The Leader's Mystery Box

Matt May, author of In Pursuit of Elegance posts JJ Abrams', creator of Lost and, in theaters now, Star Trek, TED talk on The Mystery Box. Watch it, then we'll talk.

Matt's point in pointing to Abrams' talk is to illustrate the importance of the missing element in a product or story that makes it more compelling, more elegant.

How do leaders create The Mystery Box in their leading?

One of the things that I've learned over the years is what I call leadership by vacuum. A vacuum is a space that is empty, but not meaningless. Space is a vacuum, but it isn't meaningless. It is a place where things exist. Here are two ways leaders create a leadership vacuum that must be filled by the leadership of others.

In organizations, leaders create vacuum by refusing to do everything everyone expects them to do.  Instead, leaders limit what they do to what they do best, and they create the space for others to step forward and fill the vacuum. This is how leaders expand leadership throughout their organization.

In this sense, leaders lead by subtracting the number of responsibilities that they are required to do by turning them over to people who can do them better.  The leader is still responsible for the outcome of the responsibility, but not necessarily for the administration of them.

Of course, this requires a high level of maturity on the part of the leader. They must be comfortable with the ambiguity that comes with giving away control, and with admitting publicly that there are areas that they are not the strongest person in the business.

Another place I see this happening is with the difficulty with issue resolution in business. Last month, I wrote about Resolving Complex Issues Simply.

An issue arises between two people or with a process. Who is responsible for resolving the issue? Is it the leader's responsibility? The logical answer may be yes. The realistic answer is no. In fact, deferring all issue resolution to the leader is to create a higher level of crisis in the organization. It forces leadership to be concentrated on putting out fires instead of acting on strategic initiatives.

When leaders create space, open up space for others to lead, they lower the crisis level of issue resolution.  To the degree that they can, issues should be resolved by those who are charged to implement the resolution. The problem is that most organizations are not equipped for leaders to lead this way. In fact the whole structure of most businesses is predicated on no one taking initiative beyond a very narrow range of responsibilities. As a result, not only does the leader have to spend his or her time resolving issues, but everyone else thinks in terms of avoiding taking that responsibility and passing the buck up the chain of command.

Creating a leadership vacuum forces issue resolution to its lowest level of responsibility. It doesn't happen by simply issuing a memo stating so. The structure of the organization has to function to give people the safety and security, the boundaries and methodologies to follow, that results in quicker and less painful issue resolution.

The mystery box in most businesses can be the vacuum that leaders create that compel people to step up and lead. I've seen it happen. It requires an intentional process of change to make it happen. If you want to know more, just ask.

In Pursuit of Elegance - by Matthew E. May - A Leading Questions review

I am now free. Free no longer to be obligated to be complete, comprehensive and without Eleganceinconsistencies. I am because Matt May has shown me how to live a more elegant life. To live free to let what is missing become what makes me and what I do more interesting, more valuable and ultimately, more elegant.

Matthew May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. This is a book that presents a view of a world that is so familiar, yet one we've never really seen. It is the one where the things that are missing create the beauty and value that we find in life.

... the transformative idea that lies at the heart of elegance, and at the center of this book: what isn't there can often trump what is.  ... the full power of elegance is achieved when the maximum impact is exacted with the minimum input.

The point of my quest is to answer a single question: What can we discover and learn that might allow us to bring more elegance into our own endeavors?

May describes this perspective through the examination of four aspects of elegance: symmetry, seduction, subtraction, and sustainability.

Seduction lures us into a fascination with an idea or a product by not telling us everything about it. Subtraction improves the quality, cost and speed of delivery to marketplace. And sustainability provides the possibility for lasting value.

It is the aspect of symmetry that I found the most "seductive(?)." After exploring both the art and the science of symmetry, he presents three points that I find provocative.

The first is that symmetry appears in nature.

...symmetry is a fundamental property woven into the fabric of the universe ... What's challenging is that symmetry isn't always readily observable, we don't always know what to look for, and we have a tendency to look at individual part of things, rather than at larger patterns. So we are fooled into thinking we must create symmetry ourselves, usually going straight at the organizational characteristic itself rather than patiently looking for the underlying simplicity that is already in existence. Ever chasing the new idea, we apply our technological prowess to situations when, if we were instead to stop, observe, and think - to stop doing, if only long enough to discern a repetitive pattern - we might be surprised to see that the answer lie just below the surface of what appears to be out of control. You don't need to design what already exists just because you don't immediately recognize its presence. In other words, the challenge or problem we're trying to solve might not always need our help. And if it doesn, understanding the power of symmetry allow us to design better, more elegant solutions.

The second point is illustrated by what is known as the Montana Paradox. In 1995, Montana established "reasonable and prudent" as the standard for highway speeds. Highway fatalities dropped to pre-1975 levels. In 2000, speed limits were reset to comply with the national standards, and high way deaths rose 111%.

What the Montana Paradox reinforces is that by attempting to control what may already be in balance, we can inadvertantly tip things the other way. In the rush to create order and organization, we often get the exact opposite of the intended desired effect. ... Elegance might best be achieved not by demanding compliance to an exhaustive set of centrally mandated, onerously rigid regulations, but from one or two vital agreements, often implicity, that everyone understands and is accountable for, yet that are left open to individual interpretation and variation, the limits of what are set by social context.

The counterintuitive dynamic at work is this: the more we try to control and regulate our risk, the more exposed and at risk we are, because the more protected from hazards we think we are, the less conscious of potential dangers we become. We actually disengage our brains and disconnect from what's happening around us. This can be disastrous.

See there is a pattern emerging here. There is a symmetry and order i the universe that we must discover and adapt to, rather than try to control.  If this isn't obvious, his third point makes it more clear.

It seems safe to say that when you remove certainty and predictability, engagement and awareness rise. The concept of shared space makes that clear. The less stated something is, the more powerful it becomes. Uncertainty and ambiguity can create intrigue, which makes us slow down and think. We don't immediately see the symmetry and order we so desperately seek and that transfixes our attention, draws us in.

Matt May's notion of elegance provides us a fresh way of looking at what we've always seen before us, and yet don't see completely. We don't see the big picture because it is easier to act and add to, and control, and never stop.  To discover elegance is to discover freedom to be genuinely creative, rather than simply productive.

I see ways to apply his perspective already in my own work. In Pursuit of Elegance is a book that I will return to often as a reminder of what I know to be true, but continually need to nudge to recall. To see what is missing is to grasp the elegance that elevates our perception of the world around us.

You can find a free downloadable ChangeThis manifesto by Matt May entitled Creative Elegance that accompanies the publication of In Pursuit of Elegance.

In Addition:

Bob Sutton offers a sterling recommendation for Matt's book. He closes with these words.

... This morning, as I started reading it again, I am having trouble putting it down again because Matt does such a great job of providing a new way of looking at everyday things in life, and making them better. 

To me, that is the best thing that any book can accomplish -- to change the way we think about and travel through life, and to send us down new paths that help us see opportunities and make choices that are better for ourselves and others.

Since reading the book and writing my review, the ideas that Matt presents have increasingly helped me to see what I've been working on for the past ten years in a new light. I hope it will do the same for each of you.

HT: Bill Kinnon for the Bob Sutton link.

In Addition 2: Check out Guy Kawasaki's interview with Matt. Here's a taste.

Question: How do you define elegance?

Answer: Something is elegant if it is two things at once: unusually simple and surprisingly powerful. One without the other leaves you short of elegant. And sometimes the “unusual simplicity” isn’t about what’s there, it’s about what isn’t. At first glance, elegant things seem to be missing something.

Check it out.