Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Incremental Is Fundamental

Many of us are in occupations where innovation and creativity are essential. But an unnecessary divide exists between the valuation of sweeping changes and incremental advances. We should not need to choose – this isn’t a case of mutual exclusivity. Of course, we need big ideas and bold moves. Sure, throw the bomb for a touchdown, swing for the fences. But small things, measured steps, can be important and inventive, too. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” 

Upsides to any method or process cannot be guaranteed, of course. It’s important to acknowledge that incrementalism can fail us or derail us, just as big ideas can. One of the most notable (and shameful) examples is the nearly hundred-year span from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (and then another hundred to the 1964 Civil Rights Act). And while Lincoln deserves high praise for his role, we need to remember it took him a couple of decades to fully embrace freedom and citizenship for Black people. 

Fortunately, his vast and open mind let in powerful, righteous voices like Frederick Douglass, the freedom seeker who became one of the most important leaders in the fight for abolition and civil rights. It’s notable that Douglass wanted rapid change with the “brave march of a storming party” but came to grips with the “slow progress of a cautious siege.” He and Lincoln understood the political realities. The President knew he had to bring as much of the nation along with them as he could – what he called the “necessary preparation of the public mind.” 

Modern political leaders seem to be catching on to incrementalism but for the wrong reasons. While they often campaign on platforms of big ideas, political rivalries, limited resources, and the complexity of most problems squeeze progress into watered-down initiatives. Or, more common these days, an agreement to simply keep the lights on; passing a stop-gap budget is now viewed as a big win. Reaching across the aisle, finding common ground, and coming to a mutually beneficial agreement have become rarities or even signs of weakness.

Politicians are also helping to accelerate our ever-shrinking attention spans. Ideas are being crushed into attention-seeking social media posts. There is a lack of interest, will, or ability to explain complex ideas and to inspire wider acceptance. Ideologic pandering is replacing idea generation. If it can’t be turned into a catch phrase (“America First”) or a chant (“Build the Wall”), complicated, multidimensional ideas have little chance of being turned into a plan or program.

Preparation requires good communication, using messages that combine both rational and emotional elements. There are too many leaders, though, who get it terribly wrong. Deciding to make a change is often done without thought as to how the change will be communicated. They confuse change communication with checking off a couple of boxes. Sending out a memo to employees or a press release to the public overlooks the reality that change communication is a process – a process to be managed. 

The details, the message, and the messenger all influence the individual and the organization. It can rally a group around an idea or it can alienate the very people required to generate a successful outcome. John Kotter had it right in his book, “Leading Change.” Condensing and paraphrasing some of his eight incremental steps, leaders need to establish the need for change, gather and empower advocates, articulate a vision for what awaits, communicate up and down the organization, define the roles people will have and the processes needed for future success, and demonstrate wins along the way.

It’s great to have big ideas, it's OK to be impatient, we should embrace change. At the same time, we need to be thinking strategically and develop a plan about what needs to be accomplished, over what timeline, and with what resources. We need to define the milestones and recognize each accomplishment as we maintain a focus on the ultimate goal. Civil rights activist Alice Wine had wise words: “Keep your eyes on the prize.”

Between posts I invite you to follow me on Threads @pauloestreicher.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Stopping Ourselves from Mattering Less

Oh boy, was I wrong. “Who needs these humanities requirements?” I asked as a college student. I was going to be a scientist and wanted to place my attention on (what I thought was) my ultimate goal. 

Sure, I learned to appreciate the genius of Shakespeare and enjoyed the scrum in my political science classes. But I loaded up on the hard not the social sciences. I bought the promise that technology had the answers to everything. One couldn’t be a whole person without a rock solid background in math, chemistry, physics, biology.

Whole person, huh? I said I was wrong, right? I’m not sure I can say it enough. I’ve come to hate mutual exclusivity and false equivalencies and yet, there I was. It took me years to figure out (with no small contribution from my wife) that interesting people, valuable people, are a package. We should have an appreciation – a facility, even – with a multitude of subjects spanning STEM subjects to the liberal arts.

We need to know enough about both the humanities and science to be capable citizens. With the politicization of so many topics – vaccines, evolution, climate change, stem cells – a more roundly educated public is essential. 

We need to expect and demand more of our leaders, too. I wonder how many of them read books like David McCullough’s 1776 or John Adams that chronicled how the founding fathers built a nation on progressive values; Peter Watson’s Ideas with two million years worth of language, thought, and invention; Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll on the evolution of faith and systematized prejudice; Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to make your head ache when contemplating the enormity of our universe, or Abe by David Reynolds to show us how personal evolution and compromise gave rise to one of our greatest presidents.

Social media and cable news echo chambers have made it all too easy to receive what the algorithms are trained to feed us. We suffer from inertia, from a lack of curiosity, from what used to be the common practice of debating the issues (and not the facts). If the facts don’t fit the person’s worldview or “frame,” as the cognitive linguist George Lakoff termed it, the facts bounce off like bullets shot at Superman’s chest. Your opponent deflects all the data, swears on what they believe to be true, while you get blue in the face.

But now comes the latest assault on holistic education. The New York Times recently reported that West Virginia’s “flagship school will no longer teach world languages or creative writing — a sign, its president says, of the future at many public universities.” What the WVU administration is calling a “transformation,” others are calling a “blood bath.” It’s frightening to think this could be the beginning of a very dangerous spiral.

The questions of how to educate, what to teach, and with what money are not new. But this is different. We’re looking at institutional changes that could take years, generations to repair. If we’re not careful, if we don’t invest in expansive, accessible education, we will be less able to govern, less capable of informed, civil discourse, and less capable of maintaining our competitiveness on the world stage. The hollowing out of education, and the under-budgeting and the reversal of opportunity are as grave a threat as any facing our country.

Author of Camelot, Inc.: Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Round Table.

Between posts, I invite you to follow me on Threads.

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Aaron Sorkin and I Have an Understanding

My eyes widened when I read the review in The New York Times. I was on the same page as Aaron Sorkin, writer of some of the most celebrated works of television, film, and Broadway. Well, the “same page” when it came to understanding what was really beneath the centuries old story of King Arthur and Camelot. 

A new version of “Camelot” is scheduled to open on Broadway in a few weeks, with its book rewritten by Sorkin. The NYT article said, Sorkin “has made the production one of the most anticipated on Broadway this year...”

A bold decision was made to eliminate the story’s supernatural elements. “That means Merlyn, who in the original is a magician who can remember the future... is now a wise tutor.” Yes! The hocus pocus in the Arthur stories is fun but there are much more serious and contemporary lessons to be drawn from Camelot.

“The most common description of Merlin is that of an elderly wizard with a long white beard, wearing a pointed hat and a flowing costume accented by stars and moons. He’s synonymous with magic and sorcery. But Merlin’s significance was not his ability to conjure or foretell the future. Above all else, this archetypal sorcerer was a mentor and adviser.” That was from my 2011 book, Camelot, Inc.: Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Round Table.

Merlin’s real mission was to educate Arthur, to expand his horizons, and prepare him for the challenges ahead. In T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (from which the play and Disney’s Sword in the Stone were derived), a young Arthur queried, “Would you mind if I asked you a question?” Merlin replied, “It is what I am for.” 

The magical part of Merlin wasn’t all fantasy writing, though. It helped tell the story of Arthur’s evolution from roughhousing boy to empathic leader. As a wizard, Merlin didn’t need to bring Arthur to other parts of the world to experience the different religions, cultures, and customs of humankind. Merlin turned him into a badger, fish, hawk, goose, and ant – creatures very different, more ancient, and with much wisdom to impart on the youngster.

The transfigurations into fur, fin, and feather (and bug) were a big part of the Merlin’s mentoring technique, which turned the learning process into adventures. Arthur was immersed in some dangerous places where he had to observe, adapt, and think quickly in his new surroundings. His abilities to react swiftly and smartly weren’t only important; they were essential. Later, as king, Arthur would leverage these experiences not only to better understand and connect with others, but also to win over doubters and adversaries.

Of course, much of the Camelot story revolves around the tortured relationships between King Arthur, Guinevere, his Queen, and Sir Lancelot, his best friend and general. “People think the show is about a love triangle, which of course it is,” said Alan Paul, artistic director of Barrington Stage Company. “But I really think it’s about the birth of democracy…”

Close, but not exactly. First, democracy was created in ancient Athens and second, Arthur wasn’t at all about abdicating in favor of elections. Arthur did, however, form a strategy of Might for Right – a way to channel the power of the knights to enforce his doctrine of fairness. But the people did not react well to what was coercion. 

“You will find,” he explained (in The Once and Future King), “that when the kings are bullies who believe in force, the people are bullies too. If I don’t stand for law, I won’t have law among my people. And naturally I want my people to have the new law, because then they are more prosperous, and I am more prosperous in consequence.”

Arthur did something we don’t see often enough in leaders today. He took ownership and had the courage to jump the rails when he saw the strategy failing. Arthur had the right intention with the wrong method. He realized the populace needed to embrace change, rather than have change forced upon them without proper communication. He evolved Might for Right into Equal Justice – the creation of a new civil code to change the very nature of civilization, and the relationship between the government and the governed.

Life’s lessons during the time of Camelot and the Round Table remain relevant because, at the core, they are about the human relationships that connect us, divide us, and drive us forward (or backward) in our various dealings – personal, business, or otherwise. Looking at the past, we can gain the accumulated wisdom from so many people, conflicts, and circumstances. The enduring qualities and complexities of human nature gave us guidance and assurance in the past and will continue to do so in the future.