Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

March 17, 2011

To grow your business faster, disconnect the dots 

When I was a kid growing up in the UK, one of the most enjoyable, exotic, secret pleasures I had was to…wait for it…buy ‘Mad’ magazine.As a hard-to-get US import it had a compelling allure, and for a young kid in those pre-“Monty Python” years (yes, I’m that old) there was nothing else quite like it for snarky, adolescent, yet often biting contemporary humor. I devoured every issue I could get my hands on.

By far my favorite section was the famous Al Jaffee ‘fold-out’ (or ‘fold-ins’ as they are more correctly known).

In these wonderful works of art, a topic would be illustrated in two sharply opposing ways, but by using just one image. At first, the image shows something one way – say, a ravaged celebrity entering rehab. Then you realize that you’re (literally) only seeing part of the picture – unfold the page and the exact same scene shows the same celeb proudly walking down the red carpet amidst Hollywood in all its pomp.

It works simply: unfold the page and you disconnect two seemingly ‘joined-up’ points in the image to reveal a larger, richer image showing much more detail. Reconnect the dots and you seamlessly hide the bigger picture, seeing instead a simpler, less detailed, more benign reality.

(If you’re interested in seeing more, check out the marvelous examples in this New York Times archive.)

I see the equivalent to this happen all the time with senior executive teams. The CEO tells me confidentially that “Joe isn’t great with technology“, or Jane tells me the CEO “lacks transparency“; or Juan confides to me that “Joe and Jane never see eye to eye“.

Because I have a fresh pair of eyes (and only because of it – I don’t, sadly, have secret powers or second sight) and because I’m an outsider, untrammeled by history and opinion, it can often be apparent to me that there’s a richer picture underneath.

By unfolding the picture, I see perhaps that Joe’s problem isn’t with technology at all, but with a paralyzing fear of change in general; that the CEO is snakebitten from a project that went seriously wrong and is trying to over-control; that Joe and Jane have a healthy, if aggressive, challenge function that’s actually good for them and the company if managed correctly.

Disconnect the dots and you find wonderful things beneath.

Recently it was suggested to me that as an Irishman who relocated late in life to Boston, it was perhaps unlikely that I would know much about global business. This was a perfectly fair assumption for anyone who doesn’t know me well, based on two glaring and very connected dots: a lifetime in Ireland, and a home just outside Boston.

Except that in between those two dots I co-founded, grew, managed, and sold a global consulting company with over 100 employees, operating out of 13 locations, doing business in more than 40 countries on four continents. A bigger picture, but one that’s only apparent if you disconnect the dots.

That assumption doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is the chest-thumping realization that I, like us all, connect dots too readily, and as a result we see less than we should, we achieve less than we could.

So I have a question for you to ask each of your key team members this week. (By the way – the trick is to insist they not answer right away – force them to take time to think about it).

Here’s the question:

What is the largest incorrect assumption I’ve made about you?

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