“What do you know about Christopher Columbus?” Today, with that opening, Rachel Kaberon sparks an enthusiastic dialogue on business in a roomful of thought leaders. And it turns into a story about technology. How does she do that?
Once we’re engaged in analyzing Columbus, modern parallels become obvious. We begin to apply his problems to our own and in the process find objectivity and freedom of thought—two rare experiences for most business people. We stretch the frame of the story and climb inside. Hey, this is exciting stuff. It’s a 4-step process.
1 – WHAT IS?
2 – WHAT IF?
3 – WHAT WOWS?
4 – WHAT WORKS?
I’ve seen Rachel explain the FRAME STRETCHING process at a mastermind group. We’ve talked it out together a couple times over coffee. But none of that prepared me for the power of the real thing—the amazing free flow of ideas generated by her methods. She’s using Story in an entirely new way. Rachel synthesizes some of the best ideas written on the subject into her own unique method.
We analyze the story of Columbus and get involved in the guy. His management style? Draconian. His competency as a ship’s captain? Nothing to brag about. His ability to assess reality? Shaky at best. He believes America is India. His sales skills? Clearly lacking. He seems an odd one to get this venture started. Can we identify with him? The answer turns out to be YES.
Just like entrepreneurs of today, Columbus goes on a road show. He gets turned down by one funding source after another. Queen Isabella of Spain finally gives him the nod but then he waits at her court for years till Spain beats back the Moors and feels ready to throw money at a new venture. And they’re looking for riches. Does that sound familiar to you?
But Columbus is a visionary. He’s unconventional. Passionate. A risk-taker. A disrupter. He’s already stared down his Black Swans and to his way of thinking, the unknown/unknowns are already known/knowns. He’s wrong on many counts. For example, he believes the globe is a lot smaller than it is. But that error works in his favor. It cancels his fear. He believes. His enthusiasm is infectious. He’s ready to bet his life on this venture.
In my mind’s eye, I picture of his three frail craft tossed like toys amid huge waves in a storm at night. Howling wind. White caps. A desperate struggle. This is way beyond mere entrepreneurship. This is adventure. And if he’s right, it means huge rewards. As it turns out, Columbus is proven wrong on several major points but nevertheless he’s wildly successful. Don’t forget the 80/20 rule. Perfection is an illusion.
I’m surprised by the new technology of the day as explained by various members of this group of luminaries—among them John Kennedy of Combat Brain Training, Christopher Rollyson who I last met at MIT, Rebecca Sexton, a design strategist, David Friedman of Collaborating Minds, Ken Novak from Sagence, and others—not a lightweight crowd. I teleconference with Terry Flanagan of SMART Decision Services to find out what went on at the earlier session. Terry is an encyclopedia of business knowledge and one of my key strategic partners. Turns out, his breakfast session contributed to Rachel’s preparation for our lunch meeting.
But I promised to tell about Columbus’ technology. Turns out, contrary to conventional wisdom, he knows the world isn’t flat. All educated people of his day know that. The Greeks discover it long before. Even the Church knows about it. Washington Irving gives a false impression in his history and it sticks with us to this day. Columbus is still living in the Middle Ages. Superstition is the norm so the common sailor believes in the flat earth and the leviathan but the elite does not.
More technology: The galleon is a relatively new vessel. The sextant? Only recently invented. Now a navigator can measure both latitude and longitude instead of relying on dead reckoning. In case you didn’t know, navigation remains a rare skill for hundreds of years. Without a navigator, a ship is lost at sea. Mutiny is common, but killing the navigator is folly.
Just to put the timing in perspective, Columbus’ venture is the driver for the coming Age of Exploration and he eventually becomes the governor of Hispaniola. Magellan and others come later. The Mercantile age won’t get big for another 200 years.
Is Columbus the first to try? Who knows? How many ships try and fail? History is written by the winners. Yes, the Vikings make the voyage but their exploits end in retreat and are not part of the knowledge base of the time. Columbus is the first European to do it.
LET’S GET PRACTICAL. Businesspeople tend to be impatient, results-oriented individuals. Like so many intelligent people, they skip the intermediate steps when seeking solutions. The common model is simple:
1 – WHAT IS? Discover and analyze the problem.
4 – WHAT WORKS? Solve it.
NOTE: You just skipped steps 2 and 3.
This approach may put out fires but doesn’t build a legacy of solution methodology. Steps 2 and 3 are missing. And for a good reason. As you will see, #2 and #3 are very abstract.
WATCHOUT MODE—Let’s say you’re sitting in company meeting and feel the clock ticking. You’re too busy for this. You don’t like where this discussion is headed. It looks disruptive—a big change in the way things get done around here. It means you’ve been wrong about a lot of things. Do you feel comfortable with that? Of course not. You see all sorts of risks. It doesn’t feel safe. How are you gonna get the old creative juices flowing in that situation?
In business we deal with entrenched knowledge. That knowledge may or may not be based in fact but sticking to it feels safe. To break people out of that trap it’s necessary to change the way they view a problem. People fear that.
Nobody wants to change the way they think. We’re all wrapped up in our beliefs—our bias—whether valid or not. We may believe many things that are untrue because of conventional wisdom. We fear new modes of thinking. That scares adults who fought in armed combat. It may not occur to them that the status quo is the most dangerous choice.
HOW DO YOU BREAK THEM OUT? Rachel gets them involved in a story. As it turns out, a rational person will permit him or herself to indulge in deeply creative and abstract dialogue about a disconnected character. In doing so, the parallels to their own circumstances eventually become obvious. We change our perceptions. An entirely new solution may germinate and sprout. Today, Rachel steps us through some FRAME STRETCHING exercises to do just that.
Columbus chooses to fight the status quo. In his day, navigation means hugging the coast. The trip to the mysterious Orient is long. Round trip—about 2 years. He ends up crossing the Atlantic in 32 days. Thirty two days! That’s huge! Can you picture the effect that has on commerce? So what if he doesn’t land in India as he assumes. He opens the gate to exploration and trade with a new world.
LET’S TALK SPECIFICS: Hey, I’m as results-driven as the next guy. I understand the resistance people feel toward abstract thinking. See if you can empathize as well.
THE HARDEST STORY TO TELL IS YOUR OWN. I’m constantly saying that. But instead asking us to waste time on our own stories, Rachel gets us involved in somebody else’s story—a heroic character—one with flaws who beats the odds and wins. We love to identify with such characters.
EXERCISE MORE THAN ONE MUSCLE. Most people keep doing what they do best simply because they’re good at it. But we all need to vary our exercise routine. That’s where FRAME STRETCHING comes in. The process involves asking four key questions while analyzing a well-known story:
1 – WHAT IS? This is assessment. It can be uncomfortable but it’s familiar. One failed to do this—another failed to do that. Assessment is more honest discipline than creativity. Competent executives are expert at it.
2 – WHAT IF? This is an analysis phase. It’s classic ideation. It uncovers bias and flaws in the status quo. It turns the Black Swans into Known/Unknowns so they can be addressed. This is extremely uncomfortable on many levels.
3 – WHAT WOWS? This is the analysis that creates the breakout. Now we’re creating Known/Knowns. It only comes after ideation has been allowed to work.
4 – WHAT WORKS? This is the practical phase. It involves action—something people are comfortable doing. But let’s carry it beyond mere market tests and implementation. Rapid prototyping is an example of the creative use of “What Works?”
Columbus knew the 2-year trip was impractical and perilous. He sought a new approach. That’s the “WHAT IS?” He’d been attacked by pirates on the usual route so he had good reason to indulge in the “WHAT IF?” He believed in his idea. People join you when they catch your enthusiasm because you believe. In other words, confidence is more important that competence. A leader doesn’t have to be right to get something going—just certain. Sometimes ideas become so outrageous that they’re irresistible. That’s the “WHAT WOWS?” His skill set, his crew (team), his ships and sextant (technology) and his plan make up the “WHAT WORKS?” Executives are comfortable carrying out a plan. The key is to develop the right one. That’s why the two intermediate steps are so important.
The intermediate disciplines of “WHAT IF?” and “WHAT WOWS?” require an experienced facilitator—an impartial outsider. That saves time, avoids personal disputes, and makes a good outcome more likely. Remember: YOUR OWN STORY IS THE HARDEST TO TELL. Telling your own story is the sure path to mediocrity.
The core ideas Rachel has collected come from some significant authors and she gives credit where it’s due. On the train home, I fire up my Kindle and buy two of the books she cites. I might yet get several others. This is good stuff. Thank you Rachel for inviting me to experience the power of your method.
Rachel Kaberon is the founder of the consultancy known as E3 where she acts in the role of Catalyst to engage, energize and enable performance.
Find her at www.framestretching.com
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