The Problem with Labels


Meet son#3. He’s also known as:

The Uprooter of Tulips
The Beheader of Marigolds
The Hallway Graffiti Artist
The Stacker of Toothbrushes Down the Drain
The Uninstaller of Shutters and Trampoline Safety Equipment

The problem with labels like these is that they don’t capture the mischievous glint in his eye before he attacks a soap bubble or the sweet and innocent way he says sorry after he’s dumped half a liter of water on the floor in his quest to study fluid dynamics. They in no way capture all the sweet and funny things he does, which mostly make up for the renovations required to our home.

To a certain extent, we need to use labels to help us quickly understand complex situations by categorizing all the information we receive, which, I suppose, is why all the “job hunting” gurus and resume experts advise that we should brand ourselves. A simple, clear and easy to understand statement of who we are. But I’m not a box of cereal and neither are you.

So who really suffers when we stick to labels? The labelers, of course.  The moment we have categorized something or someone, it limits the number of interactions we can associate with them, in turn, limiting our creativity. If we think the spoon is an eating utensil, we will only use it for eating. It’s also apparently really useful for digging up bulbs in the garden, playing the stock pot and removing drywall.

If I think son #3 is a troublemaker, I will only look out for the trouble he creates. I need to take a step back and deconvolute the label.

Son #3 is a troublemaker because he doesn’t listen to me. Son #3 doesn’t listen to me because he really, really, really wants to do what just popped in his head because he’s:

a) So curious he’s going to explode if he doesn’t
b) Determined the rewards outweigh the risks
c) Testing me to see if he can overthrow the current regime in this family

Which actually makes me think he’ll be a great entrepreneur in a few years and his curiosity and questioning of authority should actually be encouraged. Just like that, he’s transformed from troublemaker to possible retirement solution because I am so moving in with him when I’m old and senile. Revenge, circle of life, and all that.

We need to look at all the people we’ve categorized and labeled. They could end up becoming friends, or at the very least surprise us. And seeking out surprises is a great way to change our way of thinking and learn new things.

Safe and stagnant is boring.

Maybe I should buy son #3 a chemistry kit. He’ll like that. The “not for children under 3” warning is probably just another example of labeling designed to simplify our lives and stifle our creativity. Maybe. What the heck, the spare room is already missing some drywall, anyway.



All Roads Lead to Innovation


When I started this blog, the first thing I did was look at my definition of leadership: Leadership is the courage to bring people together and the art of engaging them so that they can accomplish great things.

But it didn’t dawn on my until now, how that connects with everything I’ve been pursuing in my life. My work with early-stage biotechs, my experiences in the cadet program, the choice of subjects I picked during my MBA…it all leads to a study of innovation–how to encourage it and how to develop its ideas and bring them to reality. The biotech angle and the school courses are obvious how they fit in, but it’s only now that I’ve been able to tie my feelings on leadership to innovation. I just realized how fundamentally they are linked.

The most vital job of a leader is to make sure there’s an environment where innovation can occur.

The funny thing is this clicked into place during the adult karate training camp I just attended, because even karate leads to innovation. We were watching the leadership video from Simon Sinek on why good leaders make you feel safe. He says that leaders are responsible for creating a circle of safety for the tribe, which is necessary for innovation to occur. Otherwise, we spend all of our energy protecting ourselves from each other.

However, safety is only half the equation. Most innovation results in failure and people have to feel safe failing, but the other problem stopping innovation is that some organizations are too safe and are swimming in a sea of complacency. A leader also has to help the tribe identify the danger they are fighting. And there’s always danger, regardless of the industry, regardless of where it is in its life cycle, regardless of what the competition is currently doing. Because things change all the time.

So maybe when we talk about a lack of innovation, what we’re really talking about is a leadership problem. And we’re talking about a lack of innovation all the time, only the solution hasn’t been to change the leadership, the solution has become to buy up innovative companies instead. (See tech giants, Valeant Pharmaceuticals.)

Instead of defining the danger, instead of providing an environment where the tribe can create new and wonderful things, the leaders just make the circle bigger, relying on the fact that someone else has already created it. The problem never really gets fixed, just postponed a little bit longer. But if we look smaller, not bigger, focusing on the smallest units within our organizations and empowering them and protecting them, allowing them to try and fail and try again, we can start to create (and destroy and create again) thousands of new, and wonderful things.

And sometimes at this lowest level, we’re just an accidental leader. We didn’t wake up this morning intent on world domination, we’re just supervisors, parents, teachers, team leads, neighbors, and office mates. But, I think that’s the most important position of all.


Veronica Ciolfi