Since writing about the nature of success and failure, I’ve had a number of colleagues express interest in discussing the process of experimentation with me, given my background in the sciences field. While experimentation is certainly a cornerstone in science, these conversations also allowed me to remind others of another valuable skill we can glean from science – that of learning about observation.
The act of observation requires that we look beyond ourselves and what we know, to identify and discover ideas, insights, and lessons that we can learn from those around us and from the surrounding environment. Through observation, we can develop a sense of mindfulness that can help to inform and shape our understanding about a particular situation or process.
It’s an idea that I was reminded of while reading Nobel laureate Dr. James Watson’s book, “Avoid Boring People: Lessons From A Life In Science” and the lessons he shares with the reader from his experiences both in and outside of the lab.
Although the lessons he shares are clearly directed towards those in the sciences field, some of the insights he shares can also benefit leaders in how to become more effective in guiding their organizations in today’s faster-paced and complex world.
Lesson #1– “Have a big objective that makes you feel special”
In his book, Dr. Watson points out how their drive to discover the structure and nature of DNA was not simply the result of team leader and future Nobel laureate Max Delbruck’s focus on “deep truths and [a] commitment to sharing them unselfishly”, but because he instilled in his team the idea that they should commit themselves to doing research that was “worth devoting one’s life to”.
While the research team knew that it would take them years to unravel the structure of the DNA molecule, they nonetheless understood that achieving this goal would be a defining moment. Not just in terms of their own career growth, but in how it would open up a whole new understanding and area of knowledge in their field of study, if not also inspiring others to take up the cause to learn more about this elemental key to our existence.
For many leaders, the prevailing uncertainties in today’s global economy – not to mention the ever increasing amounts of information and demands for their attention – has limited their focus to short-term goals.
Goals that serve only to make us feel like we’re clearing off tasks from our To-Do list than objectives that would make us feel like we’re devoting our creativity, our genius, and our lives to something worthwhile and meaningful.
Our ability to remain engaged, passionate, and involved in the work we do every day is dependant on whether we can connect what we create and contribute to a cause or purpose that’s bigger than ourselves. One that benefits not only us or a select few, but all those around us as well.
That’s why one of the key requirements of today’s leadership is the ability to help your organization to move past the lure of short-term gains and appreciate how what you’re working on today will provide a tangible and meaningful outcome in the near future.
In other words, a goal which can serve to define the purpose behind your shared efforts.
Lesson #2 – “Never be the brightest person in a room”
In the face of today’s more competitive and faster-paced global market, it’s easy to appreciate why creating a collaborative enviroment is critical to an organization’s ability to adapt and innovate.
Unfortunately, as most employee engagement studies have shown, the majority of employees feel their talents are being under-utilized because those in charge still work from the assumption that the answers to today’s challenges must come from the top.
It’s not a surprising finding when one considers that it’s still a common practice to promote people to management positions not due to their abilities to motivate, engage, and empower others, but because of their technical proficiencies and experiences.
As our workloads and demands for our time continue to grow, it can be far easier to simply hand out answers to problems than to seek out the insights of those you lead. However, if you want your organization to benefit from the collective experiences and insights of your employees, you need to recognize that you don’t have all the answers and that in some cases, your employees are more knowledgeable than you are.
Admitting this doesn’t make you any less of a leader. On the contrary, it makes you a better one because it shows your focus is on those you lead and what you can do to help them succeed, as opposed to simply being focused on your own glory.
As Dr. Watson wrote:
“Nothing can replace the company of others who have the background to catch errors in your reasoning or provide facts that may either prove or disprove your argument of the moment. And the sharper those around you, the sharper you will become.”
Lesson #3 – “Irreproducible results can be blessings in disguise”
One of the key cornerstones of science is that whatever results you achieve needs to be reproducible by others to demonstrate the validity of your statement or finding. While this is a goal all scientists aim for, Dr. Watson points out that sometimes being “a little sloppy” can be a good thing as it can reveal unexpected, but useful findings.
He goes on to write that “always doing an experiment in precisely the same way limits you to exploring conditions that you already suspect might influence your experimental results”.
In the face of prevailing uncertainty, it might sound odd to encourage that we build or nurture ‘sloppiness’ into how we operate. But as Dr. Watson’s experiences point out, sticking to what you know and doing things a certain way because that’s the ‘way things are done around here’ can not only limit your opportunities for growth, but it can also prevent you from discovering unexpected insights into new offerings or ways to improve your current products or services.
It can also make it harder to accept the value of failure because your focus is limited to achieving a specific outcome than understanding what it will take to achieve the vision you have for your organization.
Lesson #4 – “Never let your students see themselves as research assistants”
This lesson from Dr. Watson is one I can definitely relate to as I’ve worked with research and clinical department heads who viewed laboratory personnel as only a means to get results, not even considering that their staff might have insights that could prove beneficial to their collective efforts.
At the same time, I’ve worked for leaders who involved us in the process, who were attentive and interested in hearing our thoughts on why a certain outcome was achieved and what we could learn from it moving forward. Everyone who worked on these teams understandably felt a sense of ownership in their efforts and brought their full selves to team discussions of what different protocols or tactics we could use to duplicate or improve our current results.
Likewise, your employees are not simply cogs in the organizational wheel, but should be treated as collaborators with a shared interest in your collective efforts. The truth of today’s workplace is that we can no longer operate from the position of simply sending down orders from above.
Instead, we have to communicate regularly and consistently with our employees about what our vision is and why it matters. We also need to include them in the conversation so that they can make our vision their own; that it becomes something they believe is not only achievable, but worth doing.
We’ve all read about those studies that have shown that our ability to self-motivate and remain engaged over the long term is dependent on how autonomous we feel, and our ability to feel a level of mastery in our efforts. A sure way to instill that in your employees is to make them feel a sense of ownership in their work, if not also an understanding of how their efforts connect to your organization’s shared purpose.
Lesson #5 – “Always have someone to save you”
Dr. Watson describes how in his pursuit of discovering the DNA structure, he was met with resistance from several people in the scientific community who believed that he didn’t have the right experience or knowledge to unravel this mystery. It was only thanks to the support of those in his trusted network that he got the resources and support to carry out the research that ultimately lead to the discovery of the DNA double-helix structure.
The idea behind this lesson is especially important to share in terms of today’s leadership because many of us still hold to the notion that to be a leader means that you don’t need the help of others.
Even now, we’re continuing to push stories of a successful leader being this lone hero who went on to create a new product, a new service, or even a new social contract for their country.
The problem with how we tell these stories is that we often fail to include the context within which these individuals achieved these results. And part of that context is not simply the conditions they faced, but also the people around them who helped them, who guided them and supported them so that they could go on to lead their organization or country forward to create the desired vision they had painted.
It’s time that we recognize that as leaders, we are not the lone hero of our organization and that we can’t go it alone. Rather, we need to openly acknowledge and communicate that our organization’s successes are due to the contributions of those we lead and empower to achieve our common goal.
As innovation continues to evolve into a required cornerstone in today’s organizations, science will certainly play a guiding role in helping leaders to understand how to develop a experimentation mindset within their workforce, if not also how to value failure as a requisite to learning and acquiring new insights.
But as we can see from the lessons Dr. Watson shared above, science can also help us to appreciate the importance of observation. And in particular, of being mindful of the actions and efforts of those we serve, and how they can inform us about what matters both to our employees and to our organization’s ability to succeed and thrive.