“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backward.”
I’ve quoted this line so often since Steve Jobs said it at his 2005 Stanford commencement address that it began to feel like what improvisers call a ‘go-to-move’’—a proven trope that becomes a lazy habit if you’re not careful. As a remedy, I began focusing, instead, on the second part of the quote:
“So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
The first part of the quote demonstrates how Jobs was a non-linear leader. He understood that a story only turns linear, and ‘tellable,’ when it has been lived, and has become history. Before that, a living story is open-ended, with nearly-infinite possibilities for how the dots might connect. Jobs architected Apple and Pixar to allow for spontaneous encounters between employees for just this reason.
A twist comes with the second part of the Jobs quote, in which he nearly contradicts himself. After claiming to the Stanford grads they can’t connect the dots going forward, he tells them they have to trust that they will connect. Now imagine for a second you’re a recent grad who took Jobs at his word, and when your first boss asks you, “What makes you so sure this dot will connect?” Your response is—
Here’s what won’t be trusted in those scenarios: You and whatever you’re doing.
So if we are not connecting the dots moving into the future—because the renowned futurist Steve Jobs said we can’t—and his answer about what we have to trust is impractical—what or whom do we trust to connect the dots in a way that leads to a future we desire?
I tell clients and students they can trust three things that directly affect the outcomes of their dot-connecting:
- Intention. We call this ‘fore-having.’ What is it we care about most deeply as an individual, a team, an organization? We call this a heart-of-care. What do we want from the future that we can express in a heartfelt way that accompanies any dot-connecting we do? How do we build on our history, on all the dots that we’ve connected before today? Our intentions can move backward and forward in time. They connect us to themes—big ideas that are network nodes around which people gather and provide input. Intention is the beginning of all stories. A thought that stirs us to action and then keeps us moving.
- Ethics. The social, moral, analytical, legal and strategic framework in which we operate. One way we assess performance and an organization’s culture is in relation to its ethics. A fair assessment of a person’s or team’s performance is an ethical one. Ethics allow us to set boundaries without limiting possibilities, and judge without being judgmental or prejudiced (i.e. pre-judging). Ethics are the behavioral codes by which people conduct themselves.
- Improvisation. Improvisers—in both jazz and theater—connect dots at the speed of thought. They use a shareable framework to do it, as their basis for mutual trusting. We call this framework a ‘game,’ and define a game in terms of its ERGOTM—an acronym for Environment, Roles, Guidelines, Objective.
ERGO is the universal formula for all games, and can be applied to any scenario where collaboration and co-creation are called for. The concept of ‘game’ obviously has a lot in common with Agile and gamification, but a quantum storyteller’s game is more adaptive, because it can be defined from behaviors-out—meaning an ERGO can manifest itself out of disorganization as well as environments just as well as it can be game-in—meaning frameworks-in, which is what can happen when Agile or any gamified process gets too dogmatic.
Improvisation is by definition non-deterministic, a treasurable attribute for organizations operating in a networked world. Why? It opens the door to serendipity. There is no limit to the possible outcomes a productive collaboration can produce, and most of those outcomes cannot be known ahead of time.
So…what do we trust?
We trust that if our Intention is clear and unambiguous…our Ethics grounded and understood…our Improvisation is playful and focused…dots will connect in a way that aligns with our ideas about the future. Dot. Dot. Dot. Your story and my story become our story. Dot. Dot. Dot. Our story turns into something richer than either of us could have imagined on our own.
COMING SOON: One of our favorite dot-connectors, is a quantum storyteller, Dr. Anna B. Scott, who is head of the School of Communication and Arts at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She calls my attention to a piece in the Harvard Business Review on incremental change management at Infosys. To which I respond, “This is the shit we’ve been talking about!”W