‘Creative confidence’ trumps historical indicators of future career success

Photo: Associated Press

As one group of students prepare to leave college and another batch of high-school seniors prepare to take their place, the importance of technical knowledge takes center stage.  Whether you’re talking about undergraduate or post-grad admission offices or potential employers, GPAs and test scores that demonstrate students’ abilities to get the one “right” answer are seen as the primary determinant of future potential.

David Kelley — the IDEO chairman, not the legendary creator of great TV dramas — recently energized the Stanford d.school during the opening of the design school’s new building by arguing that while technical knowledge has its place, it is far more important to teach our future leaders how to work on solving challenging problems where nobody knows the answer.  As Bob Sutton, a Stanford d.school professor who attended the speech explains it, the Stanford d.school teaches creative confidence — “the ability to keep pushing forward, observing the world and the people in it, identifying unmet needs, brainstorming solutions, and trying to develop prototypes that work and failing forward through the disconcerting process.”   He went on to say that the d.school process — which I discussed in a January post on its publication of the Bootcamp Bootleg — encourages people to “have the energy and will to keep pushing forward, to be undaunted when ideas don’t work, to keep trying new ideas, and even when the deadline for the project comes and they do not have  a decent solution, to believe that if they just had another few days, they would have come up with a great solution.”

Kelley has added a great personal-branding phrase to our lexicon.  Even without the benefit of a Stanford d.school education, I think there are a lot of people with have struggled to describe a similar skill set on a resume or interview without the benefit of the “creative confidence” phrase.   It’s a skill that many displaced corporate executives are using as they look at consulting or 1099 contract work, whether they use the phrase in the sales process or not.

But Kelley’s Not Alone In This

Yale’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel imagined what he’d say if asked to speak to this year’s class of graduating seniors in a posting on the Huffington Post.  He also speaks of looking beyond the GPA and the job that awaits and judging oneself on a different set of criteria that mirrors this concept of creative confidence:

“What matters, and this is the heart of what I want to say today, is not how I might assess what you have done, or how your professors graded you, or what your friends and family might say, or even how a professional school or employer is going to view you, but rather how you would now evaluate yourself.

I wonder if you have thought to do this as yet, to measure yourself by standards that you would have to justify and explain, not to us, but only to the man or woman in the mirror. Not only are you the only one in a position to make a full and candid assessment, but you are the one to whom the assessment ultimately matters.”

He goes on to list some questions that might help in that self-assessment; most focus on the intangible.  It’s a right-brain approach, which as Daniel Pink and others have argued in recent years is taking on increasing importance over the fact-based left-brain emphasis that has driven business for many decades.

All this resonated with me because I believe creative confidence is a more elegant way — with a bit more structure — of saying Bulldog Simplicity.  I believe schools and corporations both need to spend more time focusing on developing creative confidence.  And for those who have it, they need to spend more time documenting it as a skill and how it enables them to make a difference in their companies’ or clients’ success.

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Don’t let perfect get in the way of better

I’m adding a new bullet to my What I Believe document up top, thanks to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“Don’t let perfect get in the way of better,” Goodell says he told NFL owners and general managers debating changes to the league’s overtime system.

Goodell may have been right when he said there’s probably a perfect system out there.  Maybe he wasn’t.  But was the new way — giving the team that kicked off the ball if the receiving team scores a field goal to start overtime — that perfect system?  No.  But it is better than what they have.  And they’re going to continue to look for ways to make it better, including considering whether the new approach should extend to the regular season.

How many projects break down over the desire to get it absolutely perfect?  While I do believe that “good enough isn’t,” I also believe that there are many opportunities to find ways to just do things better.  Incremental change gets you closer to the promised land.  And that can mean eliminating a required signer in an approval process, getting rid of an unnecessary click-through on your website, or enabling someone to complete a form online without requiring him to print it out and fax or mail it.

A few years back, I managed a project to streamline our marketing-approval process.  For a variety of reasons, we decided to make all the changes before rolling out the new process, which included the creation of very specific job descriptions for each position in the workflow.  The goal was to not have to re-educate people more than once and we accomplished that.  But it came at the expense of an additional three or four months of working with the old process.

In retrospect, I’d have worried less about the re-education and focused more on letting people see that the changes we were making were making us more efficient and accurate.  That might have reduced the pushback and the unending debates over minute details.  And that might have both accelerated the overall process and gotten us to an even better place than where we ultimately ended up.

We just shouldn’t have let the desire for perfect get in the way of better.

This same philosophy applies to your resume, your LinkedIn profile, the cleanliness of your desk, the way you manage your teams, or any of a myriad of other day-to-day tasks.  This desire for perfection can lead to paralysis, particularly if you spend too much time knee-jerking every time anyone gives you feedback.

How about you?  How have you avoided the push for perfect and just gotten to better?

Must Read: Switch by Chip and Dan Heath (out Feb. 16)

     Great book, chock full of great advice and tools.  If you haven’t pre-ordered it and this post is a reminder to do so, I won’t be insulted if you jump right now to the bottom of this post and click through to Amazon (or your own favorite bookseller). 
     I’m never sure how much I should give away with a review like this, but the basic idea of the book (beyond the sub-title, which is How to Change Things When Change is Hard) is that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider and “any time the six-ton Elephant and Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.”
     I was lucky enough to receive a pre-release copy from the authors (Dan and Chip Heath, who also wrote another of my favorite books, Made to Stick)…and I understand that the idea is to generate excitement so people will go out and buy it.  I only have a couple of quibbles about the book, but let me highlight the overriding themes with the plea that you buy the book and read the stories that surround these themes to really effect change in your life.
     Theme No. 1:  Direct the Rider.  Basic idea here is that because resistance is often due to a lack of clarity, you need to provide crystal-clear direction.  You do this by finding bright spots in otherwise dismal situations and then giving direction to the Rider, creating a sort-of sandwich where you describe both a start and a finish and provide what the Heaths call a “destination postcard.”
     Theme No. 2:  Motivate the Elephant.  Here we’re focusing on driving change through motivation and we need to find the core emotional message that will get your Elephant moving.  The Heaths argue that what sometimes looks like laziness is often exhaustion (i.e., the Rider can’t get his way by force for long).  Knowledge isn’t enough to motivate change; you also need the confidence that you are capable of overcoming the challenge, that you are “big” enough to do it.  The answer:  Shrink the change and/or grow your people.
     Theme No. 3:  Shape the Path.    As the Heaths put it, what looks like a people problem may actually be a situation problem, and changing your environment can often make change much easier.  You can change the rules or the tools needed to do the job  (i.e., “tweak the environment”) or create new habits.  They offer a time-tested tool to marry these two approaches: checklists (which the authors promote with some nervousness).  You can Rally the Herd (of Elephants) and get them to convince each other about the value of supporting change.  And they introduce ways to keep the momentum going.
     I go through books like this with a highlighter and pen, and transfer my notes into a small spiral notebook that helps me remember key points from everything I read.  I took a lot of actionable ideas out of this book that will change the way I approach my life (business and personal).  Had I read this book six months ago, my blog might well have been called Elephant Simplicity. 
     My only quibbles?  It took awhile to get into the flow of the book’s structure — there’s a lot of bouncing between stories making them sometimes feel a bit redundant.  And the Heaths use a tool they call a “Clinic” in which they describe a real-world situation and ask the reader to apply the Switch framework to create change.  It’s a great idea — and they say you can read them as you go or come back to them later.  I suggest you come back to them later, since they’re introduced in Chapter 3 but incorporate materials you’ll find throughout the rest of the book.
     But again, those are quibbles.  This book is a terrific investment.  Here’s an excerpt.  And here’s one place you can order it.  My understanding is that pre-orders get aggregated and help the authors jump to the top of many bestseller lists in Week 1 and the discounts can more than offset the cost of shipping.
     Please come back after you’ve read it and let everyone know what you thought.

Must Read: The Linchpin (Seth Godin) table of contents

A lot of people have had a lot of nice things to say about Seth Godin’s new book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable,” and I hope to blog on the book soon.

But take a look to the left at the Table of Contents for the book — it offers chapter summaries instead of page numbers.  What a very cool way to summarize the book and help (1) new readers navigate the book and (2) returning readers find the specific chapters they’re looking for.

An example…In most books, you’d see that the fifth chapter is Becoming the Linchpin.  In this book, Seth gets your attention by adding, The linchpin is an individual who can walk into chaos and create order, someone who can invent, connect, create, and make things happen.  Every worthwhile institution institution has indispensable people who make differences like this.  Over at Chapter 9, in addition to There Is No Map, you get Indispensable linchpins are not waiting for instructions, but instead, figuring out what to do next.  If you have a job where someone tells you what to do next, you’ve just given up the chance to create value.”

The inside cover goes further with the definition of a linchpin: They “invent, lead (regardless of title), connect others, make things happen, and create order out of chaos.  They figure out what to do when there’s no rule book.  they delight and challenge their customers and peers.  They love their work, pour their best selves into it, and turn each day into a kind of art.”

Can you imagine anything better than to be described as a linchpin by those who know or work with you?  Paging through it, this looks like a terrific book, starting with the Table of Contents.  It’s the next book I’ll be reading (after finishing Switch by the Heath Brothers, which will be officially released early next week).

Must Read: Bootcamp for great ideas

 I see a lot of job postings where an MBA is required.  I don’t have an MBA so that’s a problem.

That’s why a recent NY Times article about reinventing the MBA curriculum got my attention.  As one person put it, “At business school, there was a lot of focus on ‘You’ve got a great idea; here’s how to build a business out of it.’  The d.school said, ‘Here’s how you get to that great idea.'”

The “d.school” is a reference to the growth in “design thinking,” which emphasizes a focus on human needs to decide what problems need to be addressed.  There’s an engineering focus to all this (the Stanford d.school is part of the Engineering School), but that’s missing the point of today’s posting.

So here’s the point of the blog.  The Stanford d.school has posted a terrific document on its site that is a fairly short primer on the various concepts that drive the development of great ideas.  The D.School Bootcamp Bootleg starts with seven mindsets — including “Bias Toward Action” and “Create Clarity From Complexity” (my favorite) and “Show, Don’t Tell.”  It goes on to introduce modes like “empathize,” “define,” and “test.”  And then it outlines a variety of strategies (or methods) that are integral to design thinking.

Lest this sound overly academic — and some of them will lead your eyes to glaze over a bit — there are some great ideas you can use to better understand your customers or come up with that “one big thing” before you go too far down the road. 

Business books seem to be getting shorter lately…and packed with more usable information.  This one is less than 40 pages and well worth your time.

Read through it.  Think about how you’ve used the concepts without actually knowing you were employing design thinking.  Pick some things to try.  Keep them if they work and try something else if they don’t. 

Use this document — but think of it as a toolkit — and when the time comes perhaps you can overcome the lack of an MBA with a skill set that enables you to develop great, marketable ideas.

How about you?  How have you used some of these methodologies — interviewing for empathy, powers of 10, and so on — to fine tune your ideas?  What worked and what didn’t?