One of the biggest changes in the workforce in the new millennium is that we have to be information synthesizers instead of information producers. All information is available online. So we can’t add value by memorizing it. We have to add value by reframing it. I call this synthesizing.
IBM conducted a survey of CEOs to find out what they thought were the most important leadership skills of the near future. And in the top five was boundary spanning, which is networking ideas and collaborating in order to synthesize information in new ways.
Side note: I have a theory that this is why we suddenly are noticing how many people have Asperger’s, because it used to be that people with Asperger’s were extremely valuable for their memorizing capacity. Today, when we don’t need to hire people to memorize things, people with Asperger’s are suddenly viewed as weird and unemployable instead of savants and extremely valuable.
This made me start thinking about how we create that unexpected clash of information that leads to new ideas.
Organizations have been spanning boundaries for decades as a way to expand their brand equity. For example, Shell Oil sponsors the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Shell has a prominent facility in Amsterdam. Shell funded research into how van Gogh chose paint, and as part of that, Shell offered up their research facilities and their own researchers to do lab work on the project.
As the collaboration got deeper and deeper, the result was a ten‑year investigation of how van Gogh taught himself to paint through color, and how we can understand color in different ways today. One of the most memorable results is that van Gogh experimented with destabilizing red pigments, which means that today many of his paintings have become more blue than they originally were – like the walls in The Bedroom.
This changes our understanding of the bridge between the impressionists that van Gogh hung out with and the colorists, such as Matisse, that van Gogh provided a bridge to.
But how can we as individuals span boundaries in order to become better at information synthesis? Pair yourself with unlikely people.
1. Go somewhere you don’t fit.
Travelers to other cultures are the obvious example of people spanning boundaries. In the past I talked about how stupid travel is because people generally use it as a method of getting away from the problems in their life. However, you can use travel as a way to address the problems in your life if you use travel to do a specific job. If you set out to solve a problem and then you need a different type of information to solve that problem, you can travel to create that solution.
This is very different from traveling to get away from your problems, because when you travel to get away from your problems, you don’t have a very specific solution that you’re on a mission to discover. A test of whether you’re using travel productively is whether or not you have a very clear way to implement the results of your travel once you get home.
2. Work with people you don’t like.
When you get hired, your job is not to do your job description. Your job is to help your boss. The boss that you’re most likely to give the most help to is someone who doesn’t share your skill set at all.
This means that if you’re good with people, you need to work with someone who is terrible with people. If you’re good with numbers, you should work with someone who is terrible with numbers.
One of my most successful attempts at being an employee was when I worked for a CEO who was a frat boy. He was still wearing his fraternity sweatshirts ten years out of college. The chief marketing officer was his fraternity brother, and so was the CFO.
When we sat in meetings, my sole purpose was to be the intellect in the company. They never would have hung out with me outside of work because to them I was boring and overly concerned with the future. But they needed me a lot because my way of thinking was so different from theirs. Most of the great ideas we came up with were a combination of my ability to see the big picture and their ability to make my ideas fun and saleable.
3. Make yourself nervous.
I made a rule for myself that I can never hire people that I coach, but it happens all the time that I coach someone and fall in love with the idea of working with them. I coach such smart, interesting people, and they’re usually backed into a corner because they’re very good at something, but the thing they’re very good at is not working at that moment. So even though I have a rule for never hiring people I coach, I end up hiring them all the time.
When I was dictating posts to Melissa we had a few problems. I could talk faster than she could type. She got frustrated when I made corrections and she always wanted to add her two cents.
Melissa is not a focus‑in‑the‑moment person. Melissa’s brain is wandering all the time to new ideas. So we can’t have two people wandering to tons of ideas if one person is supposed to be writing down the other person’s ideas.
So I was coaching this woman who is a court reporter, but the court reporter business is going to India and she doesn’t know what to do. Of course, I hired her to write while I dictate blog posts.
She can write so fast that we can actually get five posts done in one hour, but only if I’m focused. So what ends up happening is I get really nervous before our scheduled call, because there’s no reason for me to pause. I should be dictating posts the whole time which means I have to prepare, and it means I have to commit to posts that I think I’m going to write, but maybe I don’t want to write.
Dictating posts to Carmen also encourages me to take more risks, because the posts go so quickly that if they end up being stupid, it doesn’t matter.
I would never have dreamed of hiring a court reporter, but when you pair yourself with someone you never dreamed of pairing yourself with, you do things that you never dreamed you were able to do.
The point here is that the risk takers will rule the next millennium. This is how we find a clash of new ideas and a surge of creativity, by taking intellectual and emotional risks. The other reason that risk takers will rule is that Generation Y is risk averse because they’re people pleasers and Generation Z is risk averse because they are consensus builders.
The last fifty years have been dominated by Baby Boomers and Gen X—two generations known for taking risks. As they retire, there will be a dearth of risk-takers, yet the need for risk takers will be increasing. So those who can put themselves if very uncomfortable situations, on purpose, will have the most to offer at work.