Desperately Seeking Combustion

Desperately Seeking Combustion

Create July 30, 2012 / By Leslie Ehm
Desperately Seeking Combustion

Introducing the concept of ‘combustion’. Combustion is the series of organizational ‘chemical reactions’ necessary to start and sustain fire in your people and productivity. How to achieve it is the challenge…

When you talk to business leaders like I do every day, you start to get an eerie sense that perhaps they all work for the same universal company. They share the same fears, problems, barriers, and ambitions. And they all approach them the same way – reactively. Despite the gospel preached by brilliant thinkers in game-changing tomes (Richard Florida’s ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’ and Daniel Pink’s ‘A Whole New Mind’ to name but a few), the impressive results of some true innovators and lots and lots of studies, articles, and interest on the subject, the best that most organizations can muster on the subject of organizational creativity is a plea for their people to think smarter, faster, better. “Excellent – we’ll get right on that!”

When you introduce the notion that perhaps getting in front of their challenges and analyzing their barriers might be a good way to proceed, they nod sagely. “Creativity,” you say “culture, collaboration”. The nod deepens. They too have read the books and know the buzzwords. “We want that!” they exclaim. “Give us that.” This is where it becomes tricky.

“No”, you explain. “I can’t give it to you. You have to enable it. Train for it. Facilitate it and live it. You’ll have to own it, empower it, create processes for it. And have to believe it. It’s all right there in your people, right now. You just need to release it. It will take time, energy, and commitment. You’ll fail often and even fail big. You’ll need to embrace that failure on a daily basis, celebrate it, and share learnings. Your people will experience growing pains. They’ll clash and struggle, get frustrated and disheartened. But they’ll also laugh and learn, experience pride and progress. And they’ll love you for it. And through it, they’ll become inspired thinkers and doers, visionaries with purpose, self-managing groups capable of improvised genius. You’ll become a game-changer, change-maker, rule-breaker….”

“Sounds great! Can you do it in a day?”

This is the conundrum I face every day. I named my company Combustion because technically, combustion is the series of chemical reactions necessary to start a fire. You can’t have a fire without heat, spark and flame. And it all requires oxygen. The same can be said for a truly innovative environment. Unless all the chemical reactions are in sequence, it simply becomes a cycle of igniting and then extinguishing possibilities. And there is nothing more frustrating or disheartening for the people involved. It’s the mental and emotional equivalent of being shot out of a cannon directly into a brick wall.

So let’s break down what happens. You’ve got a job to do. You get fired up to do it (either through inspiration or fear). That’s ‘ignition’. Otherwise, it’s your first extinguishing point. Pffft. Then you run around trying to make something happen – ideally with other like-minded, like-skilled people. When its works, its ‘spark’ – that beautiful riffing and sharing, that elevation of thinking that results from being inspired and supported. But if there’s little to no collaboration or the act itself actively detracts from achieving the goal or your sense of progress, that would be extinguishing point number two. Pfffft. So no matter how well ignition might have gone, it could all end with a few negative team interactions. And then there’s the organizational culture. Imagine you’ve transcended the extinguishers to this point and have actually come up with something new and different. But the egos of upper management, the fears and infighting of sales and marketing, the territorial nature of R&D, and the bean-counting of the Board of Directors are all loading their squirt guns and aiming squarely at you. They may not even realize they’re doing it but…PFFFFT. Out goes any flame you’ve actually managed to set alight. You get the idea.

While it’s normal to encounter challenges in the pursuit of greatness, it’s completely counterproductive when the biggest challenges are the ones inherent in the organization that’s asking you to achieve greatness. The bottom line, there can be little productivity without combustion. And combustion isn’t about business process reengineering; it’s simply opening the brains, minds, and hearts of the people in the processes to help them empower their own accomplishments.

“Sounds great! Can you do it in a day?” Ummm – no.

And can I cover it in a single column? Again, no. But what I can do is promise to try and unfold the mysteries over time.

What I’m aiming for here is a compilation of the best learnings, experiences, tips, tricks, and outright manipulations to help you, kind reader, both lead and enact combustion in your organizations. I’ll share what I’ve learned from my years of being an advertising creative director, TV host, musician and trainer and facilitator of creative processes. Together we’ll explore a plethora of ‘C’ words – from curiosity to confidence, creativity to collaboration, community to communication, culture to culpability, all in the pursuit of the elusive nirvana of creative ‘combustion’.

Truth is, I’m no smarter than a single one of you. The only difference perhaps is that this is what I do every day and I’m as tenacious about it as a bulldog with a smelly shoe. But you have all had experiences that will enlighten my journey so I ask, no I BEG you to comment, contribute and collaborate (there’s those ‘c’ words again) so that we can all benefit. After all, isn’t that what combustion is all about?

Leslie Ehm is the President & Chief Fire Starter at Combustion – a training and development company that uses applied creativity to ignite organizational culture, collaboration, and critical thinking skills in order to set people and productivity on fire. (new website launching soon)

Twitter: @leslieehm/ @thinkcombustion

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