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Smashing Paradigms – An Exercise of Leadership By John Baldoni

The ability to look at the world as it is and envision something new and improved is a valued trait of leadership. An act of creation, however, as the literature of India tells us, is born of destruction.

Say the word “destruction” and you immediately think of blowing up bridges, knocking down buildings, or leveling factories-all physical actions. But sometimes the boldest form of destruction is one that calls for deconstructing existing paradigms, or mental models, that stifle progress. That form of destruction may be the most dramatic — as well as renewing — form of leadership.

Skeptics told Fred Smith his idea of an overnight delivery service would never fly. Experts scoffed at a college kid Michael Dell’s plan to build a computer company that would sell direct to customers. Sophisticated analysts ignored Sam Walton as he built his Arkansas-based store into a national chain.

None of these entrepreneurs listened to the naysayers. Their personal leadership smashed an existing paradigm, the set of beliefs that framed the world as others saw it. Each of these business leaders replaced the shattered paradigm with another more dynamic and robust paradigm that embraced the needs of new and emerging groups of consumers.

Every entrepreneur has a bit of paradigm-smashing within herself. Entrepreneurs are those who look at the situation and say, “why not?” They seek new solutions to old problems, or new solutions to emerging issues. This mindset is equally true of transformational leaders. A transformational leader is one that envisions a tomorrow that is totally different from the present one. She persuades other to follow his vision, and in the process completely reinvents the organization.

When you run a business, or lead an organization, you learn very quickly that you need to experiment. Entrepreneurs and transformational leaders must be innovative, creative, flexible, adaptable, and yet, responsible.

Here are some ways to smash existing paradigms …

* Re-frame the problem – Many companies have created multi-disciplinary teams as a means of doing business. Yet when serious problems occur, old behaviors often arise. Hand-shaking gives rise to finger-pointing as team members relate difficulties to functions. You hear things like: “That’s a marketing problem… Or, that’s the job of engineering.” Henry Ford once said, “Don’t find blame, find a remedy.” And it’s true.

The purpose of cooperative teams is to find solutions together. For example, a marketer might look at what is perceived to be a “logistics problem” and then adopting the perspective of the customer, come up with ideas to solve the problem. Equally so, an engineer, trained in root-cause analysis, might find a new approach to a “marketing” problem. The challenge is to bring different view points together to spark creative thinking.

* Look for ideas and solutions in unlikely places – The best solutions may require looking in places that are less than obvious. One manager of an apparel maker a practice of interviewing teens while they stood in line at rock concerts in San Francisco. By talking with the kids and getting to know their likes and dislikes in clothes, the manager was able to help the design department create clothes that would be more appealing to younger buyers.

Similarly, Nokia, the Finnish telecommunications company, sends its engineers to Southern California to get an appreciation of life in the trend-setting lane. By observing the way people use wireless communication devices currently, Nokia’s engineers may be able to design new products that not only complement consumers’ current lifestyles, but anticipate coming life changes and thereby position their company to be a next generation provider of leading-edge products.

New ideas abound. They are always in the air. The challenge is to put yourself into a place where you can breathe that “new air.” When it fills your lungs, you may find yourself with a bold new vision of the future.

* Experiment – Success depends sometimes in serendipity, or being in the right place at the right time. 3-M’s Post-It Notes occurred when Arthur Fry, a researcher working with adhesives accidentally got some “sticky stuff” on a piece of paper. Noticing how the adhesive allowed the paper to be stuck and removed several times, he pursued the idea further. It is for this reason, among others, that 3M actively encourages their research people to spend 15% of their time on developing their own projects. You never know where the next great idea will come from.

* Take risks – It’s one thing to create a new product by happenstance, it’s another to put it into production. That’s where risk management comes into play. In the two examples of Hewlett-Packard and 3-M, both companies pride themselves on innovation and therefore are receptive to new ideas. These companies, I am certain, build a sense of risk into their business models. Try as we might to manage all of the variables, we know it’s impossible. Sooner or later, a company must trust its instincts and invest in ideas that show promise, but are not yet proven.

* Do it again… and again! Our society lives on the cusp of rapid change. What works one year may not work the next. Therefore, leaders must be prepared to innovate on a regular basis. To do this, they must establish a culture of continuous innovation; in doing so, they enable their people to experiment as they create a new future.

These five steps demonstrate that a culture of innovation can be nurtured if we have the willingness to get beyond current thinking, or existing mental models.

While both entrepreneurial and transformational leaders can take a measure of satisfaction in smashing paradigms, they must create something worthwhile and positive to take its place. For example, Fred Smith dreamed of express delivery and fulfilled his dream by creating a hub-and-spoke system of air freight. Michael Dell imagined a better way of offering computers to customers, and in the process built a company to deliver custom-made machines direct to customers in rapid frames. Sam Walton envisioned a nationwide span of stores providing high-quality goods at low prices and made it happen with a network of rural-based hyper-markets.

The lesson for leadership is this: before you tear down walls, think about what will stand in their place. This lesson is particularly apt for transformational leaders. A leading example of this type of leadership is Jack Welch of General Electric. When he assumed the chairmanship in 1981, his mission was to establish leadership in every business category in which GE competed.

If this were not possible, GE divested itself of the business. His actions, which earned him the nickname “Neutron Jack,” transformed a bloated Goliath into a competitively-lean enterprise that is number one or two in every one of its market. In the process, GE has become the most highly capitalized business in the world, worth in excess of $200 billion.

Not every paradigm needs smashing. Paradigms do serve a useful purpose; they frame our world in ways that affirm our values and our future. For example, the U.S. Constitution represents a paradigm of equality and justice for all. Anarchists may advocate smashing it, but most of our citizenry would opt for adherence, with an occasional improvement, such as the Amendments that abolished slavery, enfranchised women voters, and Prohibition. (The next time you hoist a pint, or sip a Chardonnay, murmur thanks to the paradigm-busters of the 1930s.)

Paradigm-smashing is a prerogative of leadership, but leaders must understand that de-struction demands con-struction. They must be reasonably certain their new paradigms will allow for a more viable, more improved, more just tomorrow. Good leaders understand this intuitively, which is why we look to them for guidance and direction.

(c) John Baldoni – All rights reserved
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John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership expert, executive coach, speaker and author of seven books on leadership. His newest book, Lead by Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results (Amacom) describes how leaders encourage others to follow their lead. John writes the “Leadership at Work” blog for Harvard Business Publishing and as well as his own leadership blog. John’s website, www.JohnBaldoni.com, contains coaching podcasts and videos, leadership articles, and information about his books and workshops.

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