It’s seems obvious that we would celebrate genius because, after all, it’s… well, it’s genius. Right? Unfortunately, too often, our focus shifts to the wrong things when encountering an act of genius. We engage tunnel vision, we cover our ears, eyes and mouth or we stare like deer in headlights. Instead of celebrating that moment of genius, we get caught up in other distractions and judgments, which too often results in the acceptance of mediocrity instead of the pursuit of genius.
Distractions often steer us away from genius and towards mediocrity.
Let me give you an example. Several years ago, I had a great guy working for me. I’ll call him Jose, because I like the sound of that name. I always thought of Jose as a modern day Renaissance Man, even though he was only in his early twenties, because he was multi-talented. He pursued something until he could master it. Consequently, he was great in the Arts and Humanities in school, he had been a varsity Rugby player, he was an unbelievably creative coder, and he liked to tinker with his hands.
Problems can be solved through innovation, but only if a culture of innovation exists within the organization.
Our project was creating a startup new tech operation within a large corporation. We started from scratch and had to develop a sustainable business model, a product and a production operations team. Even though we had some big money behind us, we needed to be entrepreneurial in order to be successful and survive. The corporation was not interested in throwing its money away on the experiment. We were exploring an area that was very new and had way more unknown unknowns than known knowns. Jose was fresh out of college, and I put him on the tech team setting up networks and hardware, coding where we needed coding and experimenting with unknowns until they became knowns.
Our startup project involved scanning high volumes of paper into a networked system. One day, the clerical supervisor came to me to complain about problems with the high-speed scanners. The primary concern was that they were too slow, so the workers were frustrated. She brought me into the scanning room and show me what she meant, and it was obvious. As a result, I called my tech team together to talk about it. It wasn’t rocket science to understand what was wrong, so they quickly set out to see if they could find a solution. This was far from the only important thing happening, so we didn’t drop everything to focus on the problem. Everything we did was multi-threaded, and a good part of my job was to tweak the priorities to get as much done as we could moving forward. This is the art of project management that does not come from PMP certificates and anything else except real-world experience and a knack for improvisation.
Time went on, and we continued to make progress developing the system, defining work processes, planning for implementation and evaluating things like financials, productivity improvements, cost benefits and cost savings. We continued to scan paper at a less than optimal speed.
After a while, and I don’t remember how long it was, my tech team leader said he wanted to have a meeting to show me a solution to the scanning problem. I was happy to hear they had figured something out, so we convened in the scanning room. They explained that they were going to show me a scanner without the fix and one with the fix. After the demonstration, it was obvious to me that the fix worked. I was really happy! I asked them to explain what they had done. The team leader turned to Jose and asked him to explain, since it was his idea.
Genius is often humble.
As brilliant as Jose was, he was also humble. He bowed his head in an aww-shucks manner and then proceeded to explain how the problem was not with the hardware itself but with the software drivers that connected the hardware to the network. He got excited when he talked about how cool the hardware actually was, and the didn’t throw the current software under the bus. Rather, he explained how challenging the problem was and how it just needed a different approach.
As thrilled as I was to have a solution, my first reaction was, “We can’t replace the software drivers from the hardware vendor. That could invalidate the warranty. That could create even more problems.” But, I kept these thoughts to myself. For whatever reason, I had the wisdom at that moment to ignore those thoughts that would distract me from the genius of the moment, the genius of Jose who had solved a problem that he never should have been able to, a problem that he shouldn’t have even tried to solve.
Most people would ignore the thought of digging into a software driver, but Jose was not afraid of the spaghetti code he encountered. He spent weeks understanding it and then threw it away to create something better. That was the boldness of his genius. Without the boldness, he wouldn’t have gotten to step #2.
As a team, we decided to test the software on one scanner in parallel with the others to see how it would perform and if there would be any issues like loss of data. Then, we would decide if we rolled it out everywhere, which we eventually did.
Before we went back to work, my team leader said, “There’s one more thing.”
I looked at him with a bit of worry on my face.
“We thought you might want to see the code.”
I didn’t understand why, but as a former coder, I thought I would take a look. My team leader handed me a sheet of paper. I scanned it, and then looked up at the others. They all had big grins on their faces, even Jose.
“This is only 25 lines of code,” I said counting in my head.
“Yep,” said the team leader. “The previous driver was several pages long, but Jose did it in 25 lines.”
Genius often comes in simplicity.
I walked over to Jose and shook his hand. “This is amazing! Great job!” As the newest and youngest member of the team, that was what he wanted and needed to feel included and valued. As brilliant as he was, he needed validation.
There are so many things I could have done differently in this situation. The safe thing would have been not to use Jose’s driver and trust the vendor more than my guy who had shown a moment of genius. But that would have resulted in spending a lot more money for the vendor to look for a solution, probably not solving the problem in the end (unless you want to bet on the vendor instead of my guy), and creating a wall of distance between me, Jose and the whole tech team. None of that would have been a useful outcome.
The value of genius is always greater than the cost of genius.
A few months later, I received a call from a colleague in California who had encountered a similar performance issue. He had heard through the grapevine that we had a solution. I sent him Jose’s code with an internal bill which he agreed on. He was willing to spend some money, especially “funny money”, to solve the problem. A few days later, my colleague called me back, but this time with a complaint.
“The code is only 25 lines long!”
“Isn’t that great?”
“But that’s $1,000 per line! You’re cheating me!”
I asked him if the code worked, and he said it worked beautifully. He even got a little excited when he told me how well it worked. I told him the code took months to develop and the end result of 25 lines of code was much more efficient than longer code would be. The cost would be made up within a week or two based on the performance improvement. Rather than worry about the way the code looked, he should think of the genius that went into it. Reluctantly, he accepted the internal bill for $25,000. The next time I saw him in person, the first thing he told me was that he wanted to meet Jose, the genius behind the 25 lines of code.
Sometimes, it’s hard to see genius. Sometimes, it’s hard to accept it. But if we don’t walk a path in life where we celebrate it, we are only going to stifle greatness, and we will never achieve higher levels of innovation.
This team turned out to be one the highest performing teams I’ve ever worked with, and we went on to accomplish a lot together. Eventually, the team dispersed, but each member went on to bring his or her bit of genius to the next project. Jose went on to become an entrepreneur and has continued to be a tech guru. I continue to keep my eyes open for genius and believe I find it all the time. When I do, I probably spend way too much time nurturing it than I should, but I believe it is necessary, and it so much fun!
This post also appears on Medium.