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Polly LaBarre’s Cheat Sheet for Inventing the Future

Monday, Oct 15, 2018

For more than 20 years, Polly LaBarre has used her writing, business consulting, and speaking to help organizations unleash and organize human potential in ever more powerful ways. Polly is a co-founder of the Management Lab, a “think-and-do” tank dedicated to rebooting management for the 21st century. Along with her partners at MLab (pronounced “M-Lab”), Polly has developed a pioneering method and platform for changing how large organizations change. They run large-scale, real-world experiments in “hacking management” to build the deep organizational capabilities crucial for thriving in a creative, disruptive world: adaptability, innovation, and inspiration.

In her latest blog, an excerpt from her book Mavericks at WorkPolly shares her “cheat sheet” for inventing the future.


For every leader unsettled by rampant disruption, unbounded competition, relentless commodification, and the specter of automation, there is a powerful antidote already inside the organization: the untapped audacity, imagination, energy, resourcefulness, curiosity, eccentricity, and passion of its people. Those fundamental human qualities are the engine of the creative economy—the source of all value. And yet, too few organizations are designed to unleash, mobilize, and amplify that human edge.

So, how do you unleash your organization’s full human and creative capacity? How do you lay out a welcome mat for the challenging and contrarian ideas that are the source of so much organizational vitality and innovation? And how do you boost your impact as innovation leaders—catalysts, architects, and activists—in a world where traditional authority has less and less currency, prescribed career paths are less and less relevant, and conventional companies have less and less competitive power?

Here’s a cheat sheet for doing just that—a maverick agenda for building your own and your organization’s capacity to invent and adapt.

The Maverick Agenda

I. Lead without authority
The most powerful leaders today exude a genuine authority—one that grows out of their capacity to inspire, equip, and mobilize others. Leadership has dramatically shifted from a game of control to one of freedom. How do you dramatically expand autonomy—and embed a sense of accountability and ownership at the same time? At W.L. Gore, they put every individual in a position to take responsibility, move around, mix it up with different parts of the organization and different people—early and often. At Svenska Handelsbanken, every associate is equipped with real-time, granular performance data—and trained to make decisions in the interest of customers and the business day in and day out.

The question to ask yourself here is: How do we expand the leadership capacity of the whole organization?

II. Build an architecture of contribution
When it comes to enlarging your organization’s creative and adaptive capacity, the work of leadership is less about making decisions, directing, visioning, planning—and more about INVOLVING people.

One of the most powerful ways an organization can become bigger than the sum of its parts and can continuously punch above its weight—is to devise an “architecture of contribution” that attracts, enlists, equips, and activates a rich mix of talented, passionate, and creative individuals (wherever they sit in or beyond the organization) to become co-creators of the organization’s future.

The software company Rite-Solutions has designed a clever approach with it’s “Mutual Fun” market for ideas—which involves everyone in the organization in sharing new ideas, collaboratively refining and prioritizing them, and then validating them with risk-bound tests.

As a leader, the question to ask yourself here is: How do we devise forums and mechanisms that create a true market not just for ideas, but also for talent—where people can align themselves with the initiatives and projects they think have the most promise, and everyone has a chance to expand the creative and strategic content of their job?

III. Prototype the future
When it comes to building your capacity to adapt and invent in a world ruled by expanding complexity and exponential change, experimentation is the ultimate power tool.

Why? Game-changing, future-shaping innovation doesn’t burst forth fully-formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Nor is it the result of meticulous planning. Instead, it requires the generation and testing of hundreds of strategic options. It proceeds by trial and error. In other words, it’s a product of experimentation.

Experimentation turns the plodding path of planning, perfecting, and piloting new ideas into a fast-twitch cycle of generating ideas, testing them, learning from feedback, and iterating from there.

As appealing as that sounds, it is not natural behavior for most organizations. When it comes to making decisions about whether and how to venture into new territory, running an experiment is not the first instinct of most leaders. Instead, the tendency is to turn to data and analysis, on the one hand, or personal experience and judgement on the other.

Problem is: even the richest data set can only illuminate the past and personal experience is circumscribed by, well, personal experience. Neither are very good at helping you discern the potential impact of truly bold and innovative ideas.

Experimentation, on the other hand, has the virtue of being both evidence-based and emergent. A welldesigned experiment quickly tests the merits of your ideas, generates new and relevant insight into the deep needs and behaviors of your customers, and opens up new avenues that weren’t apparent before. It also has the benefit of being a lot faster, cheaper, and risk-bounded than launching a meticulously designed battle plan.

So, the questions for leaders everywhere is: How do we turn experimentation into an every day, every person activity? The first step here is to recast the inevitable failure, misdirection, dead ends and “waste” associated with experimentation as work in progress on the way to valuable discovery.

IV. Learn as fast as the world is changing
The imperative for leaders today is to remain open, hungry and humble when it comes to discovering and experimenting with new ideas, new methods, new voices.

If you want to stay ahead of all the shifts in your environment and spot the signposts of the future, you have to shed many of the assumptions, approaches and certainties you’ve picked up on your march to mastery. You’ve got to walk in to work every day alive to possibility—unconstrained by judgement, unfettered by knowledge, undaunted by precedent. In other words, with fresh eyes.

One of the most powerful and accessible strategies for doing just that, is to make a habit of asking more questions than you give answers.

So, how do you lead with questions? Sketch out a list of stretch questions—questions that provoke your thinking, flip your assumptions, pull you in new directions. Write them down, put them on your phone, pin them up in your office or conference room.

Questions like:
– If you had my job, what would you do differently?
– What if we did the exact opposite?
– Where were we/was I wrong?
– Why do we do this?
– What big opportunity are we not pursuing?
– Is this the kind of organization my (your) kids would want to work in?
– How can I help?

Finally, ask yourselves every day: What am I doing (and what can I do) to unleash human capacity—and to grow the creative power of my organization?

To learn more about futurist speaker and women in business Polly LaBarre, or to check her availability, contact Executive Speakers Bureau at (901) 754-9404.

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