by Bob Lewis

Epiphany Half Life

Sep 07, 2010
IT Leadership

Inspiration is fragile. Nurture it or it will go away as if it had never been.

“We succeed in enterprises which demand the positive qualities we possess, but we excel in those which can also make use of our defects.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

“My manager attended a leadership seminar,” my correspondent related. “He came back a changed man.”

“He kept it up for a week. Sure was nice while it lasted.”

Ever come back from an inspirational event all charged up and ready to make a difference in the world? Ever wonder, a few weeks later, what happened to your inspiration?

What happened was the Epiphany Half Life (EHL).

EHL is to inspirational experiences what freshness dating is to cans of tuna. Every self-improvement event should display its EHL prominently on its website, letting participants know that if they don’t put their inspiration into practice by its EHL date it will fade into a distant, wistful daydream.

As a purveyor of leadership seminars, I’m sensitive to the effect (even though our leadership seminars are as uninspirational as possible). There isn’t much any of us who are in this business can do about it.

Other than to let you know what you can do about it.

Imagine one of your employees … call her Joyce so I don’t have to write he/she every time I use a pronoun … has just returned from something or other, all fired up with the possibilities of service oriented architectures, cloud computing, mobile computing, a new leadership technique, business change management methodology, or what have you.

Now she’s back at her desk, ready to dig in and make it work, just as soon as she responds to the accumulated e-mails in her inbox, attends to that day’s appointments, and handles the three nearly overdue assignments you politely asked about when you bumped into her at the coffeemaker.

She reaches the end of the day and promises herself she’ll get to her inspiration tomorrow. But of course, tomorrow is just like today, and so is the next day.

And so, buried in her day-to-day routine, her inspiration fades into the background — a good intention that exceeded its EHL and never turned into a good reality.

What happened is that you failed to provide what most people need when they’re inspired: Time, encouragement, and an open mind.

You need an open mind because you’ll have to provide time and encouragement. The time isn’t free, and the encouragement means you’re willing to take a risk (of the inspiration becoming real; if it does it might not work out as planned). If you don’t have an open mind you will, by definition, be closed to both.

Whether Joyce was inspired by a seminar, a book, a KJR article (the most likely scenario) or a eureka moment, when she shares her enthusiasm with you it’s a fragile situation.

If you, like too many other leaders, think your job is to point out the “realities” — ManagementSpeak for “barriers” — you’ll kill the inspiration dead, overburdening it with the reasons to not bother trying.

Forget reality. It’s overrated. When business leaders, faced with an opportunity, focus first on how hard it will be instead of on how profitable it might be, their business has one foot in the grave and a shovel in its hands.

Instead, listen to and understand the opportunity the way Joyce sees it — by visualizing the upside. If she can’t articulate it well enough, encourage her to develop a more concrete account that’s clearly connected to the current state of affairs. Schedule time with her to hear it when she’s ready.

Next: Put some skin in the game and ask Joyce to do the same. Tell her you’re willing to invest two of her hours per week to create a formal business case (assuming that’s the logical next step) by deferring or reassigning some of her existing responsibilities; in exchange you expect her to invest two hours a week of her own time.

Four hours a week is enough to build a business case, and instead of exceeding the EHL, this extends it by making it more real.

The business case is where reality should set in, both in the form of barriers and in the form of the actual size of the opportunity. If it’s a bad idea, the business case will reveal it so you don’t have to. If it’s a great idea, the business case will reveal that too, and lead naturally to the next step, which is building a plan.

Either way, be happy. The business has explored an opportunity, which is good. Your employee has learned how to develop an idea, which is better.

This all assumes you’re willing to encourage innovation … change.

Everyone is up for that. What many aren’t ready for is change’s concomitant: that not everything will be the same.

Are you?

Bob Lewis is president of IT Catalysts, a consultancy focused on IT organizational effectiveness, business/IT integration, and helping organizations become more adept at designed, planned change.