This is a question I am often asked when a difficult project has been transformed into seemingly impossible results. After some reflection about the projects on which I have worked, there are some fundamental aspects of how I have worked with many different teams to create an unforeseen future that are worth sharing.
In this post, I will share some high level thoughts. In the future, I will apply these thoughts to what actually happened with some of the most successful projects. I will also share what happened when we failed.
A Different Future is All about Leadership
Many of the projects on which I have worked introduce a new way of thinking. At the commencement of the project, usually the community, institution, or industry has been struggling to find a new future for quite some time without positive results. Debate is often mired down by fatigue and conflict, and sometimes, people don’t even understand there is a problem because they are so consumed by “business as usual” that there is no recognition of a competitive threat.
So, it is always interesting to start a new project, which brings with it the anticipation of new possibilities while simultaneously requiring one to confront a long period of ambiguity. You never know what is going to happen – whether your efforts will be successful or not – and you cannot will the end result into concrete form.
(Da Vinci’s Portrait of a Woman, a work half-finished.)
Creation is an Art Form
Like art, a new project is as much about the process of discovery as the product. The pieces to any given solution are lying around unrecognized. Creating the solution is a matter of picking up the pieces, seeing how they might fit together, laying one down when it doesn’t quite fit, and picking up another. This part of the work is organic and, at times, chaotic: we are constantly evaluating the different pieces we have, what works and what does not. The finished product is always unique.
At the same time, finding the solution is not as simple as snapping the pieces together. The solution is not a finished project that is just waiting to be discovered. We become active participants in shaping the solution, and this requires intense engagement, both with the subject matter and the people involved.
At this stage of the process, the ability to deal with the unknown and ambiguity is essential. I always tell my teams, “Don’t expect clarity any time soon.” It is our job to muddle through and wrestle with both the content and the participants, until the answers do become clear.
As a result, one of the most important aspects of our job is to keep asking “What are we not seeing?” and to have no preconceived notions about what the final result might be. The only constant is to know, as a new element introduced into the current environment, that we will disrupt the current environment. Therefore, we refuse to accept conventional wisdom about what is possible or what is impossible. I have a visceral response when I hear “That will never happen” or “That is not possible.”
Here is where our critical commitment enters the equation – to do whatever is necessary to obtain the best possible outcome. Here is where intense engagement with the questions and the participants in the process of building matters. Here is where our commitment and persistence can, under the right circumstances, pierce the veil of confusion to engender clarity and achieve a positive result.
Forget the Fear of Failure
With game changing projects, the requirement to face the unknown also requires you to face the real possibility that you might fail, which can evoke feelings of fear – fear of loss, of looking foolish, of unanticipated consequences. Many people tell me, “You have to be fearless to attempt this.” Or less politely, “You have be insane to attempt this.” So one of the first requirements of a successful project is to accept the possibility of failure early on and to banish fear.
The best way that I have found for overcoming fear is to dive in. That first leap into the unknown is a powerful antidote to paralysis, as it opens the door to serendipity. When you begin, all manner of support that you could not possibly imagine begins to flow and things you don’t expect to happen will happen.
The anticipation and excitement about new possibilities is not knowing, getting up every day and wondering what new developments the day or week will bring, while committing yourself to doing whatever is necessary for the highest good to result.
Enlist the Experts
When we begin, we inform ourselves about everything going on in an industry, community, and institution. We review all of the literature and documents so that we have a comprehensive idea of what is happening in the marketplace. We get out there, talk and listen to as many people as possible in order to learn from them. We enlist people into the process who know the lay of the land. But we also recruit new thought leaders in appreciation for what new perspectives can add.
We engage people in the process. We ask them to think big. We get people to talk to each other, even when past experiences or differences get in the way. All of this occurs in one-on-one meetings, brainstorming working groups, and large group sessions.
After this intense engagement, we have usually formulated some key hypotheses about initial recommendations, which need to be shaped into a concrete plan. Historical and competitive analysis informs these recommendations, which are then presented and reworked until an acceptable plan – encompassing strategy, operations, finances, and development – is defined.
Learn the Language of the Land
At this stage, language matters. Vocabulary differs between people and amongst industries. It is important to learn the language in order to gain true understanding. For example, when I was practicing law, there was the red herring (prospectus) and the green shoe (over-allotment option). In synthetic biology there are parts and chassis, and kill switches.
Likewise, when you are dealing with multiple disciplines, it is important to understand that different professions are trained to think and communicate differently. Language can be a large stumbling block to defining common ground. So, it is critical to make sure you are paying close attention to instances where different interpretations of the same language can get in the way.
Expect Resistance to Change
It is always important to remember at early stages that change is hard. Resistance is unavoidable and to be expected. People’s expectations are limited by past experience, and many times, they resist change even when they recognize a problem but cannot say exactly what they want.
So here is where fortitude, strong mindedness, and endurance are critical to maintaining progress. We listen, but we don’t give in on what matters. After all of the wrestling with the people and the content, my team often possesses the broadest point of view that includes all of the variables. We attempt to make the best recommendations we can based on intuition and experience, as well as the broad understanding we have acquired of the landscape.
At that end of the day, that is what we have been hired to do.
Keep Your Eyes on the Stars but Your Feet on the Ground
We live in a world that sorely needs new imaginative thinking: new multidisciplinary and inter-institutional ways of working that create win-wins and new approaches using the most modern technologies to construct new solutions. No one knows the possibility of what may happen if you try a new approach or ask a different question.
Along the way, we don’t forget to have fun and take risks. When we were in the early stages of planning the New York Genome Center, my team and I joked about educating the public about medical genomics by sequencing in Times Square. It seemed impossible.
One year later, we were doing just that when the Ion Bus sponsored by Life Technologies came to New York City.
I am so amazed at your incredible work and wisdom, Nancy. Much love to you, Julia Uliano