The Importance of Original Thought

It’s report card time and my youngest just brought home her marks from the first trimester of sixth grade. I’ve been blessed with three children that are self-motivated and have an appetite for learning and a drive to excel, so report card time has never been stressful for anyone in my house. They usually bring home As with an occasional B, but as long as they have provided their best effort, they rarely hear anything but praise for their efforts.

Our elementary school recently changed to a system of 1-4 with 1 and 2 being low marks, 3 being great performance and 4 being reserved for something exceptional. My daughter has adjusted well, but we did have to level set her expectations that a 3 was equivalent to an A and a 4 was going to be pretty hard to achieve.

I remember a couple of instructors I had in college who practiced something similar. They would walk the students through the syllabus, class expectations and learning objectives. At the end they would review their grading system and explain that if you did everything the professor expected, you would get a B.

As a kid who had a 4.2 GPA through high school, this was hard to absorb, and I remember thinking it was dumb at the time. “If I do everything you ask, I get a B?”

However, in retrospect I like this grading methodology … a lot!

one original thought is worth a thousand mindless quotings quote 1

The reality is that in life, excellence and innovation don’t come from memorization and regurgitation, or from consistent execution of well-known activities.

In order to move the bar, in order to create something new, in order to push boundaries, there has to be original thought —the ability to connect the dots in new ways. Yes, you have to know the basics to do that, but a B student memorizes a textbook, while an A student connects that book to the six other subjects they are studying, finding how they interact and amplify each other, drawing conclusions and theories from study and lived experience.

Connecting the dots is worth the A. Reading the book and passing the test really isn’t.

Based on that — I want to propose the same type of system for employee empowerment and development.

To be clear, I am making a hard line here between the academic performance above, and the performance of an employee on the job.

A+ employees can come from any academic background.  Not everyone is geared to excel in an institutional, educational environment, and that doesn’t devalue them as hires or employees in the least.

It’s also worth noting, innovation and original thought aren’t limited to management or the C-suite. In fact, some of the most valuable original thought comes from the ones who execute the work daily, finding a processes or techniques that create efficiencies or solve practical problems.

Imagine a technician who comes up with a better way to stage a job or a factory-line worker who brings a more efficient way to produce a product or reduce waste. Impact is not in anyway limited to job title. Sometimes we fail to engage our best resources when looking to solve problems, those being our frontline workers.

Therefore, when evaluating employee contributions look beyond the role or title and look at the work being done and ideas being deployed.

  1. Doing something common correctly is average, a C.
  2. Doing something common with a level of excellence is above average, a B.
  3. Doing something UNCOMMON with a level of excellence is an A.

Of course there are a variety of tasks that don’t lend to or require innovation, so there may be many tasks that are just fine being done at a B+ level.

The question is, are we creating the proper environment and reward systems to inspire original thought and excellence to assure our employees have the opportunity to perform at A+ levels when possible?

I’d love to hear how your company drives personal growth and innovation below.