In his famous commencement address at Stanford, Steve Jobs shared a story about how he had attended (uninvited) a college course on calligraphy and the influence the learning had on how Apple designed very attractive typography in the graphic interface. He also said that it is not possible to connect the dots forward; one can only make these connections in hindsight.
Similarly, there is the other popular story about how Ratan Tata observed a family of four struggling on a two-wheeler on a rainy day, and that set him thinking about creating a vehicle that would be more convenient and safer than a two-wheeler. This chain of thought eventually led to the Tata Nano.
What I found most striking about these stories (and many others like them) of innovation, is that while a lot of creativity is unplanned, it is not just a matter of luck or chance either. What is common, however, to these stories is that successful leaders are able to connect (apparently) unconnected ideas. Critical to the concept of connecting such dots is that you must have enough dots to connect!
When it comes to connecting dots, I believe we have to focus on two attributes:
1. Quantity: “Dots” are nothing but fragments of experiences, learning or observations. Most people, as they age, collect quite a few dots but do you want to just leave it to time? Can we not proactively pursue the creation of more such experiences or learning? Are we doing enough to actively observe what is happening around us?
Earlier, when we travelled to a new city for a business meeting, we would spend our spare time meeting people or understanding local practices. Today, in our connected world, most managers head back to their hotel rooms to finish their email or get on to a conference call. Fewer dots.
This is true even for something as trivial as the commute to work. How much time do you see what is happening around you or observing people or behaviour? I am not suggesting that checking your Facebook timeline during that hour is not useful, but it is for you to figure out if you are adding enough dots that you can connect in future.
2. Diversity: More than the volume of dots, the real value is in how diverse your experiences or observations are. Remember, innovation or strategy is about creating something distinct; if all your dots are of a similar nature (and no different from those that your peers/competitors are collecting), how likely are you to create a pattern that nobody else can?
If you build your entire career in the same industry / location / function, you are likely to have a less eclectic collection of dots than someone who has experimented with new ideas. More you challenge yourself with unfamiliar situations, more likely are you to develop an insight that is unique. If Steve Jobs hadn’t wandered into the calligraphy class, he might not have had the same appreciation for beautiful fonts on the personal computer.
Diversity of experiences is not just about your professional activities. It could be about your personal explorations too: the hobbies you pursue, the languages you learn or the vacations you take.
I have found that less than a quarter of the participants in my executive programs pursue an active hobby of any kind, even though most of them had strong interest in one or more hobbies in their school or college days.
Some of the most successful and capable leaders systematically add more dots to their experiences and learning portfolio. This includes formal executive education, coaching, travelling, business conferences, industry associations, active hobbies, and many more. So, what is your system for having enough dots to connect?