Saturday, August 27, 2016

Dancing with Invention: Learn to lead and follow for creative collaboration

Infamous swimmer Ryan Lochte will be competing this year on Dancing with the Stars, a TV show where celebrities are taught partner dancing in a matter of weeks and perform dances like the waltz, swing, and tango in front of judges.  A rather large number of Olympic athletes have been on (and won) the show in past years.  It’s not hard to imagine how learning how to partner dance could train the agility and precision needed for athletics.  But today, I’m going to argue how partner dancing (taught well) trains a unique skill necessary for innovative teams: creative collaboration.  

It takes two to tango, but only one lead

Defining roles is important in any team.  In this case, the term “leader” is not synonymous with  “manager”.  You can still maintain a flat org with no hierarchical structure, but when actually working on tasks and projects, it is crucial to identify who is leading each initiative.  This becomes apparent when dancing.  The follower does not report to the leader or get paid less.  The leader does not write performance reviews for the follower.  By convention, a man typically leads a woman, but it is becoming common for the roles to switch or for people of the same gender to dance together.  When this happens, someone still takes the role of the lead and someone takes the role of the follow.  In partner dancing, one role is not better than the other, but the skills and actions taken are very different.  Similarly in a collaborative team, two people should not act identically.  It will result in a lot of stepping on toes, false starts, awkwardness, and dropped balls.  In order to work on something effectively, someone must take the lead, and someone must follow.

Following is just as important as leading

In a brilliant salsa, or an elegant waltz, who do you watch?  A great leader provides the support for the follower to shine.  Without the follower, there is no dance.  It is the output from a good leader, and a brilliant follower that combines to create something much greater than the sum of its parts.  This is true in any team endeavour, especially a creative one which requires inspiration rather than repetition, art rather than manipulation.  In non-choreographed dancing, the actions of the leader,  the interpretation of the follower, and the inspiration of the music results in an ever changing poetry of motion.  It is a creation that is dictated by neither the leader or the follower, but is more unique, innovative, and beautiful as a result.

Leading is following

But doesn’t the lead control everything that is danced?  This is a misconception with both partner dancing and team management.  Every person follows a dance differently.  People have different, heights and weights, experience, and cultural backgrounds that result in dance “accents”.  (Believe me, it is easy to tell if someone’s first dance was walt, ballet, or swing).   And each person will follow differently depending on the music, the mood, and even the surface of the floor.  A leader must adjust his actions to the follower’s reactions to his lead, and the the music.  How does the follow move?  What moves work well and which don’t?  Which foot is she on?  Where is her weight?  After you have been dancing for a while, you’ll realize that leading is more about following than about leading.  This is true with team collaboration as well.  In a creative team, you can’t dictate innovation.  The leader can give direction and momentum but needs to adapt quickly to take advantage of the creativity and inspiration from the team.

Switching Roles

When teaching people to dance, I suggest that both leaders and followers learn the opposite role.  It is extremely helpful to understand how to perform the opposite role in order to perform your primary role better.  How can you lead a dance if you don’t understand what the follower is doing?  Dancing is a great way to practice empathy.  You literally put yourself in the other person’s shoes.  Additionally, switching roles while dancing adds a tremendous amount of variety and exciting new possibilities to unchoreographed dancing.  My wife and I often switch lead and follow roles in the middle of a song.  To do this seamlessly, you need to be very aware of the other person and be able  sense the openness they have to switching.  Sometimes the lead starts running out of moves or gets tired and needs support.  In this case, the follow can exert a little pressure, switch grips, and BOOM, roles have switched, and the dance is exciting once more.  The same thing happens in collaborative teams.  The initial leader might have started off great, but maybe she is becoming overburdened by other tasks, or maybe the initiative has shifted to something outside her expertise.  In a highly collaborative team, someone else would step up and offer leadership, and the rest of the team would accept that offer.  We are all leaders and followers in our lives and should be open to playing both roles when the time is right.


Does this seem too ideal?  The real workplace is full of politics and power struggles and dominance.  But it doesn’t have to be.  You can practice these ideals everyday.  Every task, no matter how small,  is an opportunity to be a great leader or an amazing follower.  And if you have the opportunity to take partner dancing lessons, please do, but focus on a place that focuses on partnering and connection, not just memorized steps.  By experiencing the beautiful dynamics of leading and following in dance, you can experience the dynamics and the feelings you might want to achieve in the workplace.  You’ll be more aware of the power of clear yet dynamic roles and be able to apply this smoothly to collaborations in other parts of your life.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Motivating Innovation: Fear, Competition, and the Russians

Is your company or team getting lazy?  Does it seem like people are just going through the motions?  Do you miss the sense of urgency and the thrill of achievement?  How do you get that back?

Fear is often considered a good motivator.  It gets the heart pumping and creates a sense of urgency that can be motivating.  However, this can cut both ways.  Unfocused fear can create feelings of panic, confusion, and eventually helplessness and anger.  For instance, imagine the CEO of a company says “The company is in financial trouble, and if the next product isn’t a winner, we’ll have to start layoffs.”  Is this motivating?

Imagine the workforce was getting complacent.  This perked them up.  Now they fear for their jobs.  But what are they going to do about it?  In a work environment where the connection between action and results is very clear, they will work harder.  For instance, if you’re an assembly plant worker, and working faster or more hours will yield success, then fear might motivate you to work faster and get that last car off the assembly line.  This is not so true in an innovation driven occupation.  

The fear response triggers the autonomic fight or flight part of the brain, sending the creative functions to the background.  You cannot just grit your teeth and focus on coming up with a great idea RIGHT NOW.  Even worse, fear drives people to think about self preservation rather than collaboration.  Some people may undermine others to make sure they keep their positions or budgets when the ax falls.  Others will do the math and realize that they can’t guarantee that the next product will be a winner.  Accordingly, they will start looking for opportunities outside the company.  By broadly spreading fear, you can kill motivation rather than spark it.

But what if you just tweak it a bit?  Can you still get the heart pumping, but push the team towards creative collaboration?  Time-bounded competition provides the kick in the pants without triggering the panic impulse.  Often competition can lead to fear which can lead to the sinking ship effect.  But competition can also be used along with hope to supercharge the team and make people more creative and effective.  Having an “enemy” helps a team take an abstract feeling and focus it into something that is actionable.  It turns the fear of loss into the excitement of winning.  It provides clarity, hope, and a tangible commonality for the team.

As an example, let’s examine how America has reacted to impending climate change.  Many parties have tried to create change by talking about the impending sea level rise and how this is going to flood cities and kill off billions.    Even worse, this is our own darn fault, and can only be solved if everyone stops… everything.  “Fact” or not, this is simply not a very motivating message.  It triggers the fear response.  People deny that such a calamity can happen, especially if there is no action that could really solve it.  The mountain seems to high to climb.

But imagine if it turned out that the Russians were trying to get global warming to happen.  Their land would become more arable, and the balance of power in the world could shift.  They would dominate the new arctic ocean trade routes. They are also developing renewable technologies.  The first nation to get to zero carbon will become an economic powerhouse and dominate trade.  Suddenly, the problem has become much more tangible.  The Russians will get to zero carbon emissions.  We can beat them to it.  We WILL beat them to it, just like we beat them to the moon.  We will inspire a generation of innovators in the same way the Mission to the Moon did.  Because invention loves races.

This technique has worked very well for things like the Darpa Grand Challenge, where teams went from zero self driving vehicles finishing the race to five in a single year.  In a different take, the X Prize Foundation sponsors several challenges that inspire hundreds of teams.  The prize money is a fraction of what would have been needed to make this kind of progress through traditional means.

Think about your own innovation challenges.  Is there a way competition can be leveraged to get your team motivated and having fun again?