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The Necessity of Strangers

We all know that strong and effective leadership is crucial to business and organizational success. The best leaders and managers help all of us to build organizations and cultures that nurture innovation, unlock the real talents of employees at all levels, foster teamwork and collaboration, and encourage new, more meaningful connections with customers. They help us deliver award-winning quality by investing in the right people, systems, processes, and technology. But is this enough in today’s dynamic and diverse world?

I would suggest that it’s not. One fundamental role of leaders and managers now is to build organizations and cultures that are much more open to the world around them—a world filled with remarkable strangers and countless new possibilities. Connecting with, and learning from, people who are very different than us is essential to our success. In my work with a wide range of corporations, I challenge them to think about the value of strangers and the vital roles that they play in innovation, employee engagement, collaboration, and growth.

Here are some of the ways strangers help organizations:

Innovation. In order to grow and stay relevant, all businesses must continually deliver even greater value to the customers they have the privilege to serve. They do this by developing better products, services, and solutions, creating more remarkable and customer experiences, and improving the quality and efficiency of the ways they produce and distribute their offerings. While almost every company and organization talk about the importance of innovation, most rely on an old, tired, and limiting notion of how innovation happens—a notion built around the belief that the best way to come up with the best new ideas is to put our smartest people in a room together to “brainstorm.”

Consider this: 99% of all new ideas are based on an idea or practice that someone has already had. If that isn’t a call to get out of our offices and meeting rooms to wander around and engage strangers and fresh ideas, then I don’t know what is. This simple step enabled Igor Sikorsky to create breakthroughs in vertical flight, George de Mestral to invent Velcro, Vidal Sassoon to reimagine the world of hair design, Nissan to design cars that will not collide, and most other folks who have changed the direction of their industries.

I might even suggest that the groundbreaking Apple iPod and its clever ecosystem built around the iTunes store owe much of its inspiration to strangers. First, the idea for personalized music was invented in 1979 by Sony with its super cool Walkman. Second, the MP3 platform that drives the iPod was invented by two German engineers in the 1980s. And, third, the notion of building the world’s largest repository of content was conceived by the Egyptians roughly 2,300 years ago with the Great Library in Alexandria, which held more than 400,000 documents (although it didn’t have a particularly strong music collection).

Engagement. Most leaders and managers acknowledge that people are their most important assets, but if that’s truly the case, why do we have such a difficult time unlocking their talents and brilliance? I’d argue that it is because most of us aren’t very good at being open to the ideas of strangers. Even when we hire strangers who are a lot like us, we fail to engage them and tap their knowledge the moment they arrive. Instead we use “orientation”—an experience in which we try as quickly as possible to bring them into the fold and teach them the way that we do things—to help them “get with the program.” But what if our way isn’t always the best way? Wouldn’t we be way better off to gain their expertise and insights as soon as they arrive before we suck the energy, enthusiasm, and creativity right out of them? After all, they are the folks in the building with the freshest ideas.

Recent data suggests that the average job tenure for employees in the U.S. is roughly four years and only a year for workers under the age of 30. Could it be that most people decide to leave so quickly because we fail to capture their interests, imagination, real talents, and hearts on day one? That in our rush to continue business as usual, we treat them as one more replaceable cog in the wheel? Because we fail to view them as uniquely valuable, we also fail to help them see the powerful connection between their dreams and our ongoing success. If only we could recognize their unique talents when they first come on board, we could inspire them to learn more, take greater initiative, and become more invested in making us better. We have to realize that most people are strangers who are looking for someplace where they can make a difference.

Collaboration. The future belongs to organizations that understand how to collaborate internally and externally. In large organizations most people are strangers, vast collections of names on cubicles and faces at “all hands” meetings—people we often see as a set of stereotypes tied to their roles, job titles, departments, or training. Many of us are unable to get past these perceptions in order to do remarkable things together. As a result we put up walls that protect our interests and guard our knowledge at the expense of the greater good. It’s even more of a challenge when we try to partner with strangers in other organizations.

What if we could connect as people first, seeking to find common ground before ever attempting to tackle a pressing business problem or a new opportunity? If we could, we would quickly understand a compelling notion: that our similarities are a powerful bond that connects us as humans while our differences provide the basis for breaking new ground and being more brilliant together. We might even become more open to sharing our knowledge and challenges with each other. This is an idea that is well understood by leading global companies internally and in their growing networks of alliances…and poorly understood by the 75% of acquisitions that fail to achieve success. It is also an idea with amazing implications for not just our professional lives, but our success as individuals and even nations.

Growth. In today’s Internet-driven economy all of us to have to figure out how to connect with and provide greater value to strangers—strangers who have lots of choices and more complete information about those choices than ever before. We must serve customers who are strangers, yet who expect to be treated with remarkable care, even though we may never meet them face-to-face. Our role is to make them smarter and more capable. To help them get the greatest benefit from our products and services, we must be much more responsive and flexible and we must ask for their suggestions on ways to make our offerings more meaningful. We even make them smile.

The Leader’s Role
Here are the six essential roles of leaders and managers in a world filled with strangers, new ideas, new markets, and new possibilities:

1. Inspire us to be more remarkable than ever before in meeting the needs of customers.

2. Appreciate not only our knowledge and talents but also the most important gaps that keep us from reaching our full potential.

3. Encourage us to look beyond our own walls and expertise to connect with, understand, and leverage the insight of strangers from all walks of life.

4. Teach us the importance of welcoming new employees and new partnerships as a way to expand our possibilities.

5. Empower us to collaborate more passionately by building cultures of curiosity and conversation inside and outside our organizations—cultures in which we seek to consistently find new connections, ideas, and perspectives that stretch our thinking and action.

6. Demonstrate their belief in the necessity of strangers as a key to ongoing success.

Each day most of us pass by 100 people and places that could change our lives and the fortunes of our companies and organizations, but we don’t take the time or make the effort to notice, connect, and learn from them. Maybe it’s time to change the way we look at the world around us.

You can learn more about innovation and collaboration at work at this AMA seminar:
Creativity and Innovation: Unleash Your Potential for Greater Success 

Collaborative Leadership Skills for Managers

About the Author(s)

Alan Gregerman is president and Chief Innovation Officer of Venture Works Inc., a strategy and innovation consulting firm. He is the award-winning author of the new book The Necessity of Strangers (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Learn more at www.alangregerman.com