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Skateboarding and A Path To Discovery

By Steve Kane Updated on December 9th, 2014

 This article was written by Steve Kane

Clarity of Vision

Vision, mission and values are often thought to be guiding forces of an organization. These ideas give us a sense of who we are as an organization and where we’re headed—what we aspire to be.

The fact that we aspire to be something greater implies there are improvements to be made. What, and when, improvements should be made may be clear to some in the organization and a mystery to others. Part of a leader’s job is to teach those who don’t understand or have clarity.

Last year, I attended TEDx Orange Coast and had the opportunity to hear Rodney Mullen speak. Mullen is a professional skateboarder who invented several skateboard tricks and was a pioneer in the sport. Getting up again was the theme of his talk. Part of the trial and error process in the skateboard community is getting up after a painful fall over and over again when learning a new move or trick.

One of Mullen’s ideas that really stuck with me was a bit about a learner watching a more expert skateboarder perform an advanced trick on video. The learner watches, then goes out to the street, begins a process of trial and error for hours, days or even weeks before successfully performing the trick demonstrated in the video. While the idea of watch and learn is simple, there is actually something more profound going on here.

The learner has a vision of being a better skateboarder, but the vision isn’t clear. What does it mean to be a better skateboarder? What moves or tricks does one need to be able to perform to achieve the desired level of excellence? Mullen explains, “a lot of people have good ideas, but it’s an entirely different thing to precipitate that vision into something tangible.” Something lies between the in-the-moment experience of skateboarding and realizing the vision.

Learning It Could Be Done

Mullen explains the learner didn’t learn the trick by watching the video. He learned that it could be done. How to perform the trick was never really the problem. Not knowing what trick to learn, particularly because no one else in his environment was doing it, was the issue impeding progress. Could this be a factor in the workplace?

There are far more opportunities for improvement than any leader (or other individual) could really know. We rely (or should rely) on all employees to make improvements at work. Oftentimes, improvements must be made in order to discover other, more significant improvement opportunities. While we work to realize the vision for our organization, we may not know or imagine our next step. We may not have the creativity to move forward without some sort of spark.

The skateboarder watching the video has the passion and drive to become great. He’s just lacking, at least at the moment, the creativity to invent a new maneuver. Maybe the path to greatness isn’t necessarily inventing something new, but mastering something that has already been invented.

The Barrier of Disbelief

“The biggest obstacle to creativity is breaking through the barrier of disbelief,” according to Mullen. Disbelief can be either active or passive. By this I mean one can consider an idea to be impossible (active disbelief), or not have the idea to believe in the first place (passive disbelief). Either way, disbelief is an obstacle.

I believe people are trustworthy and want to good job. I believe employees want to improve and make a significant contribution; they want the organization to be successful. If improvements are not being realized, we have to ask why. What are the obstacles to progress?

Mullen’s barrier of disbelief can come in many forms. My experience as a lean leader tells me that people often believe they do not have the authority to improve. They often believe they must wait to be told what to improve and when. Employees often believe improvement is a special project led by someone else instead of part of the job they do every day.

One of greatest hurdles leaders face is leading people beyond disbelief to discovery. A big part of a leader’s job is to teach, coach, mentor and inspire. I’m not so sure people need to be told how to improve so much as they need to discover what improvement is possible.


Watch Mullen’s TEDx Talk Here.

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