Drawing (even poorly) to See via The Book of Life

I recently unearthed my (real world) drawing pencils and purchased a pixel point stylus to add more illustration to my public works.

If you’ve worked with me, you know that drawing — on a whiteboard, legal pad, printer paper, using Visio, wherever — is a huge part of my process. Drawing helps me understand new ideas, think through problems, invite collaboration and communicate.

And while I’ve drawn some lovely Visio diagrams, my pencil-based drawing skills sit squarely in the fair range. A very long time ago, they were better. Because I worked at it, daily.

Now, I can either quietly, privately rebuild those skills, or throw caution and doodles (as it were) to the winds. I’m leaning towards the latter, because it’s not about artistry, but thinking and communication.

On this talent-is-overrated line, John Rushkin‘s thoughts on the importance of drawing, as described in The Book of Life:

Before the invention of photography, people used to draw far more than they do today. It was an active necessity. But in the mid-19th century, photography killed drawing. It became something only ‘artists’ would ever do, so Ruskin – passionate promoter of drawing and enemy of the camera – spent four years on a campaign to get people sketching again. He wrote books, gave speeches and funded art schools, but he saw no paradox in stressing that his campaign had nothing to do with getting people to draw well: ‘A man is born an artist as a hippopotamus is born a hippopotamus; and you can no more make yourself one than you can make yourself a giraffe.’

So if drawing had value even when it was practised by people with no talent, it was for Ruskin because drawing can teach us to see: to notice properly rather than gaze absentmindedly. In the process of recreating with our own hand what lies before our eyes, we naturally move from a position of observing beauty in a loose way to one where we acquire a deep understanding of its parts.

via On the Importance of Drawing | The Book of Life.

[Bold is mine.]

Informing the pursuit of digital era ambitions and challenges

I never intend to halt my public writing. It just happens. A client invites me to work on interesting problem, which can lead to another interesting problem or client, and before long only the crickets remain here. During this latest, much prolonged, cricket chorus I’ve been helping clients pursue digital agenda items.

It is critical to digress for a moment to mention: there is no one-size-fits-all digital agenda, nor is there an all encompassing digital solution. The digital agenda of any given organization (or individual) will depend on ambitions and challenges, as enabled or constrained by existing situation and organizational capacity. </digression>

The work I’ve been involved in ranged from developing digital products, to defining organizational capacity, to guiding architecture actions: bimodal cohesion, systems knitting and information pathways.

While the engagements varied in purpose, problem domain and industry, there were common threads — beyond the coalescing digital technologies of cloud, mobile, social, analytics, sensors and such.

The common threads are best described as shifts forced by the digital era. Five that I witnessed in the wild:

  • Executive embrace of technology for revenue generation and smarter business actions
  • Pivot of attention from the needs of the organization to the needs of the customer (member, citizen)
  • Extension (or two) of the data-to-knowledge pipeline to include reaction and revenue
  • Reconciliation of designing for change (enterprise architecture) with operating for change (digital product development)
  • Recognition that new digital opportunities require new thinking in investment, organization design, roles, practices and measures

An interesting point is who is working on digital initiatives. There are new, often cross-industry, talents who specialize in design, customer experience, or product development. There are deep experts in business, technical or data domains. And at the core are an organization’s go-to problem-solvers.

Those individuals who invariably get tapped on the shoulder to explore new terrain, mount a defense, or unravel a giant hairball. These folks have varied titles, expertise and day jobs, but share traits of critical and systems thinking, curiosity, technical acumen, business savvy, tenacity, collaboration and execution ability.

It is this last group, the go-to problem-solvers that I’ve been thinking about as I pursue my latest independent project. Building from my field work, I’ve begun sketching out key forces, questions, considerations, capacities, actions, implications and so on that inform the pursuit of digital era ambitions and challenges.

The problem space I’ve sketched out includes technical, societal, business, information, organizational, and individual domains, as digital is a cross-discipline, cross-boundary endeavor.

I use the term problem space deliberately, as I’m considering this work from the perspective of a problem-solver, for fellow problem-solvers who are being tasked with crafting and executing their organization’s digital agendas.

I plan to share aspects of my work as I go, along with relevant links and commentary. What I won’t share are specifics on my client work, as non-disclosure is another commonality in pursuing digital ambitions.

If history is a guide, my pursuit and output won’t be linear. But, neither is the subject matter.

And yes, I intend to keep the crickets at bay, at least until summer.

Want better answers? Ask better questions.

Some years ago, I was engaged in a discussion with leadership peers on tackling a particularly challenging issue that seemingly had no answer to satisfy the trifecta of ambitions, resource constraints and ability to execute.

We’ve all been in this meeting. You circle until one of two things happens. Some person or faction gives in, by scaling back the stated ambitions or pouring money into the constraints. Or, time runs out and you adjourn with the promise to think it over, independently. Forgotten, the minute another fire crosses your threshold (or screen).

Occasionally, something else happens. On this day, instead of offering yet another answer, I posed a question to my peers with the intent to reframe our challenge, and shift the lens on our constraints. I don’t actually recall my question. But I vividly recall what happened next.

A peer complimented my question and asked me for the answer. Here’s the thing. I didn’t know the answer. I was merely looking to open a new line of thinking.

I replied that I didn’t know. That it was my job to ask questions, not always answer them. Well…

I broke two leadership norms. First, if you don’t know the answer, you can’t control the answer. So, asking is dangerous.

Second, and more significant, I implied that contributing questions, more specifically, stretch questions is as valuable as contributing answers.

Not my best moment. Or at least, not right then.

According to The Power of Asking Pivotal Questions article in Winter 2015, MIT Sloan Management Review, asking the right question is critical to strategic thinking, decision-making and opportunity spotting. And the true danger is not stretching our questions:

The questions leaders pose sometimes get in the way of solving the right problem or seeing more innovative solutions. They are often too narrow, overly protective of the current business, or assume that the old habits, business models and regulations will remain largely intact. At Google Inc., CEO Larry Page challenges leaders to anticipate the future better by not just asking what is or likely will be true, but what might be true, even if unexpected. The matter of “what is the right question” should be much more central when leaders tackle complex and important decisions, especially in an era of profound change.”

In the article, authors Paul J.H. Schoemaker and Steven Krupp offer six questions to encourage broader thinking and promote better questioning. The six questions are categorized as thinking outside in, exploring future scenarios, being a contrarian, looking for patterns, creating new options and learning from failure.

While the entire article is excellent, two points struck me as particularly relevant to digital era problem-solving.

In the discussion of thinking outside in, the authors don’t limit the “outside” to current constituencies and contexts. Rather, they encourage going wider — exploring adjacencies, identifying weak signals, understanding systemic impacts — in order to bring the future into focus, sooner:

Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk from Tesla Motors, Steve Jobs from Apple and Jeff Bezos from Amazon became known for spotting unmet market needs and figuring out how to serve them profitably. The best entrepreneurs excel at peeking around the corner and seeing the future sooner. We’ve found that leaders can learn to anticipate better by simply being more curious, looking for superior information, conducting smarter analyses and developing broader touch points with those in the know.

Strategic leaders are focused on the future and are masters at asking discerning questions and exploring ideas and options that are outside the mainstream. They are wary of status quo views and prefer honest, transparent questions that focus on how much, or how little, is really known about the issue at hand. Many studies emphasize the importance of strategic thinking and anticipation, while also lamenting the shortage of leaders who do this well. Those who miss the early signals often come late to the party when customer tastes are changing or when nontraditional competitors are preparing to disrupt or blindside them.

To protect themselves, companies must keep an eye on innovations from both existing companies and startups. Some of the ideas could become game changers, and you may have to team up with the innovators, as a number of big pharmaceutical companies have done with biotech companies.”

Broadened mental models are a great start, but not enough. To avoid the lone (or no) questioner situation, leaders need to deliberately generate creative tension in problem-solving situations:

A persistent problem for many teams is promoting diverse thinking and creative friction. Leaders must always ask if the team has sought sufficient contrarian input and been exposed to all sides of an issue before reaching a decision. This can counter the tendency of many team members to go along to get along. Offering contrarian views is particularly essential when tackling major strategic decisions in an uncertain environment.

To promote diverse thought, Hala Moddelmog, former president of Atlanta, Georgia-based Arby’s Restaurant Group Inc., a fast-food chain with about 3,400 locations, surrounded herself with colleagues of different races, geographies, socioeconomic classes and personality styles. “You really don’t need another you,” she said. Staying open to different viewpoints helps ensure leaders are not unduly hindered by decision traps and can instead open their eyes to information or solutions that they may not have previously considered.

Research shows that creative tension promotes better idea generation and group problem solving. Constructive dissent and debate encourages people to reexamine current assumptions to make room for creative thinking…”

A helpful tip to grow everyone’s thinking and not negatively brand a top thinker as contrarian, is to rotate devil’s advocates:

Before meetings, ask someone to prepare the case against the prevailing view, and rotate this role. Train people to question the status quo and get them to appreciate the benefits of such questioning.”

As for my fellow questioners, rejoice our time is here:

Typically, we don’t judge leaders on the quality of their questions, nor do we design our educational systems or corporate training to develop this crucial skill. If anything, we do the opposite. Television game shows reward contestants who know answers to preset questions — and usually very trivial questions at that. Having encyclopedic knowledge may win you a million dollars on a TV game show or yield good grades in school, but it won’t necessarily make you successful in today’s complex business world. In changing environments, the big prizes go to those who ask better questions and learn faster. In organizations, this comes down to leaders teaching and coaching others to think more strategically and ask deeper questions. If you think like everyone else, you are likely to be average. The best strategic thinkers, leaders and entrepreneurs distinguish themselves by how they frame decisions, the kinds of questions they ask and their mode of inquiry.”

Fire up the TARDIS.