Multinational conglomerate 3M’s most famous innovation is certainly a familiar item in any office. The story goes that in 1968, 3M chemist Spencer Silver mixed simple organic molecules in an odd proportion during an experiment, which concocted a polymer that was the opposite of what he wanted to achieve. Instead of holding onto objects, the polymer let go easily. It was glue that didn’t stick well. Even so, Silver was convinced there could be a use for this invention. He held seminars in 3M sharing his discovery and appealing to the audience for alternative applications for the product. One of those seminar attendees was Art Fry, a fellow 3M scientist.
After much thought, Fry created non-stick adhesive papers. He stripped off a piece and pasted it on a report, demonstrating its use. Silver and Fry had produced a brilliant invention, but one with obstacles.
The marketing team saw no business potential in the product. The technical team said the company did not have the necessary equipment required to coat pieces of paper with the adhesive. Customers were also skeptical — initial trials in test markets were a failure. People just did not see the benefit of a small colorful notepad. Still, Silver’s little mistake blossomed into one of the world’s most popular stationery items, Post-it Notes. Today there are more than 1,000 Post-it products sold in more than 100 countries.
“Learning leaders know this story, so they might say to their companies’ employees, ‘If your boss says no, keep pushing if you believe in the product.’ But that doesn’t mean anything to employees; it goes over their heads,” said Kaihan Krippendorff, author of Outthink the Competition: How a New Generation of Strategists Sees Options Others Ignore. “But if you tell this story, they naturally start acting it out. Cultures that are different from each other often share the same values. What differs is the strategies they deploy to achieve those values. Strategies determined by the stories you tell, [which] shape the behaviors and therefore the culture.”
According to Krippendorff, to stay ahead of the game, employees need to develop a new set of strategic narratives to follow. He believes the majority of human behavior is driven by the subconscious, so when employees face a challenge, they rarely turn to the bullet points they read in a business publication. Instead, they ask themselves what the problem reminds them of; how someone solved the problem in a similar narrative. To develop this capability in people requires two things:
1. To teach them to stop and think when presented with a problem.
2. To teach them to apply a different strategic narrative than they have traditionally used.
“If you look at the companies that are winning today, they’re different from those winning the past 30 years,” he said. “They talk differently. They talk, for example, about coordinating the uncoordinated — [as] Wikipedia [does]. Rather than hiring experts to write proprietary content and owning that intellectual property, they coordinate a community of experts. That’s how they create power. Facebook, Google and LinkedIn are all based on that principle.”
These companies are composed of employees who see and seize strategic options that others overlook. In Outthink the Competition, Krippendorff states that if leaders can develop such vision in their teams and across their companies, they can unlock the creative potential of their organizations. Those who outthink the competition, for example, have a heightened ability to recognize opportunities and see the associated challenges as surmountable. They see things as possible that others cannot fathom and see obstacles as issues that remain to be resolved.
“Playing it safe isn’t safe anymore,” said Mike Thompson, author of The Anywhere Leader: How to Lead and Succeed in Any Business Environment. “Oftentimes companies are so afraid of failure that they become stagnant from fear. One way to outthink your competition is to take on your share of business risks. That means today’s managers must make decisions even when several unknowns exist. The best leaders are comfortable operating in the unknowns.”
According to Thompson, outthinking the competition requires an organization with leaders who aren’t afraid to venture into uncharted waters even though there is some risk of failure and the journey is not entirely safe.
“There’s a healthy balance here, however,” he said. “Failing too much can run you straight out of business. Vulnerability should create a safe culture for people to rev the engine just a little harder, to push the products a little further, to innovate beyond imagination. Vulnerable leaders who push performance and accountability create a dynamic culture — creative and outperforming. Vulnerable leaders who shy away from accountability and strong performance demands eventually will sink their companies.”
Creating a dynamic culture requires learning leaders to go beyond training skill sets to training mindsets, according to Thompson. A mindset is more about how to think, reflect and maneuver through paradox and the unknowns. It’s about building in the leader’s ability to navigate through change and uncertainty and helping the leader know how to be decisive with limited information.
“To teach mindset, you can’t just be informative. You also have to be engaging,” Thompson said. “You can’t just demand the textbook answers from participants; you’ve got to ask them to contemplate questions that have no answers. Mindset training doesn’t present a linear process for learning, but rather presents a flexible process that allows the learners to put themselves and their personal experiences in the middle of real challenges. The training industry needs to give more than just lip service to a proven maxim: Training can’t just educate — good and effective training has to also bring the experience and the exposure as well.”
Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at lnikravan@CLOmedia.com.