March 16, 2018

Learning to Connect the Dots | Leading From the Library

Steven BellGreat leaders have some talents that can’t be quantified and may be more intuitive than learned. Among them, the great ones have an ability to connect separate pieces of information to form a useful pattern. But there may be ways to get better at that.

One expectation that followers have of their leaders is that they demonstrate some significant accumulated knowledge or expertise that will help move the organization towards the greater good. Much of what leaders know comes from learning through experience, and much of that experience is the result of mistakes. But achieving visionary leadership requires more than just being a storehouse of knowledge. What separates those with vision from the rest is the ability to connect the dots. More eloquently stated, certain leaders have the ability to identify disparate trends, patterns, or events, which to most of us would have little in common, and understand how these phenomena could combine to lead to a new service or product that delivers value. It’s the piece of leadership that is often associated with innovation. We expect our leaders to see what’s coming before we get around the curve. Those with a knack for discovering what’s new before it goes mainstream tend to gain our confidence and that’s why we follow. It’s their ability to connect the dots that enables them to build and articulate a vision that captures the imagination of followers.

Connectors Are Multi-Talented

History provides us with many examples of leaders who demonstrated the ability to think differently than their peers and were therefore notable for their ability to appear ahead of their times. A prototype for such leaders is Leonardo da Vinci. He mastered many skill sets: art, science, music, architecture, and engineering are prominent among them. It was more than just accumulating skills, however, which set da Vinci apart. He was able to creatively combine his skills to articulate his ideas for flying machines, steam cannons, and other inventions; his exploration of anatomy; or an advanced bridge design. Although the technology of his time could not support all his inventions, de Vinci is widely recognized for his prescient ways. These connectors are typically ahead of their time, owing to their ability to see how social, political, demographic and lifestyle trends will blend and impact social change.

Connectors are Change Leaders

In the 19th century, Elizabeth Cady Stanton also exhibited a gift for synthesis. It was her vision of a greater role for women in society that made her the early leader of the women’s rights movement. By combining her interests in abolition, temperance, and other social movements with women’s rights, she was able to exert greater influence on American society and politics. In the 20th century, Martin Luther King combined his commitment to non-violent protest, learned from Ghandi, with tremendous oratory skills and incredible power to organize people to bring the civil rights movement to the mainstream. Leaders like Stanton and King were not the only ones of their times engaged with a social cause, but their ability to connect the dots helped them to form visions for radical change before the rest of the world was ready. That enabled them to gain followers and emerge as a powerful leaders.

Connectors Weave Technologies Together

Technology is a powerful catalyst for blending radically different things into something new—the type of possibility most of us either overlook or lack the necessary technical skills to facilitate. Johannes Gutenberg had both intricate knowledge of the screw press for wine making and metal typeface for character design. By making a connection between the two, he was able to invent the printing press and take the lead in this new technology. Perhaps the most powerful connected technology dot of all time is the Internet.  Inventors and innovators are skilled at weaving it into synergy with other technologies, such as personal computers, to lead to new companies and services. Internet travel services are a good example. Prior to Expedia, we went to travel agents for advice and help in planning a trip. Expedia’s founders saw multiple trends forming and connected them into the launch of the first online travel service. With personal computing and the Internet, attaching to a national airline reservation system made it possible for anyone to plan air travel. Beyond that, however, they noticed a growing trend in self-service. If people could use ATMs for anytime banking, why wouldn’t they prefer to plan trips at their own convenience? Connecting these disparate trends launched an entirely new industry and cemented Expedia’s position as one of the frontrunners.

What It Takes to Connect the Dots

We all want to be better at connecting the dots. How many times have we asked ourselves why we failed to see something coming at us—or that was right in front of us? Perhaps the signs were there. We had the clues. What prevented us from making the connections? Don’t feel badly. Attention blindness is a common affliction that keeps us from missing the obvious. Post-incident analysis of many terrorism incidents reveals that data and intelligence held by various sources should have predicted and prevented the incident, but for various reasons no individual or group was able to connect the dots and see it coming.

Are there strategies we can use to improve our dot connecting skills? Given the somewhat intuitive aspects of the process, it’s not as easily learned as some other aspects of leadership. However, there are a few ways in which leaders could be more intentional about acquiring this skill.

  • Few of us are da Vincis, but we likely all have multiple areas of expertise. Think about how skills  in one area can connect with others and lead to new insights;
  • Whether it’s a daily review of the New York Times or a steady diet of technology blogs and magazines, engage with non-library content that can expose you to new trends and ideas;
  • Pay particular attention to environmental scans and publications that point to new trends and forecasts;
  • Set times for non-distracted thinking. Almost every study of ideation points to the value of setting aside time for thoughts to flow freely and away from daily responsibilities. This is when unassociated matters may best come together in “aha” moments;
  • Collect ideas, articles, stories, and anything that seems even remotely relevant into a database or some container where disparate information can be stored, searched, and retrieved. The process of saving to and occasionally reviewing the database content may spark connections.
  • Establish a network of colleagues and tap it to discover what others are working on and why. The process of bouncing ideas around with peers can have both parties sharing the dots and increasing the opportunities for connections.

Looking for Librarian Role Models

Who are the dot connectors in librarianship? What have they done that we can learn from to become better dot-connecting leaders?  Library association award programs and awards from publications like Library Journal can occasionally point to librarians that may serve as role models for dot connection in bringing innovation to librarianship. Susan Nutter was Library Journal’s Librarian of the Year in 2005. To get a sense of how Nutter connected various dots, it is worth going back to the LJ profile. By combining insight into the impending importance of technology to the future success of libraries, and hiring new types of technologists to lead the effort, with the value of creating community and engaging with key players on campus, Nutter was able to marshal the resources to move the library from “a middling library and made it into a model for the entire profession.” A review of Mover & Shaker profiles and other award winners may point to more librarians with talent for dot connection.  Connecting the dots is one of the more difficult skills for leaders to learn. Identifying role models, in and out of librarianship, may be a good way to pick up on what it takes to see around the curve. Paying attention to the road signs is a starting point.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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