New Problems Require New Thinking

“Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” – The Imitation Game, 2014

It is 1939 and Britain is losing ground in the war against Germany because Germany has an unbreakable coding machine – the Enigma. At the same time, Britain has a socio-cultural environment where homosexuality is outlawed, women are allowed to study, but frowned upon if they do anything more than clerical work and particularly if they work alongside men.

In comes an undercover homosexual with Asperger’s-like behaviour, an actively sponsored woman and four other men who fit the mould of what is considered ‘normal’. A period of much interpersonal conflict follows, but five and a half months later, out comes a machine that not only allows the timely decoding of German messages, saving millions of lives and pounds, but also forms the basis for a device we now all take for granted – the computer.

The film “The Imitation Game”, a dramatized version of the work of Alan Turing and his team during the second world war, is a thought provoking depiction of the trials and tribulations of a team that mitigated their biases to hire the best team available and then actively worked to accept each other’s differences and leverage the diversity of thought that became available when difference was valued.

What enigma is your organisation grappling with? Product innovation? Service innovation? Business model innovation? Globalisation? Digitisation? Whatever the enigma, it will not be solved with yesterday’s thinking, but by the collaborative work of teams who value difference and the diversity of thought it brings.

Ensuring that your organisation has what it takes to recruit the best people in the market and then helping teams to value and leverage the difference of people, takes conscious effort. You see, all of us, whether we like it or not, have conscious and unconscious biases about people. Left unmitigated, this keeps us from making the best hiring decisions and impacts our ability to engage, develop and retain people who are different to us. Organisations that mitigate these biases and develop cultures where differences are valued and leveraged report benefits of improved innovation and creativity, new market penetration and customer loyalty, employee engagement and productivity, recruitment and retention of top talent, brand reputation and financial growth.

What does it take to get it right? There is a lot of research into what it takes to embrace difference in this way. This is generally referred to as ‘Diversity and Inclusion’, “Diversity” meaning having people who are different from each other on board and “Inclusion” meaning having a culture where difference is valued and leveraged. To reap the benefits we are talking about here, you need to have both ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’.

Companies that get this right weave diversity and inclusion into every aspect of their business. They have a clear and compelling vision of what they want to achieve with achievable, but stretching goals and measures. The vision, goals, measures, plans and achievements are communicated regularly openly and honestly to all stakeholders. Leaders are educated on the need for diversity and inclusion and they learn strategies for mitigating their own unconscious biases and for helping their teams value and leverage the diversity of thinking in their teams. Leaders and employees are held accountable for implementing diversity and inclusion practices in every touch point with internal and external stakeholders, be they customers, employees, suppliers, partners, shareholders etc.

How diverse is your team? To what extent do members of your team value and work with the different perspectives difference brings?

Building Resilience

Lone palm
Bend rather than break, a quality of resilience

The idea of developing resilience has been embraced by many businesses only to be put on the back burner, with so many other good ideas, as the requirement for a longer-term commitment and conscious effort became evident. Those organisations that are mature enough to commit energy and resource to the long haul do realise value beyond what any short-term initiative could enjoy.

The ability to actually hang in for the long-haul, exert energy and attention over time, even when apparent benefits are not immediately noticed, is a quality of resilience, whether speaking of individuals, teams or organisations. Resilience enables us to bend without breaking, and to adapt and find our way to back to the surface when immersed in a flood of trial, trauma, adversity or other challenges. Like a muscle, resilience is developed with practice, by engaging with “reasonable” amounts of stress. Developing resilience facilitates the growth of self-esteem, self-efficacy and other intra-personal capacities. As we develop our own resilience we are then better placed to lead teams and organisations, and support the development of resilience in others.

I have just finished reading “Long Walk to Freedom”, the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, and as a result have found myself reflecting on the subject of resilience. Unwavering in his commitment to the freedom of his people, a concept placed higher in his value system than personal freedom, Nelson passed through 27 years of imprisonment to come out conqueror. I specifically don’t say “suffered through”. Suffering is a choice. While he certainly experienced significant trauma, his capacity to reframe his moment-by-moment experience within the context of his higher purpose gave his life meaning and shifted his experience from what could have been severe suffering to clean struggle. While not a perfect being, and he does admit to many flaws, Nelson consciously looked for the response from within himself that would create the most significant, beneficial outcome. As he struggled under significant oppression, he sought to move from fear to love, consciously chose powerful responses over fear-based reactions, and maintained a consistent internal dialogue regarding purpose and meaning regardless of external pressures to change his core beliefs. His struggle brought meaning, and ultimately victory, though the latter is never assured.

In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, writing from his personal experiences and his professional background as a psychologist, Viktor E. Frankl asserts that it is those who found meaning in the adversity that they experienced who were best able to survive the traumas of the World War II concentration camps.

Some well recognised techniques for developing resilience include:

  • cognitive reappraisal: re-framing negative experiences using a more positive perspective
  • mindfulness meditation: develop the capacity to observe stimuli and the physical, emotional and mental responses in an impartial way that enables objective detachment and an increases one’s capacity to stay present
  • aerobic exercise: well recognised for reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improving mental capacities of attention, memory, decision-making and planning.
  • Stress inoculation: taking on increasingly difficult challenges in a deliberate manner to develop the resilience muscle
  • Backing of trusted people (without advice): increases self-confidence, provides a safety net and supports the development of problem solving, reappraisal and actively engaging with challenges

How resilient are you? How do you handle the challenges that come your way? Do you find your inner mettle in times of challenge, or do you look for external circumstances and people to blame? What strategies have you got in place to develop your capacity further?

What is Your Social Footprint?

Footprint in the sand
What is your social footprint?

Yesterday while enjoying coffee by a beach, my wife and I watched an enjoyable series of related social interactions. A grandfather and two young granddaughters (or so they appeared to me as an outsider) parked their car and got out. Half the car was blocking an entrance to a parking garage, well over the painted yellow writing “NO PARKING”. The grandfather took no notice of this, getting the girls, no older than 5 or 6, out of the car. As he continued preparing for their day at the beach they started to quiz him about where the car was parked. One even paced out the portion of the car that was in the NO PARKING area and challenged him about it. He finally took on board what they were saying and bundled them back into the backseat of the car, belted them in, and got in the car himself. Just as he was starting his engine, a car across the road in a legitimate car parking space started up and pulled out. Granddad reversed his car back to exit his space when another car came along, indicating it would take the newly vacated park. Granddad had not even indicated he was moving, let alone that he wanted that space, but he put his hands together, as if pleading with the man who had just arrived to take the space. With a smile directed at Granddad the man granted granddad the space and carried on. Granddad and the girls parked in the legitimate spot and then went off happily to play on the beach. Any number of those events could have played out differently. A few examples:

  • Granddad leaves his car in the original, bad parking position and someone is blocked that needs to exit or enter the parking building. Granddad gets towed and possibly fined. Unhappy outcome.
  • Granddad could have argued with the granddaughters that they should respect their elders, ignored them, rather than giving them an experience of their own legitimacy, and the beach could have been a less than happy experience. The girls clearly liked their granddad. It was great that they could reason with him and have him take on board what they clearly identified as a problem. Granddad added a lot of value to his granddaughter’s self-concept.
  • The man in the car, with legitimate right to claim the car space, could have. That would be a neutral result for him, parking and knowing he was justified, but instead he made someone else’s day. He added a lot of value in that moment to granddad and the girls with some inconvenience to himself.

Counter that with a story my wife then told me, having watched this episode, of how she was waiting to turn into a car parking space a few days ago, paused and indicating to allow the exiting car the time and space it needed to reverse out. Once the car was out and before she could move in, a man sped into the space, stealing it from her. From an ego perspective he may feel he won the space, battled for or stole it, perhaps feeling smug with himself. It reminds me of a quote from Nelson Mandela: “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken away from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” While not in the same league as the experiences of Nelson Mandela, stealing a car space is to be aggressive, to invade another’s space, to rob them of what is theirs, to withhold one’s own compassion, and to diminish humanity in that moment.

In every moment where we interact with another human being we leave our social footprint. Does yours add value, or does it leave a polluted mark on this planet. There is enormous concern and attention placed on ecological footprints, and we often hear that as individuals we cannot make a difference. It’s a global problem. The social footprint you leave is entirely up to you and the choices you make and the actions you take in the moment with another being. Do you pollute or improve this planet by being here? Do you recognise the impact you have on others? Do you choose to improve the experience of those around you? Are you so focused on yourself and what you want that you fail to miss precious moments of value adding opportunity with another being? If we were to check your social ledger, would your social footprint show you as reducing the net value of social interactions or of positively contributing? Do you experience compassion towards others or do you remain isolated and attentive to your own world alone? Each moment with another is an opportunity to, through even the smallest of choices, make a positive contribution to your life’s social footprint.