Thursday, July 19, 2007

A summer lesson I'll never forget

This morning I was reminded of a lesson in the value of diversity that I learned one summer so powerful that I've incorporated into my world view. You see it reflected in Swamp Fox and InnoVenture.

Twenty years ago, I was promoted into the management group at KPMG and sent to "charm school." There we played a survival game, where our plane had crashed in the Arctic circle. There were 20 items on the plane, and we had to rank them in terms of their importance to our survival.

All of us were from urban areas, except for one woman from rural Maine. We ranked the water purification tablets as very important, without much debate. In my case that is what I was taught in the Boy Scouts, so it had to be right. Then the girl from Maine quietly spoke up that the snow north of the Arctic Circle was clean. We pondered this new, insightful perspective, and then dropped the tablets from one of the most important things we had to one the least important.

The exercise was videoed and played back to us. The snow observation was the only thing the lady said the entire hour, and she only said it once. Someone in the group had to be listening to hear her, and then the group had to respect that she had a different perspective and trust that in that situation she had knowledge the rest of us didn't.

According to the Army Ranger solution, she was precisely right. The instructor said our group got closer to the Ranger's solution than any group he had had. To get to a great solution, we first defined what was essential to success. In our case we decided to stay with the plane and wait for the search party. Given that consensus we had a discussion among the group about what we needed to do to survive. We needed protection from the wind, for example, but we'd die of thirst before we'd die of starvation. Only then then we assess the items we had and decide what was the most important.

Defining what is essential and then leveraging the power of a diverse group to optimize a solution is a powerful innovation model. It's a lesson I'll never forget.

1 comment:

Paul said...

John,
I learned this on an episode of "Survivorman".
The beauty of idea diversity is that you will never know where it will come from. What is crucxial is to have an environment that will permit diverse thoughts to come forward.