Sunday, November 29, 2020

Thinking Systematically and Empathically: How to build and thrive on Innovation

Ursula Oesterle
One of the most successful approaches to success and innovation is the ability to think in a systematic fashion. It does not matter what the endeavor or business enterprise may be, it would benefit from approaching it as a systems thinker. Such a perspective and approach will ensure that there is a lack of emotional drama (we could all do with less drama in these overdramatic times of ours), and we are better able at filtering out noise (it feels like everyone is shouting nowadays whether outside, on television or on SOCIAL MEDIA).

It is a perspective that tends to enhance and underscore focus; one can then pinpoint one’s attention on essential and vital information without being sidetracked by unnecessary or irrelevant details. It is generally analytical, poised, and task-oriented, which would be most beneficial for most plans, projects, and undertakings. A systems thinker would preferentially focus on one issue at a time and not get bungled up in multitasking scenarios, which usually - notwithstanding anecdotal evidence or popular folklore - often lead to haphazard and unwanted outcomes, results, and by-products.

It was some time ago I had the pleasure to attend an ETH talk by Ursula Oesterle on Innovation and Global Citizenry in which she explained her own perspective and approach as a systems thinker. Ursula Oesterle currently works for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) and is the Vice-President for Innovation and has head years of experience in Silicon Valley. She considers herself (as I would myself) a global citizen; she is a Swiss citizen who grew up in the Philippines.

It is interesting to note that she projected and embodied both cultures. Her analytic way of seeing and interpreting the world was influenced by genetics and her family but her mannerisms and behaviors, a personal nervousness as well as jittery awareness and consciousness of the other, pointed towards her cultural environment and upbringing of the Philippines. In a somewhat similar fashion, my passion, drive, and dedication are in and from my blood, the Persian land I was born on, whereas my thinking has been shaped by my German upbringing and my mannerisms and behavior are mainly a hybrid between German and Canadian values with a dash of Iranian sentiment.

But we are not only formed by our genetics and our childhood and immediate environment, but we also define and refine ourselves through our choices and education, as well as the lack thereof, and this has significant impacts on her thoughts and behavior. In Ursula’s case, her decision to study for a physics degree first, helped her become even more systematic in her thinking and in interpreting the data as well as the world, including the world of business, the field that she entered at a later stage.

In fact, Ursula Oesterle has a progressive forward-oriented outlook as she sees the future as part and parcel of a fiction that we write and create. The past may have given us some tools and materials, yet the future is not set in stone and there is a significant amount of leeway and agency but also personal responsibility that comes with it. Through personal responsibility and concrete actions, we can achieve a potential variety of subsequent results and outcomes. For our goals to materialize and to become a reality down the misty lane of time, we need to always check and obtain feedback on specific data points.

What that means is that we need to have clear and clearly stated outcomes and then have a progress metric to assess and evaluate each of them. This feedback should be based on scientific and demonstratable standards, but, at the same time, they should not be limited nor limiting in scope and extent. Put simply, we need to set our goals and then evaluate over time if and to what extent we have reached them and establish the length of time it took us to get to that point.

Throughout, it is best to have a dynamic outlook. This reinforces the fact that our goals and plans should be not only clearly set and established but they should also be fluid enough and hence not be set in stone; we ought to allow for necessary and productive fluctuations and adjustments. In other words, one needs to have a learner’s mind and approach when it comes to evaluating one’s own level of success and progress. To have a clear plan and a goal for the future is good and beneficial, but at the same time, one must be flexible enough to upgrade and adapt to changes, whenever necessary or advisable.

This is often difficult as many will stubbornly move and plow ahead until they reach their set goals. But this will come at a cost to one’s business and often to one’s pocket as well, so it is the best strategy to learn to reduce as well as to accept and live with a certain level of uncertainty in life and in one’s endeavors. This can be done with the combination of an open mind and a defined system. The information or data points will then give us tangible information about whether the measures in place are fruitful and productive or whether they are misguided or harmful and need to be modified, or even dropped.

For instance, one thing that Covid-19 has taught us is that the digital era is a moment of opportunity instead of a hindrance or obstacle. Many transitions and changes are necessary now in the face and in light of these new circumstances and situations. In many cases, it is about either adapting to or perishing under the new reality. This also gives us the unique opportunity and excuse, if you will, to do something radically different. It is not so much about patching upgrades or repairing parts but rather about building brand-new operating systems. Grander and bolder changes in direction of technology will offer more benefits than ever for those who dare to take the digital leap and accept the risks and dangers associated with such dramatic change and adjustment.

This switch has been seen and felt in the teaching environment. The traditional classroom - the known and familiar source of comfort and pain - has disappeared for the time being. The new reality for many instructors is to conduct and teach virtual and online courses. Those schools and universities who had previously experimented and flirted with such initiatives as well as those who are ready to jump ship and embrace the new horizon of possibilities with its load of challenges and difficulties will be the ones to succeed and thrive in the future.

Yet those who desperately hold onto old-fashioned and inadequate means and forms of education will not be able to survive. It was surprising for me to find out how ill-prepared many, if not most Western teachers as well as elementary and high school institutions have been in the face of this pandemic, whereas, ironically, developing economies and countries, such as the Philippines and Mexico, have been better suited and more willing to deal with and adapt to the changes. As Ursula herself pointed out, this was due to the already used and trodden path and the prevalent infrastructure of televised teaching methods in poorer and rural areas and it did not require nor represent a fundamental nor a substantial existential shift for them.

Another important and relevant switch is the one from manager to leader. We need to put aside the need to micromanage, steadily and constantly telling others what to do and be seen and perceived as the boss, the always vigilant parent. This is an outdated, and might I add, inadequate and counterproductive way of thinking and of managing personnel. Instead, the boss needs to realize and acknowledge that they do not know everything, and instead, they should ask questions instead of giving orders and be willing and ready to give support whenever needed or required.

This kind of openness will invite others not only to participate in work matters but they will also feel validated in the process. This will make a leader out of the previous boss and manager. A leader is someone who does not give orders but manages to motivate and inspire their workers and employees to do their bidding without expressly having to tell them. There is then no need for vigilant presence to ensure that work is done and accomplished as they will do so on their own accord.

People may follow bosses with a grudge or even against their will, but they will follow a leader not by and via force but through their own desire and volition. Put differently, they will come to do what the leader wants them to do and sometimes be inspired to go the extra mile, as the action or undertaking is considered in both of their interests; a content employee is an important and often neglected and overlooked asset to the success of the business and enterprise.

Finally, a combination of both a learner process and a data-driven process is the best path to take for innovation. It is akin to pinging for immediate data and receiving feedback. Sometimes it is confirmation that one is in the right and has chosen and embarked upon the correct path, while on other occasions the data will counter and go against one’s plans and intentions. The best attitude to adopt is one of mindfulness and of letting go. One’s goal should be not about being in the right but taking and continuing the best direction for one’s business. That often means adjusting to reality and the facts and going with the flow.

But thinking systematically will only get you so far. It is best to combine it with empathy. If you are the founder and manager, it is in your best interest to ensure that all those who work for you are not only treated with respect but also with empathy. This will go both ways. Once you take care of the physical and emotional needs of your employees, they will return you the favor by doing their best to make your business succeed further. It is another win-win situation, and it does not entail much of a sacrifice. In fact, as a business leader, it will make you feel even better, both personally as well as professionally.