Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded

Fog on the 5

Fog shrouds downtown Sacramento during the morning commute on the 5 freeway.

I would disappoint myself if I were to live life walking around in a fog, operating robotically with nary a chance of coming up with my own bright ideas and striking out on new adventures.  Sadly, too many jobs fit that bill.  Fortunately, there are enlightened businesses like Zappos to show us a better way.

Fourth of a series.

Zappos Core Value #4:  Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded

I would venture to say that, at some point in our working lives, most of us have had a boss who had no interest in hearing his or her employee’s ideas.  “No comments from the peanut gallery” is this manager’s mantra.  Or, as I have heard it put even more crudely, “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you!”

This is the type of working environment in which all creativity and adventurousness is shut down before it starts.  Employees understand that they are not to ask any questions, just shut up and do what the boss says.  Needless to stay, this creates a stifling workplace that breeds inordinate amounts of stress and employee turnover.

As painful as it was at the time, I am glad to have experienced this early in my career.  For me, it has served as an object lesson, a prime example of what not to do.

In a turn of irony, over the years I have learned that, to be an effective leader, one must be a servant.  I do my best not to pontificate.  I try not to be a know-it-all, if only because I am acutely aware that I do not know it all.  While I am busy attending meetings and completing administrative tasks, my team is getting the work done.  I’m not the one who is in a position to come up with new ideas; they are.  After all, they’re the ones who receive feedback from customers day after day and who know what works and what doesn’t.

If one of my team members muses “I wonder what would happen if we (fill in the blank),” likely as not I will say “Why don’t we try it out and see?”  The last thing I ever want coming out of my mouth is “Oh, it’ll never work.”  Talk about taking a pin to your balloon!  Among my favorite sayings is “They forgot to tell him it couldn’t be done, so he did it.”  (A poor paraphrase of an Edgar Guest poem.)

Even if I don’t think your idea will work, I may very well allow you to give it a try anyway.  I may be pleasantly surprised.  As I said, my employees are the subject matter experts.  It is important for me to remind myself that they know more than I do.

Also, I believe a sense of adventure is an asset.  Even if an idea doesn’t work out, perhaps we’ll learn some other lesson from the experience?  Often, efforts to solve one problem can yield a solution to quite another problem that wasn’t even on our radar.  And even if we don’t take away anything we can use from the experiment, there are lessons to be learned from the very experience of trying.  For example, asking an additional question of customers may not, in the end, yield useful information, but the reaction we receive to asking the question may in itself be instructive.  Plus, it broadens the experience of employees and makes them feel like a part of the process.  Being willing to try out my team members’ ideas shows that I value their input, recognize their expertise and trust their instincts.

We all have unique talents, experiences and backgrounds that allow us to bring a veritable cornucopia to the table.  (I couldn’t resist getting in that Thanksgiving reference.)  Plus, we all have different thought patterns.  You and I don’t make connections in the same manner.  In other words, we need each other.  Hence, the value (and the joy) of diversity.

The business gurus urge us to “think outside of the box.”  The only real way to do this is to adopt the attitude that no idea is too crazy.  Often, the only way to make progress is to leap off that cliff and see where you land.

I’d much rather work in an environment marked by a spirit of adventure than one that pays homage to past successes by sticking to the tried and true.  Only by being willing to take risks can we move forward into the realm of the possible.

While this doesn’t fit in with the culture of every business, I’d rather lend my efforts to a forward-thinking operation like Zappos.

Tomorrow:  Core Value #5 – Pursue Growth and Learning

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