The Power of Distraction

Greetings. For most of the past twelve months I have allowed myself to be distracted. Wandering around looking for new ideas and possibilities to share with our customers, imagining new ways to unlock the genius in all of the people we work with, exploring new topics for my next book, learning about the work of innovative nonprofit organizations as I try to find the right new opportunities to volunteer, and spending a lot of time thinking about creative approaches to some important challenges that our family (and most families) seem to face. Doing my best to be distracted as I acknowledge the importance of innovation in every aspect of life. Because its hard to make progress if we are not moving forward, stretching our thinking in new ways, and being different in ways that matter. And the best way to do this is by being distracted and wandering around in a world filled with ideas, insights, energy, and sparks of inspiration.

Unfortunately, most companies and organizations think that innovation is all about looking inward rather than looking out. When faced with the need to solve a pressing challenge or to seize a great opportunity, they quickly decide to hold a “retreat”…a well-intentioned but slightly absurd activity that brings together a bunch of their smartest people to brainstorm in relative isolation. Hunkering down at a remote conference center or in a very private conference room they do everything possible to avoid being distracted, as though distraction is the real obstacle to innovation and progress.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Times Square

In “The Necessity of Strangers” I shared a simple notion that I call the 99 Percent Rule. It states that 99 percent of all new ideas are based on an idea or practice that someone or something else has already had. And it suggests that instead of hiding, we are more likely to create breakthroughs by engaging the world head on. Instead of retreating, we should be regularly exploring. Getting out and looking for the brilliant ideas of others, around the corner and around the globe. Instead of relying on our internal knowledge and expertise we should be casting a much wider net.  Then using the most brilliant ideas of others as a starting point for reimagining our businesses and industries in fresh and more compelling ways.

In today’s and tomorrow’s economy, the folks who are easily and purposefully distracted are likely to be the ones who win.


Taking the Time to Explore

Greetings.  The week between Christmas and New Year's is a wonderful time to explore the world around you.  To check out a performance, watch a documentary film, visit a picturesque or historic town off the beaten track, or wander through a museum close to home.  And, in the process, to discover a fresh perspective on the world around you.  A perspective that could provide new energy and insight as you and your colleagues approach the year ahead.  With this in mind, I love to use the end of the year to visit some of my favorite museums.  And, here in D.C., we have a lot to choose from.  But I'm sure that there are also great museums close to where you live or visit.

So yesterday I took our children and a friend from Sweden to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art to explore it's remarkable folk art collection.  And what struck me most was the sense of vision, originality, and accessibility of this work.  But that makes sense, because "folk art" is really art by regular "folks" who have little or no formal training and whose work reflects a fascinating fusion of traditional craft, deep-rooted social values, and often a desire to shine a light on an important issue of their time or their understanding of faith.  In addition to the art, the design of this exhibit also attempts to frame the artists' perspectives with quotes on the purpose of art in life and society, the act of creating something new, and the artist's place in the world.  And it even includes a compelling quote from the inventor Charles Kettering who wrote (though originally referring to business and innovation):

"Where there is an open mind, there will always be a frontier."

Not a bad thought to put on your wall as you get ready for the year ahead!

Among several galleries of thought-provoking pieces, one particular work seems to catch everyone's attention.  It's called "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly," and it is the only work ever done by the artist James Hampton.  Over fourteen years, he transformed a rented garage into "a heavenly vision" of a "spiritual environment" suitable for God's return to earth. It's really a statement of one man's great faith in God and hope for salvation that includes 180 unique pieces, based on his interpretation of teachings from the Old and New Testaments, build around a central throne.  And it's all constructed from discarded materials covered with shimmering silver and gold foils.  Whether you are a religious person, or not, the result is striking and inspiring (see below–or better yet, visit the museum in person).


We succeed in business and in life by being open to genius in the world around us, and by seeing the vision and passion that artists of all types bring to the work they create.  What vision and passion will you bring to your work in the year ahead?  Maybe this is the perfect week to discover it.  

Cheers and have a inspiring week of work, play, family, friends, and exploring!