Connecting the Dots

Connect the Dots was one of my favorite childhood pastimes.  There’s that page full of numbered splotches, beckoning your pencil to trace that first line from #1 to #2. Slowly as you work through the maze, an image emerges. What’s it going to be? The anticipation builds. Oh, there’s an eye.  A tiger? Nope, it’s got a fin. A shark? What’s this round thing…oh, that’s a shell! And right before your eyes emerges a graceful dolphin, out of that seemingly random mess of dots.

I still love to connect the dots in life, even though these challenges, unfortunately, rarely come with a sequenced number map.

At the recent Project World/World Conference for Business Analysts in Orlando, Florida, I was honored to meet some intriguing thought leaders in our discipline. They blew me away with their spans of perspectives and approaches to leadership. Some were more philosophical, others quite tactical, and all very thought-provoking.

Carrie Whittam, a PMO Manager from Deloitte Services LLP, gave a talk about leveraging across teams and time zones. She raised the importance of “embracing ambiguity.” That got me thinking… what does that really mean? What makes a person good at doing that? How do you embrace something that you can’t touch or see? As Spock from Star Trek might say, that seems “Most Illogical.”

A couple days later, award-winning author and former CEO James R. Lucas shared his insights on Paradox-Based leadership. To quote his web-site,

“Simplistic management generally produces sub-optimal results. The reason is not that complexity is valuable in itself, but because the kinds of situations we face are complex and require more thoroughly reasoned answers, and because the extent of both the available areas of opportunity and the potential sources of disaster has never been wider than it is today.

The untrained mind works to reject these and pick easy extremes, but paradoxical leaders study and embrace these apparent contradictions – these paradoxes. The greatest leaders deliberately think in both/and ways, and reap the powerful and profitable results of that choice.”

Wow. Chew on that for a moment.  Challenging those paradoxes, those contradictions, is a powerful leadership tool to break through “either/or” thinking and open up new possibilities.

I flipped back a few pages of notes to that notion of embracing ambiguity. One can’t grab something that isn’t there. It’s illogical. Or is it? What if we, as James Lucas titled his book, Broaden the Vision to a level where the answer can be both “yes and yes” rather than “either/or”?

My mind’s pencil drew a sharp line from Carrie’s Whittam’s ambiguity challenge to James Lucas’ paradoxes.  Embracing ambiguity is a paradox! Ah ha! Now how can we raise that challenge to a higher level? What if, instead of asking how we embrace something that isn’t there, we ask—how can we make something there to embrace? How can we breathe life into that fog,  to give it a form, so then we can  hug it?

Faced with that blank page, we start by COLLECTING the dots, gathering the pieces of information and insight without prejudice, and without the little numbers to tell us the order of progression.  Our page starts to fill with dots, and as our insight grows, a pattern emerges. Pretty soon there’s a dot that stands out from the others, beckoning to be #1. We place our pencil there, and scan the page for the next likely dot. We may be able to discern dot #2, and perhaps #3, and we don’t fret that we can’t figure out which one will be #149.

Dot by dot, the picture forms. As the individual parts take shape, our intellect and experience find ways to string them together. There’s an eye? OK, now we know it’s an animate object. Here’s a fin…  that narrows it down more. At least we won’t be hugging a tiger.  As form eases out of the fog,  our blindfold slips, and there’s the dolphin that was there all along.

Collecting, and then connecting the dots is both the question, and the answer, to the paradox of embracing ambiguity. And connecting the dots between seemingly unrelated presentations was how I got to that insight. Pretty powerful brain food there.

More to come on other “Ah ha!” moments from Project World/World Conference for Business Analysts. To read the archive of real-time Tweets from attendees, search for Twitter hash-tag #pwwcba.

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