"Oh the Places You’ll Go" when you engage in nontraditional collaboration

By Mike Cook
Contributing writer

 Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.

 – Dr. Seuss

Turn back the clock to an April afternoon in Michigan in the spring of 1965. A young man leaves the back door of the high school gymnasium headed for baseball practice. Cleats slung over his shoulder, mitt under his arm, he is hailed by members of the track team and challenged to a footrace in the school parking lot. The young man has developed something of a reputation for being fleet of foot, at least on the baseball field, regularly stealing two and three bases a game. His colleagues on the track team want to see if he can translate his speed on the bases to speed on the track.

The runners gather at a line on the asphalt lot measured 100 yards from a finish near the baseball diamond. The young man was not prepared for this race; he wears low cut canvas sneakers and long pants. His challengers from the track team are dressed for their practice: shorts and running shoes. At the sound of the starter they are off and 10.2 seconds later the young baseball player crosses the finish line ahead of the members of the track team.

The track coach who has been watching the proceedings approaches the baseballer and asks him about joining the track squad. Flattered, the young man expresses interest provided that he can also remain on the baseball team, his first love. In response the coach says that the young man will have to choose between the two sports and points out that he could likely be very successful as a sprinter for the track squad. The young man thanks the coach for the offer but chooses to remain with the baseball team. Later that spring at the all-city track meet the 100-yard dash is won with a time of 10.0, two-tenths of a second faster than the young baseball player had run in sneakers and long pants with no warm up that April afternoon.

Fast forward to early 2009, the former young baseball player, now an experienced organizational development consultant leads a cross-functional, multi-disciplinary initiative on behalf of a client interested in generating innovative thinking and solutions in some critical customer facing areas. Players in this initiative are offered the opportunity to work on one of five suggested projects where major improvements are necessary and desired within a 12-month period. Each employee involved, chosen because they were identified as “high potential,” is allowed to self-select to work on a project where they feel their talents will be put to good use. These are real projects with real needs and real dollars (in the multi-millions) and real customer relationships at stake.

When the initiative nears completion, four of the five projects have shown solid progress. The fifth project team, working on the most entrenched and critical customer servicing processes, presents a set of ideas for segmenting and servicing customers that stands to revolutionize not only the client’s business model but the industry model as well. Key contributions to this revolutionary set of ideas have come from diverse and unanticipated sources. The project team leader is a woman with less than five years experience in this 40-year-old company. Her most valuable collaborators have been a senior human resource analyst who was virtually unknown outside of HR when this initiative began and a finance director who had no experience in the customer facing areas of the business in his fifteen-year career with the client company. Prior to this initiative the only one of these three people who would have been invited to participate on this project was the woman team leader and she would have been given a secondary role because of her limited experience.

The connection between these two stories is of course the baseball player turned organizational development consultant who never forgot what could have been that spring of 1965 if a different model had been in place. What if the track coach has focused his attention on making use of the best available talent, regardless of the source?

Your organization might not be as strapped for talent as you might imagine. Quite possibly your mental models for what it takes to contribute are the true limit to what you are experiencing when it comes to innovative thinking.

Where is your organization trapped by its adherence to a tradition of finding solutions to current problems from among the available functional knowledge and experience that created them?

What would it take to allow people with talent, passion, initiative and creativity to become involved regardless of current assignments or functional history?

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.

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