“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” Many people remember those words as a quote from Steve Jobs made during Jobs’ Stanford commencement address in 2005, where, among other things, he spoke about the Whole Earth Catalog as the Google of that day. Referring to the Whole Earth Catalog, and that particular time in history, brings a tear to my eye and makes me smile at the same time.
People remember the four words as Jobs’, but forget that Jobs readily admitted that he didn’t make up those words – he was quoting the farewell message on the back cover of the last issue of Whole Earth Catalog in 1974.
To this day, whenever I look at that photo, I never look at it as an end of a long and winding road, but as a beginning of a journey down it. But that’s not why I’m writing this today. What I’m interested in writing about starts with this “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” mantra, and leads us down the road of why this is so important for agility.
Staying hungry: we are reminded to focus on delighting our customer. Hunger is so low on the Maslovian scale that it’s a basis for just about everything else. While one item to be hungry for are the products we produce, the capital that they provide should not be considered the goal of existence. In a sense, rather than simply dining well on the money that revenue produces, we have to also use it to plant the seeds for future revenues and the capital that it will provide.
“A rising tide lifts all boats.” It’s a phrase commonly attributed to John F. Kennedy, but he didn’t make up those words either. He got them from a chamber of commerce called the New England Council. For purposes here, remember that simply doing what’s worked in the past is merely a way to slowly drain the lake. Constantly improving is what we have to do to make the lake larger. Continuous improvement doesn’t come with a checklist of things to do. It requires creativity to figure out how to make what’s good now even better, and that requires that we never grow complacent and rest on our laurels. We have to constantly be searching and never forgetting that things could always be even better than they are. “Curiosity is stimulated when individuals feel deprived of information and wish to reduce or eliminate their ignorance.” (The Agile Mind, p279, Wilma Koutstaal, 2012, Oxford University Press.)
Staying foolish: we are reminded to not just accept, but to question and be curious. Getting to the “whys” are far more important than just jumping to a whole bunch of “whats” (and getting them wrong the until we learn what’s really needed.) And learning can be expensive at times. Failure shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing, but as something that gives us an opportunity to learn something. If nothing else, we learn what doesn’t work. As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” We have to be in an environment that supports that line of thought for the potential to improve through learning to work.
Sometimes the reason we fear being foolish is that the idea that we have isn’t something that we feel we should discuss. It may be something that might make us the object of ridicule. Maybe we’re afraid that should something go wrong, that we’ll get blamed for the failure. Those sort of situations remind me of the old Hans Christian Andersen tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” When the vain emperor employs tailors, they decided to make clothes from a special fabric that was invisible to anyone unfit for their positions or hopelessly stupid. The Emperor and his ministers all saw the clothes, because they feared that otherwise, they would be seen as unfit or stupid. The child who blurted out that the emperor had no clothes was not only foolish, but hungry as well (since he wasn’t part of the ruling class, who had everything to lose). In our world, we have to find ways to be like that child if we expect to make Agile anything more than superficial self-congratulation that ultimately ends up draining the lake. We have to make sure that in our organizations, we can stay hungry and foolish and not fear that saying “our process has no clothes” will be met with anything other than the wonderment of what’s possible.
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