Stay on the Main Road

The local Trappist Abbey near McMinnville, Oregon is a peaceful retreat for contemplation, surrounded by a beautiful forest and some great hiking trails. Even though the Abbey is nearby, I had not gone there before, so my husband and I set off to explore the woods at mid-day.

Wouldn’t you know it, we had not gone a mile into the woods before we got lost. We dug out the map and turned it upside down and sideways trying to find our way. Yes, we had a map and still got lost! We were on a tiny side trail. We could not find the main road!

All the trails seemed to lead up the mountain, where a shrine is situated overlooking a bucolic valley, so we wandered on.

We slogged upward, through the muck that was a stream running down the middle of the path.

We trekked through the thicket where poison oak was lurking.

Finally, after traipsing up what was essentially a Billy goat trail, we found a spot that matched the map. We were only a third of the distance to our destination, and we had wasted time and energy. It was January, so the sunlight would not last long.

Do you remember in the movie The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is advised to “follow the yellow brick road?” Or do you remember in The Hobbit when Frodo Baggins wanders off the main trail and is captured by giant spiders? In folklore, we are frequently admonished by the sages to “stay on the main path.” Why stay on the main road, though? Isn’t all the adventure in blazing your own path and being an iconoclast?

Of course, there is a business metaphor here. In the business world we frequently hear about the merits of blazing your own path—and I believe that advice is sound, because mistakes and mishaps help build business savvy.  To do something great and truly break through may require you to chart your own course.

But it’s useful to reflect on when you want to blaze you own trail and when you want to follow a proven path. Here’s my advice: When you want to differentiate your services and products from the competition, blaze. But in areas—such which office tools you use—that are not as critical, visible or of high-value to your customers, follow the main road.

After this hiking adventure, I can confirm that by staying on the main road, you can:

  • Get to your destination sooner. Oh, sure, there are shortcuts to quick riches offered daily, but, at least in my experience, you really do have to put in the hard work and long hours in order to gain real insight.
  • Ask for and receive assistance. This is because there are others who are on the main road. It’s reassuring to see fellow hikers coming down the hill as you come up. They’ll tell you “Just a little farther,” or “It’s worth the effort,” and you’ll re-double your efforts.
  • Avoid unnecessary dangers, like poison oak and washouts. When you get off the main path, there are unknown dangers that can slow you down. We came across someone out letting their dogs romp off the leash, eager to jump up on us.
  • Have the safety of guardrails, traffic signs and exit ramps. When you leave the main trail, you may be confronted by a fork where there are two equally bad options. On the main trail, you have the peace of mind of knowing where you are going. You can focus on the beautiful scenery, instead of worrying about if this fading trail is going to end at a cliff.
  • Continually orient yourself to the map. When you leave the trail, you are making it up as you go. On the main road you know where you are and you have less stress.

It’s true that simply doing what everyone else does is not always the best course. A fresh perspective, a new approach, or an alternative viewpoint is often valuable. On this adventure we had an enhanced feeling of accomplishment when we found the shrine at the top and drank in the view, knowing that we’d done things a little differently. We certainly gave ourselves a bigger challenge. But I’m not sure you could argue that we added value, and that’s the question that sparked this post.

 

What Might Be

Earlier this week I attended a presentation by Roger Martin, the author of The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage. There is a great article about the book in Businessweek as it was one of their top recommentations for 2009.

The event was held at the new, and very cosmopolitan Ziba Design building on Ninth and Northrop in Portland. The crowd was large, hip, and enthusiastic.

As his thesis, Martin poses this question: “Why aren’t companies more innovative, especially since innovation is such a competitive advantage?” He investigated the obvious answers–that  companies like what they already have or that they don’t have the resources–and he found they were not true. Companies really do want to be innovative.

So, what is impeding innovation? From his research, Martin concludes that it’s the subtle ways that people think that block changes in process and structure that lead to innovation.

Martin then outlined three ways that people think. The first is analytical thinking which looks at data from the past to predict the future. Its goal is a reliable outcome, but the limitation is that when you are looking to innovate you cannot use inductive or deductive reasoning to prove something new. In fact, Martin goes so far as to say “prove it” is the enemy of innovation.

Another way that people think is intuitive thinking, which has the goal of creating “what might be.” Its purpose is to know without explicit reasoning. This method of thinking has 100% validity, he said, because it lacks parameters.

The combination of both approaches is called abductive thinking, and its purpose is to integrate the past and future, and to combine reliability and validity. The intersection of analytical and intuitive thinking is where innovation occurs.

He argued that corporate life is dominated by analytical thinking, and that it has been pushed so far that it is counterproductive. He gave suggestions for intuitive thinkers to understand and empathize with analytical thinkers. He also challenged analytical thinkers to share reasoning and data, but not conclusions with intuitive thinkers.

If you change structure and process, then culture shifts occur. Cultural shifts lead to innovation.

As SLA looks to become Future Ready and posits “what might be,” we need use analytical and intuitive thinking to engender new processes and structures to support our members.

What’s your dominant way of thinking? Analytical, intuitive or abductive?

Are you driven?

Last night, the uniquely Portland bookstore “Powell’s City of Books” hosted author Daniel Pink, an engaging speaker and author of A Whole New Mind, Free Agent Nation, and The Adventures of Johnny Bunko.

I’d gained some real insight from Pink’s previous books and already purchased Drive—as the title is just so darn compelling. I’d also heard positive reports about this book from Jeff de Cagna at Principled Innovation.

So, what is it that DRIVES us? Of course, there are our biological drives: food, shelter, and finding a mate. And there are extrinsic drivers around rewards, such as our desire to obtain good things and avoid punishment—the carrot and stick.

But there are other intrinsic motivators and that’s really what this book is about. Yes, we need a paycheck, but we engage in work for a myriad of other reasons—because  it’s interesting, to contribute to serving a larger purpose, and to engage in a community.

In engaging employees, most business models stop at the extrinsic carrot and stick rewards. But, Pink says, this model works well only in a narrow range of circumstances, when work is simple and mechanical. It is not effective when creative solutions are needed. Humans have a mix of motives and, after a saturation point, cannot be manipulated to increase their productivity with more carrot and less stick.

In fact, Pink’s research found that when work requires higher level cognitive skills, higher rewards and punishments actually lead to worse performance. (Now you see why the subtitle of the book is “The surprising truth about what motivates us.”) When a problem does not have a clear direct answer, extrinsic rewards are not effective. Once you pay people “enough,” they want to engage by thinking about the work, not the reward.

Pink describes three intrinsic drives that motivate us: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy is the drive to be self-directed. Many business models require people to comply, but autonomy looks instead at engagement. For example, call centers typically time employee calls, monitor all employee actions, and put workers in “hamster cage-like, soul-hollowing settings.” As a result, turnover can be as high as 100%. In contrast, the shoe company Zappos implemented a different model. They give call center employees two weeks training that concludes with an offer of $2000 if the newly minted employee wants to quit. Interesting! For those that stay, which is the vast majority, their instructions are simple: “You know what to do; when customers call in, do it.” So the operators are free to solve the customer’s problem in the most appropriate way—which increased customer satisfaction. In fact, Zappos received customer service ratings equal to the Ritz-Carlton.  

Turning to mastery, Pink stated that as engagement is falling off at work, there is a rise in volunteering. People want to contribute. Open source software such as Linux, Apache, and Wikipedia are salient examples of this trend. People need interesting, challenging problems and will commit time and effort towards fulfilling this need.

How can a company engage our drive to purpose? Tom’s Shoes provides a relevant example as they give a way a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair you buy. By doing this, they attract customers who feel good about giving and turn their customers into benefactors. To address purpose effectively, business models need to combine profit and purpose. People are not horses – we have the drive to make an impact on the world and a need to contribute.

Go read the book!  Then, let’s talk a bit more about intrinsic rewards.

Two libraries and a materials service

On a recent SLA adventure, I visited the Pacific Northwest Chapter  in Seattle and had a lovely tour of the new(ish) library at Microsoft, in Redmond, Washington. The MS Library has an inviting presence with lots of seating. They focus on training materials in the physical library and, of course, have a killer website built using MS Sharepoint.  

After meeting with the PNW chapter, visiting SLA dignitary Gloria Zamora and I travelled to Portland to speak to the Oregon Chapter of SLA, which gave us a great excuse to visit  Ziba Design’s new digs in Portland, Oregon and see their library. Ziba’s library also has a very inviting presence. The information specialists are embedded in the business and only in the library ad hoc.

And for other business interests, I visited the Uliko Studio a materials research resource in Beaverton, Oregon which just opened in September. What can I say? It’s another warm, inviting open space. Quite lovely.

It’s not a library, but a materials sourcing service. They have an interesting business model as the materials and space are supported by the vendors as a service to the clientele of designers and developers. Isn’t this interesting? The owners were very knowledgeable about materials, processes, and sourcing. If you are in the area, and interested in materials, I recommend making an appointment to visit!