There’s a funny scene in Milos Forman’s 1984 classic Amadeus, where the emperor of Austria confidently tells Mozart about a certain composition that: “it has too many notes, just cut a few and it’ll be perfect”.

I came to think about that line the other day when I heard Ken Sandy talk about leadership. Ken’s a favourite design thinker of mine, and I really like the framework he’s come up with. It starts with a pair of polar opposites:

  • The power of imagination vs. an eye for careful inspection of details
  • The ability to juggle a number of divergent possibilities vs. the ability to make a team converge around *one* solution and execute on it.

Based on these axises, four modes are plotted:

  1. Driven by curiosity the Explorer is the typical mad-hat inventor, operating far outside of most people’s comfort zone’s (kids have this mindset by default. That’s why they’re such fun to be around).
  2. The Analyst focuses on the details to figure out the implications of any given ‘great idea’ that the explorer brings to the table, creating a clear specifications and digging up data to back up decisions.
  3. The Challenger is the no-sayer who asks the hard questions. (In the Despicable me films Gru outsources this function to Dr. Nefario, an old grump who never seems happy but who’s obviously the one to hold the operation together.)
  4. Finally the Evangelist is the Steve Jobs-wannabe who’s happiest in the limelight.

Just like with parenthood no one approach will work well all the time. You always have to be mindful enough to know when to dial back or switch mode. 

For example: you might need to work your Steve Jobs-act to help a team getting through the slog of refactoring the system architecture—work that has to be done but brings no apparent value to the user—whereas you’ll need to practice saying no when money is flowing in and your team is lost in a false sense of being able to win multiple games at the same time.

The challenge of having to move fluidly between these modes made me think of the computer scientist Christopher Langton, a thought-leader in the field of artificial life. 

His efforts to simulate living systems led him to believe that there is a common denominator to environments that are conducive to innovation; they all tend to gravitate towards the “edge of chaos”. Too much or too little and there can be no life (in Langton’s sense “life” can be thought of as synonymous with innovation). He uses the analogy of matter shifting between the phases of gas, liquid and solid, where the transitional liquid phase is exceptionally beneficial to innovation.

(It’s funny if you think about it that the word liquid happens to have a very positive connotation also for economists. You don’t want your assets frozen or see your fortune evaporate. Liquidity is always what you’re after)

Langton’s focus on phase-transitions and his ideas about the liquid state is echoed in Sandy’s encouragement to relax and go with the flow. As long as you’re in a liquid state of mind you can keep your eyes on the global optimum, you can inject flow in your organisation, you can have the mental equivalence of quantum supremacy, it becomes possible to exist in multiple places at once, you can be all over the map.