Self Reflection and How to be a Dot Connector

In the third part of my six part series, I am reviewing what it means to be a “dot connector” and why I think it is foundational to leading and being a part of an effective team. As I did in my previous posts, I will first go through the part of the email I sent my team and then I will self-reflect on what I think now that it is six months later. Note, items in brackets have been generalized with specific vendor names and tools removed.

You can read part one, Words of Wisdom and a Customer Focus, which describes this series of posts in more detail and part two, What it Means to Take Ownership, by following the hyperlinks.

Concept Three: Be a Dot Connector

“Steve Jobs once said ‘Creativity is just connecting things.’ Don’t try to reinvent the wheel or be a hero. Use other resources such as other teams and the [vendor’s community website]. Remember my 20 minute rule – after 20 minutes if you can’t make progress, you are in territory you are not comfortable in, so find help. People are creatures of habit. We solve things with the knowledge that we have and our knowledge (or lack thereof) limits our creativity. If you are good at [one technology], your solution will probably be around [that technology]. Know [a different technology]? You may jump to that first. The more you expand your knowledge and your network of people, the better and easier your solutions will be. Genrich Atshuller, a Russian inventor, found that most inventions were just modifications of existing things, not brand new ideas. He found:

  1. Problems and solutions are repeated across industries and sciences
  2. Patterns of technical evolution are also repeated across industries and sciences
  3. The innovations used scientific effects outside the field in which they were developed

Think about these things before you start any project. Have I heard of this before? Have I seen an incident, [vendor ticket], change, email, etc about this? Are there similar workflows or [software code] that can be adapted to solve this problem easier, cheaper, quicker? Is there other [vendor] functionality that is in concept similar to what I am trying to do?”

Six Month Self Reflection

After sitting back and reflecting on this, I believe in the importance of this more than I did before. In my current role, where I have stepped back into a traditional process improvement role, it is much easier to solve problems when we are connecting the dots compared to when we are working in silos. Let’s consider some specific examples to demonstrate Atschuller’s observations about inventions.

  1. Problems and solutions are repeated across industries and sciences:
    • This can be interpreted in a more practical business sense by also saying “problems and solutions are repeated across teams and departments.” In all my roles, this is one of the things that I am constantly looking for: How does another department do this workflow? Or, how have other people solved this problem before? Far too often individuals and departments think “we’re unique” and they avoid looking outside to improve what is inside. When you do this, you are severely reducing your ability to experience true innovation and creative problem solving.
    • As we continue to progress in the information age, industries that used to appear very different are much more similar now than ever before. Technology is the common denominator that is starting to bring previously isolated industries together and there is a lot that can be learned and shared across these industries. Just try to Google “We are a technology company” to see all the companies claiming to be a technology company and all the news outlets writing about how basically everyone is a technology company now! So if you are not looking across industries to expand on your industry’s innovation, you are severely limiting yourself.
  2. Patterns of technical evolution are also repeated across industries and sciences:
    • Consider cybersecurity as an example looking across industries. If cybersecurity is the technical evolution that got real mainstream in the finance industry (for argument’s sake), compare that now to that of the automotive industry, something a few years ago no one would have thought of. Or how about Internet of Things (IoT)? 5 or 10 years ago would you thought about your toaster or microwave having a computer virus? As the finance industry became more technology driven, accounts, user information and transactions had to be secured because they became desirable to hackers. With automotive, vehicles, user information, and inter/intra-vehicle communication has to be secured because some of that same information can now be found in your cars and therefore desirable to hackers. Same technologies, completely different industries experiencing the evolution years apart.
  3. The innovations used scientific effects outside the field in which they were developed:
    • In the last six months I read the book ‘Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives’ and it really supports the idea that the greatest innovations come from people outside of the field where the innovation is occurring. This is because people from the outside can often connect new dots that people on the inside could not previously see to connect.

    • Consider Dyson. They are in many different industries because they take an “outsiders” view on various products and use certain technologies that were proven in one industry and apply them to another.

Furthermore, Jobs’ comment that “Creativity is just connecting things” is critical because as I mentioned in my post about Effectiveness, I see people all the time trying to solve problems themselves or working in small silos to resolve issues that people have already figured out. There is often an incorrect mindset that everyone’s problem is unique and that working in this silo will provide a better outcome to their “unique” needs or they will appear to be smarter or better at their job if they solve the problem independently. If we change that mindset and realize that creativity is really just connecting the dots between other departments, companies, industries, technologies, etc., then we will be much better at creative problem solving and innovation than if we work independently. 

Next, read part four: Self Reflection and Correctly Defining Problems.

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