Nov
16

Swinging through the Trees on a Path Less Travelled

I had the doubly natural pleasure last month of facilitating a retreat for the Nature Conservancy in lovely Door County, Wisconsin. Like most organizations, this leading advocate for preserving lands and water is looking for innovative ways to more effectively accomplish their mission and attract more supporters (this was the marketing group). In keeping with the retreat’s theme, “Innovation: Freeing your Inner Brilliance,” I invoked our surroundings to make the case that individually and collectively they needed more often to swing from the trees (as in the classic Piraro cartoon, left), not only during our time together but also when they returned to the workplace.

For any culture to be to be truly innovative, it must honor individual divergence and originality. Are you empowered to follow your own passion and encouraged to support and build on your colleague’s tree-swinging ideas without squelching them? We can learn to do this better when we separate diverging time from converging time, when we put off judging an idea much, much longer than we normally would. Instead of jumping to what is weak or wrong with a suggestion, we instead place it into consideration, let it breathe, build on it and play with it for a while. Later we can converge and decide which course to go.

Too many organizations today do not allow for breathing room — the instinct to judge and dismiss quickly (that’s what smart people have learned to do) is so strong, that most half-baked ideas get smothered before they even have the possibility of rising. Without an environment for at least some half-baked, oddball or zany ideas, originality disappears and innovation becomes impossible.

I left the Conservancy group to brainstorm among themselves yesterday and I took to the road around the still-leafy County. I found myself walking through the woods, stimulated by how yellow the leaves were. Then it hit me — the yellow woods took me right back to a memory of the classic Robert Frost poem that I hadn’t looked at for years. Let me refresh your own memory with this excerpt of Frost’s “Road not Taken”:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear…

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

If you can’t literally swing through the trees, at least you can more often explore paths less travelled.
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