a note of harmony

November 26, 2016

… we stand in awe of visionary entrepreneurs like Apple’s Steve Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, eBay’s Pierre Omidyar, and P&G’s A.G. Lafley. How do these people come up with groundbreaking new ideas? If it were possible to discover the inner workings of the masters’ minds, what could the rest of us learn about how innovation really happens?* Sameer Dua offers a peek into the minds of innovators—how the sense of ‘something is not right’ prompts them to work towards bridging the gap.


In my book Declaring Breakdowns: Powerfully creating a future that matters, I speak about how disharmonies create opportunities. My claim is that sensing these disharmonies and taking advantage of them is a key leadership skill.

What does ‘disharmony mean’? Harmony means a consistent, orderly, or pleasing arrangement of parts; congruity. Disharmony hence means the above is either lacking or fully missing. In my consulting work with global organizations, I see leaders and managers choosing to ignore disharmonies. Perhaps, their guess (more like hope) is that these disharmonies will automatically go away. Which clearly never happens. Most disharmonies grow into being full-fledged breakdowns that then need urgent and immediate attention, or they can potentially impact the team or the organization results.


Here are a few examples of disharmonies:

  • Low morale
  • Productivity loss
  • Lack of trust and confidence
  • Absence of a shared vision
  • Missing team alignment
  • Unprofessional behavior of individuals
  • Emotions of resignation, resentment, dissatisfaction, and other disempowering emotions


You can either be indifferent to these disharmonies, and assuming you choose indifference, you pay a price for it in the form of a future breakdown that could have easily been avoided—and price is paid in the form of loss of revenue, loss of a productive employee, loss in quality, loss in profitability, and so forth. Or, you can choose to actively look for such disharmonies in your teams and in your organization. These disharmonies are possibilities in disguise; they bring with them an opportunity to address a missing link, some of which can be potential breakthroughs. You just need to develop the eyes to see these as possibilities.

For example,Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp sensed a disharmony when they had trouble hailing a cab in a snowy Paris evening in 2008. By staying with that disharmony, and nurturing it, they came up with a simple idea—tap a button, get a ride. What started as an app to request premium black cars in a few metropolitan areas is now changing the logistical fabric of cities around the world. Whether it is a ride, a sandwich, or a package, Uber uses technology to give people what they want, when they want it. Similarly, closer home, Parag Agarwal sensed a disharmony in the area of safe and pure drinking water in India. Like millions of Indians, he could have chosen to ignore this disharmony. However, he allowed this to simmer in him—and that gave rise to Janajal, a water project that is slowly but surely marching towards its mission. This project is today being considered an integral project of the Swachh Bharat mission. I can give hundreds of more examples of individuals, teams, and organizations sensing such disharmonies, and converting them into breakthrough ideas.


There are three key leadership practices in this regard:


01 sense a disharmony

The first practice is to sense a disharmony. A sense is a bodily perception, and as a leader, you can develop this practice by becoming more aware of your own body. Your body automatically responds to (or senses) disharmonies.


To sense a disharmony means:

  • You feel something is not right
  • You feel something is missing–you do not know what, but you get a sense that something is missing
  • Something in your gut says this is not headed where you want it to go, or,
  • You feel the anxiety to do more, to achieve more


The easiest thing to do would be to disregard this, and when you do that, you let go of a leadership opportunity. In my assessment, this is one of the practices that separates leaders from non-leaders. Leaders actively look to sense disharmonies so that they can address them harmonies, while non-leaders avoid recognizing disharmonies. For them, disharmonies mean more work.


02 listen ‘for’ what is missing

Many leaders sense disharmonies, but overlook them. Once you have sensed a disharmony, the next step is to listen for what may be missing. By doing so, you actively and purposefully start to look for what can be brought forth, that when done, will take care of this disharmony. It is a process of constant experimentation to address it. The idea is not to necessarily get it first time right.

Sometimes, you get a sense something is not right, but you are not able to put your finger on that. In that case, as a leader or a manager, you stay with this disharmony and allow it to grow so that clarity may emerge on a later date.


03 take the missing action

Once you sense a disharmony, and listen for what is missing, you now have a choice to take a certain action (bring forth what is missing), which choice was not even available prior to the sensing and the listening.

Even ‘sensing’ and ‘listening for what is missing’ are actions that are generally missing. However, this third point is more about the ‘execution’ of the missing actions. This is where the rubber meets the road. History is evidence of the fact that until you do not implement the necessary missing actions, results are not achieved. Very often, you cannot see all the actions that may be required. In that case, you begin by taking the first step, and that step reveals the step after.

Peter Dening and Robert Dunham in their book, The Innovator’s Way, state that there is a pattern that recurs in innovation stories. The innovator becomes bothered by a disharmony, puzzles over it for a long time, discovers limitations of the current common sense that produces it, proposes a new common sense that generates a solution, and commits to making it happen. I can safely claim that all innovations happened because the innovators sensed a disharmony, listened for what is missing, and then performed the requisite actions


(This topic is from my recently released book Declaring Breakdowns: Powerfully Creating a Future that Matters, through 6 simple steps.)

* https://hbr.org/2009/12/the-innovators-dna