your purpose is to cross the swamp, not to fight the alligators

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
— Antoine De Saint-Exupery (Author of The Little Prince)

This quote speaks about the importance of vision and possibility to achieving a desired result and motivating others to do the same – simply assigning tasks and ‘cracking the whip’ does not get the desired result.  The book I just finished reading (‘The Art of Possibility’ by Rosemund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander) provides some very tangible ways to create a habit of ‘seeing’ possibility (professionally, personlly and otherwise) and using it to broaden your horizons.

The book is broken up into twelve ‘practices’ that we can use to continuously orient ourselves towards possibility; Roz and Ben do an excellent job of walking you through these practices and providing very rich examples. Ben provides examples in the context of music and the orchestra since he is a conductor, and Roz provides examples from working with counselling clients through her practice as a psychologist.

The opening practice that they speak about is the concept that ‘Its All Invented’. Each chapter is dedicated to a practice and they are each as profound and paradigm-shifting as this first one.

It’s All Invented

The idea with this practice is that we should constantly remind ourselves that everything in the world is ‘invented’; that we interpret situations based on a frame that has been ‘programmed’ into us, so if we occasionally question that programming, it opens up possibilities. The chapter opens with a short vignette that clearly illustrates this phenomenon”

A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. One sends back a telegram saying: SITUATION HOPELESS STOP NO ONE WEARS SHOES

Both scouts are operating on exactly the same information, but come out with completely different stories – they both invent a viewpoint.

The caution here is that we can miss out on possibility, if we do not challenge our assumptions about how we perceive the world to be.

The Quote that Got Me

Despite the richness of the content by the authors, the quote that stuck the most with me from the book was not produced by either Roz or Ben but rather a NASA employee in one of the stories Ben told about ‘Creating Frameworks for Possibility’. In this story, Ben asks a group of teenagers to write a set of letters to NASA employees that will illustrate to them that music and space exploration are not as different as you would initially believe. The teenagers come up with some fascinating insights that are so motivating to the NASA employees that they recipricate with their own letters to the young people. In one of those letters, a NASA employee writes:

… Thank you for reminding me what I am here for. I will have to remember ‘I am here today to cross the swamp, not to fight all the alligators’ [emphasis mine]

What a powerful way to reorient ourselves towards the purpose of our work – to its vision and possibility. How often do we get caught up fighting alligators (obstacles, personal conflicts, issues etc.) – and lose sight of the overall vision that we are working towards. We all need a way to get ourselves back to that vision so that our work can remain invigorating and meaningful – thus allowing us to perform at our highest levels. We all need to remember the swamp that we are trying to cross and minimize the impact of the alligators on that mission.

Bonus Treat!: Ben Zander is a powerful public speaker and if you have a few minutes, check out his TED talk

are you making your messages effective by making them ‘sticky’?

[Modified from a post I did on my internal blog at work on 5/4/2010.]

I recently read ‘Made to Stick‘ by Chip Heath and Dan Heath which examines the elements that make some ideas stick in our minds for ages, while others die off almost as soon as we are exposed to them.  The premise of the book is that making an idea ‘sticky’ requires the use of one or more of the following six factors:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Unexpectedness
  3. Concreteness
  4. Credibility
  5. Emotion
  6. Stories

Two of these factors resonated with me:

The authors talk about what they call ‘The Curse of Knowledge’, when a speaker knows infinitely more about his topic than his audience and therefore forgets that his audience doesn’t have the same level of understanding.  This causes a disconnect between his message and the audience because his assumptions are wrong.  As a business analyst, I often catch myself doing this when dealing with the business and I have to force myself to step back and get back into their shoes and simplify what I am saying.

Simplifying without ‘dumbing down’ though – that’s the trick.  And we do so by knowing and exploiting the ‘core’ of our idea.

Ideas exist in a large marketplace of other ideas competing for the attention of your audience and one of the ways in which you can make your idea stick is by going against the grain of people’s expectations.  The authors tell the story of a flight attendant who makes the following safety announcement at the beginning of a flight:

If I could get your attention for a few moments, we sure would love to point out these safety features. If you haven’t been in an automobile since 1965, the proper way to fasten your seat belt is to slide the flat end into the buckle. To unfasten, lift up on the buckle and it will release.

And as the song goes, there might be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there are only six ways to leave this aircraft: two forward exit doors, two over-wing removeable window exits, and two aft exit doors. The location of each exit is clearly marked with signs overhead, as well as red and white disco lights along the floor of the aisle.

Made ya look!

When was the last time you actually paid attention to what the flight attendant was saying at the beginning of the flight?  I bet you would have paid attention in this instance!  So the flight attendant was successful in capturing the passengers’ attention because she moved away from the normal script (while still keeping all the key safety information) and injecting humor.

There isn’t an obvious opportunity to be unexpected at the moment, but I will be looking out for it.

Applying to Work
For my day job, I work in Banking IT.  Banking is inherently an industry of ideas – we don’t make any widgets.  A stock is an idea, a derivative is an abstraction … and so on and so on.

Outside of the hardware component, IT is primarily a profession of ideas.

So at work I deal with ideas about ideas and abstractions.  So to be trully successful, I really need to be more sticky!

How about you?