Just because it’s easy, doesn’t mean you should do it.

Seth Godin says, It’s easier to teach compliance than initiative.

Compliance is simple to measure, simple to test for and simple to teach. Punish non-compliance, reward obedience and repeat.

Initiative is very difficult to teach to 28 students in a quiet classroom. It’s difficult to brag about in a school board meeting. And it’s a huge pain in the neck to do reliably.

Schools like teaching compliance. They’re pretty good at it.

To top it off, until recently the customers of a school or training program (the companies that hire workers) were buying compliance by the bushel. Initiative was a red flag, not an asset.

Of course, now that’s all changed. The economy has rewritten the rules, and smart organizations seek out intelligent problem solvers. Everything is different now. Except the part about how much easier it is to teach compliance.

How right he is.  Compliance training is all around us.  Driving change is not about teaching compliance.  But, how can you do the opposite and teach initiative?

I struggle with whether you can teach initiative because we’ve reduced the term teaching to only mean one person forcibly giving something to another, often unwilling person for them to accept and use as directed, or else.  Snore!

In practice, the act of giving someone initiative proves foolish.  I can’t give you something that is already inside you.  And, I can’t make you use your initiative if you refuse.  Ever try to get a teenager to do something they are capable of but patently refuse to do?  You’ve seen the struggles of forcing initiative in others.

But, I can show you how to use your own initiative by using mine.

I’d call that demonstrating initiative and everyone can demonstrate initiative.  How?

Though not limited to the formal classroom, my favorite demonstrations of initiative are classes where the teacher doesn’t give you something, but instead entices you to choose to do something; do something more because you can.

If you asked me for two examples of a course like that, I’d give you Edward Tufte’s one day course or Andrea Shapiro’s Tipping Point Workshop.

Professor Tufte and Dr. Shapiro don’t tell you, “When you leave here you must…” but instead leave you with, “Now what will you do with what you’ve seen?” And they’ve given you powerful images of what you could do, if you choose to engage your own initiative.

Embracing, then acting on, “Now what will you do with what you’ve seen?” is what you must do when driving change, when you’re demonstrating initiative.

Are you demonstrating initiative to those around you?

Are you choosing to do something with what you’ve seen?

Why not?

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One thought on “Just because it’s easy, doesn’t mean you should do it.

  • April 15, 2010 at 4:45 am
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    When I think of teaching initiative I think about Mom and the way she taught us. From the time we were little she taught us to make our beds first thing in the morning. “Makes your home look so much nicer if the beds are made” she’d say. She didn’t do this by telling us to go back to our rooms and make our beds before we left for school. No, she came into our rooms and got on one side of the bed and we’d get on the other and pull the blankets up.

    Observe her long enough and you’ll see that wherever she goes she doesn’t ask if you need help. If she sees a sinkful of dirty dishes she jumps in and does them. If she sees a basket of socks that need to be matched she’ll sit and do that while she visits with you.

    What Mom taught us kids was not to wait to be asked if we’d help but rather if we seen something that needed to be done to ask your friend if they’d mind if you did this or that for them. What she taught I took this attitude with me into the office.

    Thinking back on this, I miss the farm days. The big city is so much different than growing up on the farm was. I remember the neighbors coming and helping Mom get her hay cut and in the barn. In the fall they were there to help her get her corn picked. And, she was right out there in their fields helping them get their hay up and corn picked. I remember nights after the milking was done that her and Dad would go up to Randall’s and if he were still in the barn they helped him finish milking.

    These are the examples Mom put before us kids that taught us not to wait to be asked for help but rather to offer our help when we have the ability to do a task.

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