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The delight of disruption: A conversation with Bill Burnett – Part 2 of 2

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Here's more of my conversation with Bill Burnett, author of “Behave! How to Get 100% of Your Workers Fully Engaged.”

Jeff Blackman: You say, "Useful insights can come from unlikely places." So where should leaders look for those insights?

Bill Burnett: Everywhere! You never know which brain is going to synthesize the great idea. I remember leading a five-day meeting where we were tasked with redesigning one of the company's core pieces of technology. At the end of the second day, we reached an impasse. Then this shy, quiet, very agreeable Pakistani gentleman from the Dubai business approached me with an idea. It changed our business model and drove $2 billion in incremental sales every year thereafter.

On another occasion, while traveling in Latin America, someone made a suggestion. At the time I thought, "This person doesn't have a clue." Three weeks later, I'm sitting at my desk, when it hits me, "What a brilliant insight!" She'd seen the problem from a different perspective. It was beyond my blinders. She was a great synthesizer.

Since then, I've always encouraged leaders to put people in positions where they must participate in the discussion. Don't let the shy, quiet person or the seemingly arrogant person ... off the hook — or they'll leave the room with the best idea.

Tell me more about the significance/impact of "synthesis."

We create new knowledge in three ways:

1. Discovery. We stumble upon something and it dawns on us how this discovery might be valuable.

2. Experimentation. We have some notion of what the root cause of a problem is, and we try all kinds of solutions until we find one that works.

3. Synthesis. It's the most common way we innovate. It's simply the ability to take a bit of knowledge from here — and another from way over there — and somehow combine them to create new knowledge. This happens in our brains and we all do it.

I'll use charcoal as an example for all three.

Charcoal was originally discovered to burn hotter than wood. You could use it to melt metals. That made it valuable. People who wanted to sell charcoal began experimenting to find better ways to refine charcoal from wood. But there's a problem of waste in the bottom of the kiln after the refining process is complete. Lots of tiny bits of charcoal line the bottom of the refining kiln after every burn. These were too small to sell, so they were thrown away.

Yet not wanting to waste this fuel, Henry Ford synthesized a solution. He knew from the paper industry that starches bind natural fibers. He also knew that in its near-pure carbon form, charcoal retains its fibrous nature. He simply made a starch slurry mixed in the bits of charcoal, formed them into balls, let them dry, and called them briquettes. The company he formed was Kingsford, now owned by Clorox.

Everyone synthesizes, but some people are really good at it, and we call them "supersynthesizers."

What/who's a supersynthesizer?

A supersynthesizer connects distant dots. Examples are physicists like Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman. But lots of computer programmers, scientists or businesspeople are also supersynthesizers.

James March, professor emeritus at Stanford, studied these people for years. While anyone can be a supersynthesizer, according to March, they often possess three traits:

1. They can be "low self-monitors." They don't care how others perceive them.

2. They usually avoid contact with co-workers, preferring to work alone.

3. They tend to have high self-esteem, can be a pain to work with, don't play well on teams, don't care about your opinion and come across as arrogant.

How do individuals and companies become better problem-solvers?

At the individual level, Malcolm Gladwell was right. If you want to get good at something, practice, practice, practice. People who are good problem-solvers do a lot of it. Solving a difficult problem will boost these people's sense of self-worth. Certainly some people are born with brains that can solve some problems well, yet are completely unable to understand other problems.

Think of someone great at math and logic problems — but not so good at figuring whether someone is frowning because they're angry or confused. Everyone is good at some kind of problem-solving; you just have to create the environment where they're enabled.

At the company level, you get better first by making sure people are all fully engaged. Then you need structure to create accountability around delivery behavior.

We actually reverse these, structure first, engagement second. The thing about engagement is standard approaches don't work. I'm always surprised when the leading "scientist" in the leading employee-engagement firm points out only a few companies put forth the effort and success in getting upwards of 70 percent of their employees fully engaged. This is supposed to be a great result! Where I went to school, anything under 70 percent is an F!

Why do we listen to people who delight in getting an F? Especially when there are companies that get all their workers fully engaged. Companies like Semco, Morning Star, Valve Corporation and Gore. What they do really well isn't some action that's designed to engage workers. Rather, they stop disengaging workers.

Over and over again, history has shown us that if you just let them, 99 percent of workers will be self-motivated. Of course, the obstacle is a big one. However, it's easy to overcome if you have the will to do so — and impossible if you don't.

For your success, see more of Bill's strategies at www.behavioral

Jeff Blackman is an Illinois-based speaker, author, success coach, broadcaster and lawyer. Email him at

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