Thursday, February 27, 2020

Leadership in the White Space

Sometime in the 1930s astronomers observed a phenomenon they could not explain.  Clusters of galaxies were moving in ways that made no sense based on what could be seen. There had to be more mass “out there” holding things together--more gravity slowing down the expansion of the universe.

This was the first inkling of something called dark matter.

In 1998, scientists pointed the Hubble Telescope at distant supernovae and found, contrary to expectations, that the expansion of the galaxy was actually accelerating. Alongside all that dark matter, there must be some other force at work, a kind of dark energy.

Today, scientists believe that dark energy and dark matter make up almost everything.  What can be seen, what we used to believe was our entire universe, is less than 5% of what's really out there.  “Eliminate all other factors," Sherlock Holmes advised, "and the one which remains must be the truth.” Even if it’s invisible. Even if nobody quite knows what it is.

"I just manage in the white space"

There’s a comparable concept in organizations, a kind of force that's invisible, hard to measure, but likely the most important tool a leader possesses.

Years ago, I heard Bob Edwards ask a classical music critic: If every member of the New York Philharmonic is a virtuoso musician able to play any piece of music ever written for his instrument, what exactly does the conductor do?

The critic responded, “There’s a lot that goes on between the notes.”

In other words, despite individual talent, there’s a kind of glue that binds, a kind of energy that powers a successful organization. Dark matter.  Dark energy.  Even when all the talent can hit every note perfectly every time.

The conversation reminded me of another interview I'd read, of a brilliant CEO who managed a highly successful company.  When asked what he did all day, he replied, “I just manage in the white space.”

In business, learning how to write code, value equity, or assess product-market fit is like learning how to play an E-sharp. Each skill is critical but teachable.  Winning organizations assemble people who are gifted at these skills, virtuosos on their instruments.

Even then, it's the stuff we can’t see that ultimately makes for success.

I was fortunate to start my career under a leader, Steve Dodge, who was an expert at managing in the white space.  When I wrote Innovation on Tap, I highlighted entrepreneurs such as GM's Alfred Sloan and the National Park Service's Stephen Mather who were geniuses at doing the same.

That doesn't mean I understand how they did it, or how exactly "white space" works.  But it reminds me--like astronomers and dark energy--that what we can see and teach is important, but what we can't see or explain might be the most consequential stuff of all.