Connecting the Dots -- A Vital and Neglected Capability

04/07/2014 05:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2014

In 1430, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Its impact on civilization is profound: It brought about a sharp rise in literacy, accelerated growth of the emergent middle class and reshaped the very structure of society. It is widely regarded as one of the most influential events in human history. What is perhaps less known is that Gutenberg conceived of it by seeing a new connection between existing, but unrelated technologies -- the wine press and metal working.

If there were one capability that your organization could develop which would dramatically improve its performance what would it be? Typically, the list includes speed, innovation, leadership, collaboration -- all critical capabilities. However, we'd suggest one that should make the top 10 list, but rarely does: integration.

Integration is the connection of disparate parts or ideas into a coherent whole. Integration creates meaning from information. It creates possibility from chaos. And it creates a sense of wholeness and coherence in the face of an increasingly dis-integrated world.

Integration is so important because it is notably absent in many modern organizations.

At a business level, this lack of integration shows up in the proliferation of competing and redundant initiatives. Rather than scanning the environment to determine whether a specific problem is already being solved down the hall, we tend to launch full speed into new and costly initiatives and only later find out "oh, Bob is doing that too?" Imagine the energy and time that could be saved with a bit of thoughtful inquiry before commissioning new work. The Ford Motor Company did not invent the car or the assembly line. But they connected dots and revolutionized the automotive industry.

At the day-to-day level, we observe an infinite number of missed opportunities because people fail to connect the dots between external data, customer insights, and cross-functional activities. Twitter co-founders Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, and Biz Stone connected a concept from vehicle dispatch (cars and bikes must constantly communicate where they are and what they're up to), with the popularity of LiveJournal (people sharing their personal narrative with others who are following them), and the constraints of SMS technology (originally limited to 160 characters) to create Twitter.

The amount of information which is consumed, but not digested in modern organizations is astonishing. Hundreds of emails a day. Twenty-five hours of meetings or more in a typical week. With that amount of exchange, integration should be happening naturally. But it's not. Let's face it: When's the last time you saw magic happen in a meeting?

We place the blame squarely with the quality of listening and participating tolerated in most meetings. Time after time we observe groups of people coming together to share information and solve problems and then accepting deafening background noise, obvious multi-tasking, and repeated rabbit-holing as acceptable behavior. No wonder it's hard to make higher order connections between ideas in these conversations. It's nearly impossible to stay engaged!

But if integration were a priority, so too would be high quality listening and participating. Speakers would be accountable for making explicit connections between their own assertions and other points that have been made in the meeting. Listeners would ask good questions and see it as a responsibility to make everyone smarter as a result of the time invested. Simply dialing up the quality of listening and participation results in dramatically greater integration and significantly less frustration -- a win all around.

In your next few meetings, think consciously about your own listening and participating. Are you listening merely for an opening to launch into a monologue or are you listening for new perspective and insight? When you make assertions, do you merely assert a position or do you look for ways to integrate your ideas with those of others to achieve something greater?

Make yourself invaluable by listening and participating in service of integration. It won't be long before everyone is relying on your "essential contributions."

Sir Richard Branson's mantra is: A-B-C-D (Always Be Connecting the Dots). Doing so has led to the printing press, the modern car, and the tweet. What might you create?