Let’s face it, you are a big failure!

Good for you! (Read on to understand why . . . )

Fellow leader:

In this series of e-letters we have been exploring the dark-side of the ever popular strengths-approach (leveraging your strengths and managing around your weaknesses in work and life). One of my biggest concerns is that the strengths approach can unwittingly insulate us from our best opportunities to learn.

Here’s why.

As we start to build our identity around our strengths (usually based on highly suspect self-reports built around inadequate measurement constructs), we start to protect ourselves from opportunities and experiences that fall outside our “talent zone.” Others may be protecting us as well – like our bosses (who will shape our career trajectory based on their own strengths assessment of us).

Think about that one for a minute. The “strengths-approach” has empowered bosses to play fast and loose with our professional lives – and you don’t even know it. Behind closed doors, the conversation goes like this: “Sure, Jane deserves the promotion – but I think her strengths are elsewhere. It would be a disservice to her to put her in a role where she hasn’t shown natural talent.”

At a number of levels, I am not sure that is an accurate statement. What are we basing our assesments on – and how accurate are they? In many cases, I see “strengths” used as a way to maintain the status quo.

But here’s the bigger lesson. Unwittingly, our “focus on strengths” may be limiting the opportunity for the kinds of small failures that can lead to rich learning experiences. Here’s an example of how it works.

Let’s say that for some dumb reason, I volunteer to manage the budget for a project within my group. Immediately upon volunteerting, I realize I may be over my head because I “self-labled” long ago that I am not analytical or detail oriented. Even a teammate confronts me: “Are you sure you want to do this? You hate budgeting!” Unfortunately, I am stuck now.

My initital shortcomings and errors with the budgeting task are due to “limited experience” and my self-proclaimed aversion to anything with numbers attached to it. Not surprisingly, as I tackle each little mistake or barrier, I become a little more confident in budgeting basics. Soon I believe that with a little extra effort, I can get through this.

But something amazing is also starting to happen. Along the way, I start to see some larger opportunities emerge from actually doing the budget. I start to see how we often limit our thinking and problem solving to fit the perceived budget restraints. I see this “big time” when I dutifully give my weekly budget update to the team. I see how the “artificial barriers of budget” restrict and dampen our thinking. Instead of thinking “what is possible” – we focus on “what can we afford.”

I am totally engaged now! I am starting to reframe the budget in some powerful new ways. In one meeting, I position the numbers as catalysts for innovation. I use the Mars Pathfinder example where a space mission with a rover landing is done for the price of making a Hollywood movie. Mars Pathfinder was an over-the-top inspirational example where budget restraints led to powerful new innovations that money couldn’t buy.

Am I the best person to do the budget? From an analytical point of view – no. No way! But I am on a mission now. I want to reframe and recast the budgeting process as an innovation tool to spur innovative thinking (my “claimed” strengths) – something that might be beyond the normal view of my colleagues with “budget and analytical strengths.”

My questions for you: At what cost do we keep people in their comfort zone? At what cost were my small failures in budgeting – compared to the new insights gained in leveraging budgets as an innovation tool? Clearly, there are areas where my “lack of natural strength” would make me a liability. But have we gone too far in limiting our reach?

See you on the path,


There is one part of you that I really like

Fellow leader:

In this series we have been reviewing the popular “strengths approach” (leveraging and developing our natural strengths and talents).

One of my biggest concerns is that we think we can break a person down into parts and somehow we will be able to put them back together in a meaningful way. In other words, if I can articulate my top strengths, this will give me some significant insight into my power zone. For example, if I am competitive and achievement focused – then I should try my hand at sales. The competitive nature of the field and the clear achievement measures (how much did I sell?) make it a natural opportunity. We love the logic and simplicity of this.

In many respects, this is how the world works.

Our kids go to college and take a bunch of fragmented courses (e.g., Marketing, Finance, Operations, etc.) – with the belief that somehow they will be able to (with little life or work experience) put them back together into a meaningful whole. Hello! No wonder most of our kids graduate with a sense of frustration, confusion, and vulnerability.

Unfortunately, this fragmented view is most natural.

Deep in our programming, we are reductionist thinkers (we like to reduce things to their parts). Give a kid any toy and they want to take it apart. They want to understand the parts – and how they fit together. The whole isn’t quite as interesting as a bunch of parts that have been dis-assembled and lay in front of them on the carpet.

It is no wonder we are “reduced and seduced” by the logic of breaking our problems down into their parts – hoping they will come back together neatly from our coordination efforts. As we all know, this rarely happens. Much of the popular strengths focus falls prey to this same fallacy. In the process of identifying our strengths, we get some sterile, oversimplified sense of who we really are.

However, deep down, we love these strengths assessments. We love, love, love it when someone can give us a written report that will give us some sense of efficacy of just who we might be in this crazy world.

But. But. But. Let’s be clear.

Each year we experience more fragmentation in our work and personal lives. The center is not holding in either. We are losing our unifying center. Here’s my question: At what risk do we begin to fragment our sense of self, by buying into these little “strengths” buckets? At what risk are we affirmed through “highly suspect” self-reports (the results of personality and strengths tests that we routinely take)?

There are alternatives.

Tell me a story. Tell me a story about you. Tell me a story so true it could be my story.

Wow. I love your story. Tell me more.

I look forward to seeing you on the path.