Saturday, September 15, 2007

The One Apple Apple Tree

I live in a new country home in Michigan. I have 10 acres of mature trees and I've made a game out of identifying them. I'm not bad -- I can get 9 out of 10, but one tall slender tree in a thicket near the house was throwing me. I went through the books and based on the leaves, bark, etc. I came up with a Tupelo.

Well, I was wrong. My arborist Chris came by and I pointed out my Tupelo. He smiled and said, "creative identification" which was political correct speak for mistake! Chris told me it was actually an Apple tree. He took a long look upwards and pointed his finger. I looked up and saw a lone apple about 40 feet up. We looked everywhere and it was the only piece of fruit on the tree, but, it was a perfect apple. I still can't believe it's an apple tree! I never figured it for a fruit tree in among all the hardwoods, and the shape was so tall and thin, very unapple. I skipped that part of the book entirely when looking for matches!

So, as always, I ask myself "what does this mean?" What's the link to innovation?

What comes to me is that it's a bit like a problem employee, or a difficult partner. They have a role but there is conflict and they don't seem to fit. You can't figure out what they have to offer, and so we tend to slap a label on them and stop listening. And yet, even the worst employee, even the most difficult partner, often has one good insight or idea -- one good piece of fruit. The problem is we have preconcieved notions about who they are and what they know, so we don't hear it.

Years ago I was told by an employee of one of my software companies that one of our managers was "losing it." I discounted the comment as this employee was an oddball and an introvert. He was a good programmer, but I gave him no credit whatsoever for insight into anything more, particularly people. Well, he was right and it was tough sledding handling someone who was having a mental breakdown. The company and that employee would have been far better off if I had been really listening, we might have prevented a real disaster.

So here's the lesson: Listen to everybody. Somewhere way up in the leaves is a piece of perfect fruit. It might be a good product idea, a way to cut expenses, a way to boost morale. If you listen, an apple may fall right into your lap.

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