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April 2006

Happy Spring!

I am always amazed at how quickly the seasons pass. And, I am always inspired by the message from Mother Nature: while things inevitably change, there is still consistency in the change. It's predictable. We always know that spring will come -- eventually at least, for those of us living where it just snowed last week!

All around us are signs of renewal as the forsythia bloom and crocuses and tulips reappear. Spring reminds us about re-creation and rekindles a sense of our creative nature after a dormant winter.

Taking that creative nature and applying it to the challenges of being a leader is what this newsletter is all about. Therefore, this issue, and the next, are devoted to ideas for managing successfully through the critical process of planning for the future -- one of a leader's key responsibilities.

In this issue
  • Something Old, Something New
  • Creative Strategic Planning: Challenge #1 Mental Models
  • Strategic Planning and the Eight Creative Talents
  • Finding your Creative Talents
  • Strategic Leadership Research Study

  • Creative Strategic Planning: Challenge #1 Mental Models

    In the "Building the Strategic Leader" course that I am currently teaching at Northeastern University, we started off with sessions on self-awareness and mental models. Both play a critical role in recognizing the signs of change and in deciding how to make the necessary responses happen.

    First, a definition. Mental models, according to Peter Senge, are "the images, assumptions, and stories which we carry in our minds of ourselves, other people, institutions, and every aspect of the world." They are our internal pictures of the world. Though invisible, they determine what we see, and they shape our actions and decisions. A good example of a mental model is the way those of us in the US looked at the prospect of flying before 9/11 and afterward.

    We need our mental models to function, to filter through the avalanche of information we receive. As beliefs about ourselves and our abilities, they help us become successful. They guide our behavior as values and deeply-held beliefs, and they keep us safe as personal "standard operating procedures."

    The problems come when these mental models grow out of date. They can become very dangerous, when, as leaders, we use them to make decisions and plan in an increasingly uncertain world. Because they can filter out certain data and can cause us to rely on decision making rules that are no longer appropriate, mental models need to be constantly re-examined and challenged if we are to look at the ever-changing future in an unbiased way.

    An example of a poorly-held set of mental models is the framework through which US carmaker General Motors looked at the marketplace in the 1950's through the 1970's. Despite changing consumer preferences, governmental regulations, and increasing competition from Japanese carmakers, GM's managers -- because of years of success -- continued to believe in their mental model regarding consumer behavior. Cars in their view of the world were primarily status symbols. They failed to see the shift in consumer behavior to a concern for the environment and mounting gas prices.

    On a personal level, the current focus on optimism and positive thinking recalls another mental model: Do you see the glass as half-full or is it half-empty? And how does that "mental model" affect your assumptions about the future?

    So, before starting to plan for the future, first ask yourself and your team, what are our mental models? What do we believe about our competition, customers, and the impact of emerging global competitors? What possible blinders could those beliefs and assumptions be causing us?

    Stewart Black and Hal Gregersen, in their book, "Leading Strategic Change," and Peter Senge and his colleagues suggest several ways to break these "brain barriers" (and in the next article, I will suggest one more approach). A quick summary of two of Black's and Gregersen's recommendations:

    * Create confrontation

    Find visual or experiential contrasts between existing mental models and reality. Such contrasts can come from international work assignments to overcome the failure to see cultural changes in the world, or visits to the competition to experience their products and their appeal.

    * Overcome fear of competency.

    One of our biggest barriers is a need to feel competent and not make mistakes. "Most of us don't like to be bad at something, especially if we are already good at something else," the authors note. So we stay doing what we are already doing well and avoid stepping out of our competency to take on a new challenge. To break out of a mental model, we have to be willing to make mistakes and take small steps toward a new future.

    Peter Senge and his colleagues have other tools for confronting our mental models. They include:

    • Learning the techniques of appreciative inquiry, an approach where we lay out our reasoning and thinking and then encourage others to question those assumptions and conclusions. For example, "Here's what I think about our customers' buying habits and why.... Now tell me what your assumptions are."

    • Developing scenarios, or alternative views of how the future might unfold. UPS has successfully used this technique in its planning for the future. According to CEO Mike Eskew, "Our goal for scenario planning is not to predict the future, but to start thinking about the ramifications of the various scenarios, so that we can align our planning behind them. The exercise allows us to more effectively build in mid-course corrections and back-up strategies as we create the next three- to five-year strategic plan for the organization. In our business we can't afford to be caught flat footed by trends -- trends that we could have anticipated -- but that sneak in under our radar screen."

    Because both of these techniques lead to more creative organizations and decision-making, we will examine them in more depth in the next issue of the Practical Innovator.

    Strategic Planning and the Eight Creative Talents

    Research has shown that our personality preferences play a significant role in defining our mental models, particularly around how we make sense of the world around us and how we make decisions about the future. Therefore, in the class we spend time identifying our eight creative talents as a tool toward greater self-awareness.

    While I am in the early stages of researching the link between the eight creative talents and strategic planning (see invitation below), there has been a lot of research using the MBTI(r) and strategy making. We can use that research to take a preliminary look at how our dominant talents impact our ability to plan for the future. In this issue, we will address the data collecting talents. In the next issue we will address the decision-making talents.

    Before describing the impact of the talents, it is important to note that our favorite talents, like our mental models, are a double edged sword. When they are operating productively, they help us. But, when we are under stress, they can cause distortions about the data we see and about our view of the future.

    According to researchers, such as Paul Nutt, Peter Strumpf, and Reg Lang, and others, individuals who use their dominant sensing talents to collect data (the Navigator and Adventurer) focus on collecting facts. While they may be challenged in seeing beyond facts, they typically are extremely helpful in keeping the team grounded and focused and in reminding the team of what Jim Collins calls the company's core ideology.

    However, these talents can also cause blinders. For example, the Navigator talent, with its focus on the past, can get stuck and ignore or misinterpret data that is not consistent with what they already know. The Adventurer talent, with its emphasis on the present, can fail to see the need to plan for the future and instead prefer to continue responding to present challenges, fighting fires, and dealing with daily crises.

    On the other hand, individuals using their dominant intuiting talents to collect data (the Explorer and Visionary) will tend to relish the forward thinking generation of new opportunities and "what might be." The Visionary talent enjoys confronting sacred cows and leaping into a longer range view of the future, but can also get caught up in the process, fail to remain sufficiently focused on pragmatic alternatives, and miss subtle cues about changes in the environment.

    Over-reliance on the Explorer talent can also cause problems. While terrific at generating endless possibilities and full of inspiring energy, this talent can cause the team to lose focus, fall in love with change for change sake, and overlook the need for an implementation action plan.

    Given these possible blinders, leaders must be careful to examine their favorite talents and be sure they are using the best the talents have to offer in planning for the future and not letting them become blinders. They can do this through self-awareness, through the process of appreciative inquiry, and through conscious use of the other creative talents.

    In the next issue we will look at the decision making talents and see how they can impact our strategic planning efforts.

    Finding your Creative Talents

    For those readers interested in learning more about the eight creative talents, there are several resources. The first is the book "Breakthrough Creativity: Achieving Top Performance Using the Eight Creative Talents" which devotes a chapter to each one of the talents. Each chapter also provides tips for enhancing the use of that talent for more creativity and for managing individuals with preferences for that talent to optimal creativity. See "about the Book" to the right!

    In addition, the "Breakthrough Creativity Profile Participant Workbook" and the "Breakthrough Creativity Profile Facilitator's Guide," both available through HRDQ.com, provide invaluable material for identifying and working with the eight creative talents.

    Finally, a strategic leadership workshop based on the eight creative talents and planning for the future can also be beneficial for teams initiating a strategic planning effort. Contact me (lynne@breakthroughcreativity.com) for further information.

    Strategic Leadership Research Study

    Working with colleagues, I am in the initial stages of researching the impact of the eight creative talents on the challenges of strategic leadership. The focus will specifically be on strategic planning and change management. At this point, we envision an online questionnaire to supplement classroom and field research. If you would like to participate, please email me (lynne@breakthroughtcreativity.com).

    Something Old, Something New

    You might wonder why a newsletter dedicated to fostering innovation and creativity in organizations and in individuals would highlight a picture of the 5,000-year-old Poulnabrone Portal Tomb in County Clare, Ireland. It's here because I believe that plotting the future not only involves looking ahead, but also making sure you are grounded in the past, to stay in touch with your roots -- maybe not 5,000-year-old roots, but certainly those that make up your own core foundation and that of your organization.

    Some scholars recommend treating strategy as "revolution," demanding a radical break from the past -- which they view as a burden. I don't agree and neither does Jim Collins, author of "Built to Last" and "Good to Great."

    Collins has found that leaders in successful companies start out thinking about the future with a vision, consisting of both a core ideology and envisioned future. According to Collins, "core ideology defines the enduring character of an organization -- a consistent identity that transcends changes in the market place and individual leaders." He goes on to say, "It is more important to know who you are than where you are going, for where you are going will change as the world around you changes." Core ideology is a source of guidance and inspiration. It's the glue that holds an organization together as it grows, decentralizes, expands and diversifies. It's about self-evident truths, enduring principles that bond employees, almost religious tenets, such as P&G's commitment to product excellence and Nordstrom's insistence on customer service.

    Therefore, before you start thinking about the future -- for yourself and your organization, make sure you are absolutely clear about your past and what you stand for. What are your core values that are so fundamental that you would hold them regardless of whether or not they are rewarded? Can you envision them being as valid for you 100 years from now as they are today?

    A few years ago, I worked as part of a consulting team with a speciality materials company to build what they called at the time their "Vision 2010." The final stage of the project involved working with the leadership team, to revisit the core values that had driven the company for its many years of success. While initially the leadership team had assumed they would need to take time to redefine their core purpose, they reconsidered after realizing it held true today as it did 100 years ago.

    "If creativity is going to be thought of as either something frivolous performed by a bunch of kooks or as something mysterious so that the process won't be discerned by outsiders, it makes it much harder to get corporate America involved."

    -- Advertising Age (August 1, 2005)

    According to photographer Alex McLean, when describing his techniques for turning aerial shots of ordinary landscapes into intriguing works of art, "Although the flight path may be premeditated, I can't anticipate all the variations and surprises. Part of exploration is that moment of discovery, recognizing the unexpected picture and then taking it."

    "The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes."

    -- Mark Twain.

    Breakthrough Creativity Services and Workshops

    Consulting and facilitation services support organizations in strategic planning, new business creation, teambuilding, and leadership development. Services include organizational, team and individual assessments, through the use of proven diagnostics, and ongoing support for leaders and teams.

    Workshops that provide substantive content in an interactive environment, focused on practical application, are also available. Sessions include Becoming a More Creative Leader, Developing the Strategic Leader, and Building Team Talents using the Breakthrough Creativity Profile. Because of their modular design, they can be easily customized to meet each group's particular needs.

    Curious about the logos in the newsletter?

    They are based on Australian aboriginal symbols depicting travel and change. The Breakthrough Creativity logo represents the new perspectives a traveler brings to the problems of others.

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    Copyright (c) Lynne C. Levesque. All rights in all media reserved.