made the audience feel as though they were led to the natural conclusion of what “the right thing” was by grounding an act of compliance within the context of gratitude. We all owed Irene (and Harold) a debt of gratitude that could be partly repaid right there and then by simply following their one rule.

I thought how, in contrast, any other organizer might have grabbed the microphone from Irene and instead sternly admonished the entire crowd for spilling a drink inside the house even when signs were clearly posted everywhere — which would have soured the mood of the gathering because there was only one culprit hiding amongst us all, but the entire group would unnecessarily bear the message’s negativity. And furthermore, it could only unjustifiably draw negative feelings towards Irene from those partygoers who can’t stand a buzzkill (even when the buzz deserves to be killed).

I shared this story with a CEO friend who said it reminded him of Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech that helped to move the civil war between the North and the South to an end by appealing to “the better angels in all of us.” In other words, speaking to the sense of possibility and humanity that we all so easily forget when we’re completely distracted by the events at hand — in this case the good times people can have at the expense of others and forget their manners.

How leaders enable — through simply pointing out what matters most within the medium of a moment of time and when getting everyone’s attention is impossible — a group of complete strangers to unite and act as one continues to strike me as an enormously creative space in which to explore and learn. -JM