(Originally published on "Brainwaves," the blog of the University of Vermont's Continuing and Distance Education Department)

We all love the idea of innovation, right?

I want to be innovative. You want to be innovative. Everybody wants to be innovative.

In pursuing or talking about innovation, the danger is that we give it merely lip service, and treat it as a fad or a fashionable idea to toss like confetti in our meetings and in our marketing. We risk using it as a cheap applause line in our conversations about economic development, public policy, and strategic planning without really understanding or acknowledging what it demands of us.

If we’re being honest, innovation is not a fad. It is not merely a fashionable way to think and talk about business, or the future, or the next big social media gold rush.

Survival of the Fittest
Innovation has always been a quiet and persistent foundation of great companies and great organizations. Success and happiness in business and in life has always been about the ability to solve increasingly complex problems at a mastery level. Innovation is really about that daily and often unfashionable pursuit — “is there a better way to solve this problem?”

And so at every level, in every molecule, companies and their leaders are...

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AuthorJoseph Fusco

I’ve invented a new word. Or, rather, the observation of managers in the wild has suggested a new word:

Data + Asphyxiation = Datasphyxiation 

It is, simply, when the fetish for managing almost purely by data, and analysis, and spreadsheets chokes an organization’s ability to creatively and flexibly solve problems, focus on the customer's needs, or innovate.

Usually, death soon follows.

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AuthorJoseph Fusco

(Originally published on TriplePundit.com, a leading publication and voice for business sustainability and corporate social responsibility)

I want to share an insight with you.

Before I do, you should know this about me: I am not an expert in sustainability. For most of my life, I never gave it much thought, nor did it interest me. I may have even smirked at the idea once or twice.

You should know this about the company I work for: it is a mundane business. We are not superstars in the sustainability movement. Our name certainly wouldn’t escape from your lips should you be asked to name a fashionable triple bottom line company.

I sit on the board of advisors for a new and unique sustainable entrepreneurship MBA (SEMBA) at the University of Vermont because my company wrestles with this new business paradigm every day.

A few years ago, we had a moment of clarity. Suddenly, we realized our entire existence was based on a business model that was simply unsustainable.

We had to ask ourselves a very important question: what will the world — the planet, our markets, our customers, our communities — expect from us in twenty or thirty years? What will we get paid for?

You should know we came to this simple conclusion: we’ll get paid by helping to solve the problem of the world’s limited resources. At that moment, nearly everything changed — the way we hire, build, and treat people, the investments we make, the way we work with customers, the risks we embrace.

Simply put, all our problems are centered around resource limits — natural, environmental, people, time, capital, and so on. All of our opportunities — profit, growth, contributing to society, creating shareholder value — come from our ability to solve those problems better than anybody else. To do that we have to embrace sustainability. We have to become a different kind of company.

And that transformation calls for a different kind of leader.

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AuthorJoseph Fusco

(Originally published on "Brainwaves," the blog of the University of Vermont's Continuing and Distance Education Department)

If you’re reading this, you have an itch that may need scratching — the desire to start and run your own business, which is one of life’s most noble impulses. Running your own business is not just a way to make a living, it’s also a path to making a life. In Vermont, making a life is just as important and fulfilling as making a living.

Scratching that itch in Vermont (or elsewhere, to be honest) is not often easy, and I want you to be successful. And, of course, it’s very tempting to rattle off a “Top 10” list of small business tips.

But beyond the sugary, conventional advice you could certainly find somewhere, anywhere else, there are four things – not often talked about – that I’ve watched every successful business owner or leader do very well. You’ll need to master these things as well.

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AuthorJoseph Fusco

 A fearful organization (one breathing the fumes of insecurity and mistrust) too often becomes a complex organization.

A complex organization too often becomes a control-obsessed organization, and values that control much more than it values masterful problem-solving.

An organization that values control over masterful problem-solving too often solves problems poorly, and goes broke and dies.

Fear kills businesses.

 
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AuthorJoseph Fusco

Organizations and managers crave certainty. That's why the spreadsheet was invented. Put a lot of them in a three-ring binder, sprinkle in some pie charts, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

You cannot eliminate uncertainty. And, it’s impossible to create complete certainty. Some things remain uncertain, unmeasurable, unpredictable and, so, require faith as a tool of leadership.

We have no faith, so we live and work in a world of fear and mistrust. The degree of fear and mistrust are reflected formally by the intensity of an organization’s processes, systems, procedures and rules, and informally in the behavioral weaknesses of its leaders.

But, you say, fear and mistrust come along with the territory, the human jungle, the fight for survival. Yes, it's true. The human condition is a wretched state of affairs -- brutish, nasty and short. How's that working for you?

Leadership -- like all acts of creation, like all works of art -- is a rebellion. You must rebel against this wretched state of affairs.

Your job is to transcend what fear and mistrust do to an organization, how it pollutes people's problem solving passion and abilities. Remember this -- excessive and rigid processes, systems, rules and procedures are a tax you pay for being afraid and suspicious.

Lead, don't manage. Sprinkle in some faith instead.

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AuthorJoseph Fusco
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Life is about a lot of things. At its core, however, it is a problem-solving journey. Life throws problems -- decisions, challenges, relationships, puzzles, choices, thoughts -- at you every day. You wake up, put your feet on the floor, and start solving problems.

Skillful problem solving leads to success and happiness. Poor problem solving...well, doesn’t.

Great, and good, problem solvers expect challenges daily, and embrace each and every one of them. They understand the path to mastery in life is a deep passion and commitment to the challenges and problems life throws at them. And, they’re grateful for the opportunity. After all, having challenges, and doing the work, is what makes you human, and what reminds you that you are alive.

Simply, problems are good things. One of your goals should be to share this love of problems which, when embraced, offers you a path to mastery in your life. In their daily lives and challenges, inspired problem solvers see this path clearly:

  • Your problems are an opportunity to achieve mastery over stagnation. Problems invite you to learn new skills, to grow, to adapt, to venture beyond your comfort zone, to pursue and shape your and others’ future.
  • Your problems are an opportunity to achieve mastery over irrelevance. You matter. Your ideas, skills, knowledge and insights matter. The world needs you. You have something to contribute to the battle. How dare you not think so.
  • Your problems are an opportunity to achieve mastery over chaos. You really do have a measure of control over your life, over your results, over your direction. It’s your ability to be a great problem solver.
  • Your problems are an opportunity to achieve mastery over fear. Fear, uncertainty, doubt and instability thrive on our inability or unwillingness to address challenges in our lives and work. Solve problems well, and they lose their power to terrify you. Also, look around you. There aren’t a lot of great problem solvers in the world. Be one -- it’s terrific job security.
  • Your problems are an opportunity to achieve mastery over isolation. Reach out. Ask for help. Connect with other people, and other ideas, insights and experiences. You are never alone.
  • Your problems are an opportunity to achieve mastery over boredom. Let your brain out of its cage. Experiment and play. Have fun. Invent something. Be inspired.

Posted
AuthorJoseph Fusco

We know so much, and have studied so much, and have imagined so much about what great leadership looks, smells, and acts like.

And yet.

And yet, we’re not very good at it, are we? As many people in organizational life often — painfully — suspect, we haven’t quite mastered it. This is not a criticism or a breathless statement of crisis. It’s just an observation.

Leading well is tough. As much as we love the idea of leading, and as full as our heads are with the knowledge and techniques of leading, it’s very difficult to do. Despite our attempts to quantify, analyze and simplify it in the laboratory, out in the wild it is a shadowy creature, escaping the traps we set for it.

The mystery, however, is not about what we still need to learn or invent about good leadership practice and behavior.

The mystery is this: why, with all we know, with all our wonderful, good and true knowledge, do we too often fail to realize the ideals of leadership in ourselves and in our organizations?

All of these approaches to leadership and personal growth, to their credit, describe a kind of utopia, where purpose, teamwork, success and joy flow like milk and honey. Why, then, do we have such trouble reaching this promised land? Where is the flaw?

Why, blessed with an abundance of insight and intellect about effective behaviors and principles of personal growth, are we unable to sustain the change and effectiveness we seek?

Why do we continue to struggle with results we don’t want or intend (but, nonetheless, our behavior and choices are perfectly designed to produce)? Why, after all those books and seminars, nothing seems to be different, or our progress is painfully slow?

Why do we find it so hard to change, when we know we should and we know what it’s supposed to look like?

Why do we mess it up?

We are addicted to cheap leadership.

At worst, we pursue this addiction intentionally. This intentional, or conscious, form of cheap leadership can be the cynical exercise of certain management behaviors that are a form of abuse, but what we claim are designed to “solve problems,” “get results,” or “win.” It can also be those behaviors we’ve simply learned or observed, and which we have come to believe without question are the best way to organize and conduct daily business.

More commonly, but no less toxic, we are simply unconscious of both the addiction and its consequences. Our intentions are good; we simply don’t realize what we’re doing, and why, nor do we always immediately notice the damage done.

Either way, cheap leadership is the biggest threat to our personal growth, an enabler of our ineffective behaviors, and a stumbling block to our success as leaders.

Cheap leadership mires our organizations in mediocrity, or worse. It erodes performance and sustainability. It steals, often silently and invisibly, from our bottom line.

Cheap leadership smothers the happiness and enjoyment of work, and the fulfillment that all of us — leaders and followers — seek in organizational life.

Our addiction to cheap leadership chokes the creativity, energy and problem-solving skills of everyone around us. It frustrates and weakens. It annoys and deflates.

Cheap leadership is poison.

Posted
AuthorJoseph Fusco

Who is going to own this process?” It’s a question I’m sure is asked quite frequently, and more than likely in response to a thorny problem, the kind of problem many managers react to by kidnapping twelve people and calling it a meeting.

Obviously (or maybe not; you tell me), it’s the wrong question.

Do you really want someone to own the process?

The danger in creating ownership of a process is that it makes everyone — surprise — focus on the process. Success, and the value of everyone’s time and attention, is then measured by how good the process is. Or, by some perverse sense of how complicated and impenetrable the process is, or how many spreadsheet tabs it consumes, or how many work teams it sucked into its gravitational pull. You’ve created an organization where people get rewarded for process creation.

As my teenage children say, “that sucks.”

Words matter. Words create a culture in an organization. They reflect people’s thinking. They influence people’s behavior.

“Process” is the wrong word.

The right word — the right question — is “who is going to own the solution?”

Everyone’s focus needs to be on problem solving. Reward people for the quality of their solutions to an organization’s problems. Because we come to work to solve problems, not design processes.

Maybe it’s nit-picky to focus on one simple word uttered by overwhelmed managers in the heat of a moment. I don’t think so. Like signposts, words direct people to what an organization values. Words create a culture.

And more than anything, you need a solution culture, not a process culture. After all, what do your customers want you to do for them — create a process, or solve a problem?

Posted
AuthorJoseph Fusco

It’s never just the analysis, the processes, the procedures, the spreadsheets, the strategic plans, is it? There really is more to it, isn’t there?

So, why do managers rarely see their job is to understand and master the genuine, more powerful drivers of success — like “trust,” “resiliency,” “belief,” and “resolve”?

My guess is blindness, or fear. Or both.

Posted
AuthorJoseph Fusco