Blue sky between clouds

The new head of research & product development was seated in front of me. I noticed that he was taking notes in a very strange manner. He would write a keyword or random comment into clouds or leaves that branched out from a thick oak tree. It looked very weird.

Suddenly he raised his hand, and said: “I believe that we’re missing the point here. We need to differentiate between local, regional and national customer segments in key markets. They have different expectations on capacity, performance, financing, service and maintenance. Yet I don’t hear that we’ve recognizing these important differences.”

First day at work for this guy and he tells everyone the emperor is naked? A great start in his new position, or maybe he was trying to show off?

Afterwards I asked why he was taking such weird notes, and how he had managed to discover our blind spot?

“It’s called mind mapping,” he said. “Write down the keywords, and position them closely together when they’re connected. Add drawings and symbols, and draw branches or lines between different groups of keyword to indicate cause and effect, dependencies or importance.”

I looked closely at his one page summary of three hours discussion about our commercial strategy.

“Always leave one area wide open, like the blue sky between clouds. This leverages how our brain works. Whenever there is an empty space, your brain will try to fill that void to complete the picture. Focus on that empty space and let your brain discover what should go there. You will be amazed. Suddenly you will clearly see what needs to go where only a few minutes ago there was nothing.”

This conversation took place in the early part of 1997. I worked at Adtranz Signal, a global joint venture between ABB and Daimler in the rail transportation industry. Later the company was sold off to Bombardier.

During the next few years I learned to use mind maps to capture the essence of a complicated briefing or meandering discussion. I used mind maps for charting the future, identifying problems and understanding new challenges. This often helped me to discover new opportunities, hidden dependencies, different perspectives, alternative structures and possibilities.

Most importantly, I learned that leaving a space empty is crucial, because this is what allows creativity to kick in. It’s the blue sky between the clouds.

Now let’s fast forward a decade. I am at another company interviewing a senior executive in charge of research & product development. He’s an engineer to the bone, knowledgeable and competent. He’s also very outspoken and opinionated.

“Every leader must have a clearly formulated vision,” says he with great conviction. “I have worked for months on developing my clear vision for this company.”

Suddenly he unfolded a large sheet, the size of a magazine spread or 12 by 16 inches. It was completely covered with scribbled words, boxes and strange abbreviations.

“Here’s my vision,” he said proudly. “My operational development coach helped me a lot, but I did most of the work myself.”

I sat there and stared at that sheet of paper for maybe ten minutes. It was impossible to interpret or understand all these scribbled words as something intelligible. I could not discern any patterns, goals, processes or structures.

I was stunned. I knew that he had some great ideas but this vision didn’t make any sense. He tried to explain key concepts and initiatives, but never managed to connect this with any of these scribbled notes, boxes and call-outs.

I leaned back to look at the whole as a picture. At that moment I realized what was wrong with his vision. There was absolutely no white space, and no way to insert a different idea, perspective or creative thought into this clutter. You couldn’t even find enough space to enter the word vision.

4 thoughts on “Blue sky between clouds

  1. Good article. The importance of actually digesting information (instead of creating it) and creating room for adding interesting insights is not often talked about.

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