About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

02 April 2010

The Sorcerer's Way to Innovation

The Naskapi Indians live in small, nomadic bands on the Quebec-Labrador peninsula. The mainstay of their life is caribou hunting. In warm weather months, large numbers of caribou migrate through Naskapi lands. The animals travel at a very fast pace - covering up to forty miles a day - over terrain that humans can hardly traverse. The key to successful hunting during this time is the anticipation of the migration route, because the hunters have no hope of getting close enough to even see the caribou herds otherwise.

The bitter cold of winter changes everything, and calls for a very different approach to the hunt. First, there are fewer caribou. Second, they are dispersed more widely. Third, they go from sprinting across the tundra to settling in the woods. As a result, the Naskapi have to figure out where the herd might be each day instead of trying to head them off at the pass.

To do this, they use a shamanistic practice - scapulamancy - that has been passed down from one generation of Naskapi to the next. Here's how it works. Each night during the hunting season, a Naskapi shaman holds the shoulder bone of a long-dead caribou over a fire until burnt spots and cracks appear. When they do, the shaman reads the results and tells the hunting party where to go to find caribou the next day.

The idea you can find caribou by following cracks in a charred shoulder blade seems silly to those living in the developed world. Yet, the Naskapi have survived in their inhospitable surroundings by following this ritual. Why does their magic work? For possible answers, we turn to a recent book on strategy - Competing on the Edge - by Shona L. Brown and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt:
"The rituals provide novelty. First, they introduce an element of randomness into the inevitably patterned actions by which the hunters’ tactics become too predictable to the hunted and too locked into a set pattern. They help the Naskapi avoid over hunting, what we would call success-induced failure. Second, by following these random patterns, the Naskapi are much more likely to explore new hunting grounds that can yield new ways to hunt caribou and perhaps even new game."
They go on to point out that Naskapi magic holds a lesson for business:
"Novelty and even randomness (technically termed mutation) are critical to success, especially in times of rapid and unpredictable change. Without novelty and randomness, hunters will be slow to spot change and will uncover few opportunities to find new game or to hunt the old game in new ways. Novelty breaks the frame of the past. The same is true of managers who become stuck in routines and trapped by tightly configured business models. Whereas the Naskapi create this freshness by following random cracks in charred caribou bones, contemporary managers can do so by pursuing new opportunities in unexpected and possibly even random ways."
There are many ways to intentionally use random selection to generate novelty. One to try comes from Bob Sutton, Stanford University professor and author of Weird Ideas That Work. In a recent visit to The Masters Forum, he said:
"Reactivity, a software company I advise, holds regular brainstorming sessions where employees talk about ideas for new technologies, products, and companies. After holding a few of these sessions, a couple of the software designers were becoming concerned that the ideas discussed were getting too narrow. So they invented a random selection process. Attendees at the sessions were given index cards and told to jot down on each a technology (one color of cards) or an industry (a second color). Random pairings were then created by picking a card from each deck, and the group brainstormed for five minutes on the possibilities of each pair. The ideas deemed most promising became homework for several small sub-groups, which reported what they'd learned at the next meeting. For example, the pairing of shipbuilding and risk management inspired some promising ideas about doing dynamic risk management in real time, a method that could be quite valuable for helping companies price insurance of all kinds, not just for ships. As for the efficacy of the process, one of the designers said 'It helped get us out of the rut we were in.'"
  • Are you superstitious? How so?
  • Do you believe it is possible to divine the future? Explain.
  • Are you familiar with the beliefs of spiritual traditions other than your own? Is there one in particular that interests you?
  • If you learn about something that does not mesh with your belief system, what do you do?
  • What are the ways in which your company is predictable to its competitors?
  • How can you use novelty and randomness to break out of your traditions or set ways of operating?
"Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger." - J.R.R. Tolkien
"It seems safe to assume that human beings require a functional equivalent to a table of random numbers if they are to avoid unwitting regularities in their behavior, which can be utilized by adversaries." - O.K. Moore, Divination: A New Perspective, American Anthropologist 59, 1957
"I am enthusiastic over humanity's extraordinary and sometimes very timely ingenuities. If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat may come along and make a fortuitous life preserver. This is not to say, though, that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday's fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem." - R. Buckminster Fuller
"In bullfighting there is a term called ‘querencia.’ The querencia is the spot in the ring to which the bull returns. Each bull has a different querencia, but as the bullfight continues, and the animal becomes more threatened, it returns more and more often to his spot. As he returns to his querencia, he becomes more predictable. And so, in the end, the matador is able to kill the bull because instead of trying something new, the bull returns to what is familiar. His comfort zone." - Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO

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