Imagine for a second that it’s 1804 and you are President Thomas Jefferson of the United States. You just doubled your nation’s size by purchasing the largely unknown lands called Louisiana territory. This big unexplored piece of land belonged to France, but Napoleon sold it to you. Only a few trappers have traveled there, and no accurate maps exist. Being the first to find a route through this territory to the unclaimed land on the Pacific, west of Louisiana, could establish a claim to even more territory. You have the potential to become a coast-to-coast nation. What do you do?
You commission an expedition to explore this vast uncharted territory: the Lewis and Clark expedition. You commission them to spend significant time to discover the lay of the land, the flows of the rivers, the habits of its native people and map the territory and gather scientific data on animals and plants. You give them enough resources to last from May 1804 to September 1806 to try and find a way to get to the Pacific.
Even though the expedition had a sense of direction (westbound) and a goal (establish legal presence on the west coast before the Europeans could lay a claim), the explorers did not know what they would encounter, nor where the journey would lead them. They produced the first accurate maps of the area, recorded more than 200 new species of local plants and animals, and observed and recorded the whereabouts, activities and cultures of 72 distinct Native American tribes that inhabited the territory. Lewis and Clark applied the discipline required to explore uncharted terrain, and it yielded valuable treasures and knowledge that led to breakthroughs. Such as discovering a pass to cross the Rocky Mountains (Bozeman Pass), that allowed them to claim the Pacific region and later was chosen as the optimal route for the Northern Pacific Railway to cross the continental divide.
When launching on a quest for breakthrough ideas, creative leadership feels quite similar to exploring uncharted territory. Like Lewis and Clarke you may have a sense of direction and an overall goal yet you are making the journey to discover what you do not know yet. By definition this makes it hard: you are looking for something you do not know. This is why its success greatly depends on the diligence and discipline of the expedition.
During Sensing, creative leadership means exploring and collecting unexpected treasures that will help you look at the problem from a new, original angle. Better and different ideas will eventually be the result. Sensing is not efficient. It is not a straight path of solution finding. Instead it is an often-frustrating search along several paths looking for something without the advance knowledge of what exactly you might be looking for. In short: the pursuit of serendipity. Serendipity is quite beautifully defined as looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer’s daughter.
This pursuit of serendipity is a disciplined process. The word discipline is not used lightly here. We have learned from guiding creative leaders in their Sensing activities that it takes discipline to:
- Commit sufficient time and resources
- Apply different lenses if you want to find new treasures
- Postpone judgment and stay away from forming initial ideas if you want to learn something new
- Capture the treasures you collect on the way diligently.