Lenses

March 6, 2017 by
Filed under: Agility, Leadership, People 

If you like to watch movies, you have probably found that there are movies from certain directors that fit a particular style, giving you a bit of a short cut to decide whether you are likely to enjoy another of their movies. The Wachowski siblings are likely to challenge your view of reality, Alfonso Cuarón is going to take you through some long harrowing scenes without a break, The Coen brothers are going to throw plot twists at you that you could never imagine. They all have their particular lenses through which they see the world.

We all have lenses, both individually and collectively. Some of this is driven intrinsically, by who we are, but a great deal comes from our culture and environment, and strongly drives how we see the world.

There’s one particular lens that has been the dominant lens in use for organizations for quite a while. Over the past couple of centuries, since around the time the steam engine was invented, focus turned from manual work to production methods and machinery. Revolutionary stuff, arguably the primary driver for many of the advances in all that time, it’s why we have the lifestyle we enjoy today.

This lens drives for optimization and efficiency, and we see the world through processes and flows, inputs and outputs. We can model what goes on through this lens, find issues, make tweaks, improve. Leveraging insights through this lens has been a primary differentiator for organizations.

All great stuff, and this lens still certainly has its role, but this is not the only lens we can (or should) use.

Far more recently than the steam engine (and in the fullness of time, history will form an opinion of where the critical tipping point is), creativity and innovation at the organizational level have become important differentiators.

Creativity and innovation at the individual level have always been critical – think Aristotle and Galileo and da Vinci, through James Watt and that steam engine, and on through individual discoveries today.

Collaborative creativity and innovation is a lens for modern times. Changing our focus from efficient production to institutional innovation gives organizations opportunities to disrupt rather than merely optimize.

If you are stuck with the productivity lens, you will focus on a process, lean on a tools and technology-based approach, and are more likely to have an autocratic, hierarchical control structure in place. What’s more important, though, is that any challenge you face will be interpreted through that lens: that you failed to adhere to a step in the process, or that the process needs shoring up to improve your success rate – success that is primarily driven by achieving pre-defined expectations (and unfortunately, focused on time and budget far too often).

Through this lens, though, there is a fundamental problem. The more you optimize your approach, the more you work toward predictability and repeatability, the more you are actually constraining your window for creativity and innovation.

You can become a very efficient factory for predictable stuff. This certainly has its place, even today, but this is not differentiation. Wicked problems do not submit themselves to process-centric solutions.

If, instead, you focus on creativity and innovation as a lens, you will bias your culture toward appreciative collaboration, openness to exploration, blue sky thinking. You will build flexibility into how work gets done, allowing people to decide how the work will get done. You will interpret challenges and failures as insufficient teamwork and collaboration, and optimize in that direction, rather than a process-driven approach.

We’ve been trained for centuries to think this is counter to getting work done, and I’m not suggesting an either/or selection process here. What’s happening is that we are hitting the limits of where a productivity lens can take us, and most organizations would benefit from looking through the creativity and innovation lens as well. There are a few examples around: think iPhone, design thinking, Alphabet, IDEO – relatively few instances in a world primarily driven through a centuries-old lens.

At the very least, a focus on collaboration and teams will make your process-centric view work better. Think of this as lubrication for the production-centric machinery.

Given a chance, though, not only will you improve on delivery of defined work, you can develop a culture where creativity and innovation thrives. You will be more likely to generate disruptive solutions, challenges will serve to reinforce and strengthen the team, and you will have an environment where people have access to self-actualizing moments. – JB

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