Project Management Institute

Seeing and Seizing Opportunity

From The Executive Suite

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B. Eugene Griessman is Director of Communication and Development and adjunct professor Ivan Allen College, Georgia Tech, where be teaches a course on the principles of self-management. He came to Georgia Tech from Auburn University, where be was Alumni Professor of Sociology and bead of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. During the 1977-78 academic year he was a Fulbright professor at the University of Islamabad in Pakistan. Dr. Griessman has taught at North Carolina State University, Tuskegee Institute and the College of William and May.

Dr. Griessman has written and co-authored six books and research monographs. His most recent book, The Achievement Factors: Candid Interviews with Some of the Most Successful People of Our Time, published by Dodd Mead in 1987 has received wide acclaim. He has interviewed some of the most famous people of our time for award-winning television programs and for newspapers and magazines. He is listed in Who's Who in America and Who's Who in the World. His radio feature, “The Achievement Digest,’( can be heard on WCNN and some 50 affiliated stations. The following is from his remarks as keynote speaker to the PMI ’89 Seminar/Syposium in Atlanta, GA.

“How do you keep your creative forces at work?” I asked Oscar de la Renta. The famed designer replied: “By keeping my eyes open. “When I asked a similar question of Charles Schulz, he answered: “I‘ve remained alive to everything that is going on about me. I think that I am aware of new things that are happening in the world—new twists to our language, new activities among young people.” The creator of “Peanuts” says he is always thinking about funny things, getting ideas by listening to talk shows on the radio, or just driving around in the car, or when he's at home conversing with people.

This receptivity to needed information is characteristic of leaders in many fields, not just in highly creative ones like clothes designing and cartooning. One of the main reasons salespeople fail is because they talk to customers instead of talking with them. Talking with customers implies listening-observing—and that will give you workable cues. Some project managers make the mistake of listening only to high status or senior members of the group, ignoring the rookies and members who happen to be out-of-favor.

Perception has a genetic and physiological base. At birth, one baby will be more alert than another. But alertness can be improved, strengthened and sharpened. We humans are equipped with marvelous perception equipment, but like a novice with a state-of-the-art video camera, we must learn, first of all, how to use the equipment skillfully, and then, what to point it at, what to record. Here are some of the ways that highly successful people develop and utilize their perceptive powers:

They immerse themselves in relevant information. Francis Crick, who with James D. Watson, unravelled the DNA code, told me that during the time they were working on that research project, that he “immersed” himself in the subject, sometimes for days and weeks on end. Another Nobel laureate, Linus Pauling, told me about “flashes of inspiration” that came to him. Pauling recalled that the flashes usually came after long periods of preparation.

Bob Broadwater, who for many years was a top executive with the Coca-Cola company and now is an executive-in-residence at Georgia Tech's College of Management, has some persuasive ideas about what makes for success in the executive suite Broadwater believes that successful executives function in an organization like an information processor, They gather information from a multitude of sources, process it in their minds and on their desks, and then pass to subordinates the parts of that information that they feel are important. This information gives them power and influence and it gives direction to the organizations they are leading, According to Broadwater, one of the best measures of an executive's success is how efficient he or she is in gathering information and how wise he or she is in distributing it.

Without knowledge, Broadwater says, executives become ineffective and soon lose “the mandate of heaven.” They don't have the requisite knowledge to guide them in making their decisions or in motivating their employees. Over a lifetime of observing effective and ineffective executives, Broadwater says the effective ones are usually readers of publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Fortune, Forbes, plus publications that are specific to their field, like trade journals. But the information gathering goes beyond simply reading—which many of them do on planes or at the mm-gins of their work day. They are continuously gathering information from friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. They are on the phone or in meetings probing, gathering, seeking out relevant information. Their Rolodex has lots of cards; they have scores of people they can turn to for tips, for sound ing out ideas, for asking who can help them if the person on the phone can't.

They approach the subject in their own way, even if it's unconventional. There's nothing wrong with modeling your craft on somebody else you admire when you're just starting out. Many a writer has consciously tried to write like a Hemingway or a Wolfe, but you will never be heard from if all you ever do is emulate someone else. Don't reject your own ideas just because they are your own. That's precisely the advice that architect John Portman received from Frank Lloyd Wright while he was in college. Wright encouraged Portman to read Ralph Waldo Emerson's powerful essay, “Self -Reliance.” Them Portman discovered the words: “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within. .Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for uS than this, They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else tomorrow a stranger may say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.” Portman told me he has tried to live by that credo-and just to reinforce it, rereads the essay each year.

Chet Atkins explains his distinctive guitar style this way, “When I came along, everybody made fun of me, the way I played.” The reason? He grew up in poverty on a farm where there were no trained musicians for miles around. Atkins invented his own style by listening to phonograph records. As he heard Merle Travis play on an old Edison record, he thought he was playing with three fingers and a thumb, and began to play that way himself. Later he learned that this is the way classical guitarists play. Years later, he learned that Merle Travis actually was playing with one finger and a thumb, Atkins says, “It's things that I stumbled on out of ignorance-that made me different.

They make their biases work for them, not against them. Our biases tell us what to see. Biases come from our previous experiences. Put another way, what we see today is dependent upon what we saw yesterday Biases tell us what is important and what is not important and how to interpret what we see. We get our biases from our clubs and family, our church or temple, and from friends in the office and the neighborhood.

Our biases can keep us from perceiving needed information. For example. our discipline or field gives us a set of biases. Physicists and engineers see the world differently from accountants and lawyers. The noted psychologist, B. F. Skinner. says that one reason he has come up with a number of his ideas is because he has not been unduly swayed by conventional ideas in his field. It takes some doing to suspend our biases and see things from new angles—even temporarily.

They use perception “exercises.” Many successful individuals use mental exercises to improve perceptive abilities. In fact, this is one of the most effective ways to counteract biases that might filter out the important information you seek, Your perception equipment comes with a “what if” button. Just push it. It's possible to imagine various types of situations, different points of view and put yourself in those statuses. Jonas Salk, the scientist whose research helped conquer polio, uses such an exercise to improve his perception abilities. The Famous scientist imagines that he is the object that he is studying. Let's say he is studying a virus, Salk tries to imagine how he would behave if he were a virus attacking an immune system. Then, he switches sides, and imagines that he is the immune system being attacked by the virus. Salk uses this mental exercise, which he calls the “inverted perspective,” to design many of his laboratory experiments.

Sound like a game, like play? Yes, but much of science is like play—like a game.

Call it what you like, it is part of learning to see what others miss. And one way to do this is to look at a Familiar object from a new angle. Like seeing your company from the secretary's perspective—if you're the manager from the perspective of a competitor or that of a disgruntled customer.

They make creative use of diversion. High achievers develop their perception through creative diversions that relax the mental system so that the subconscious can work more effectively. One researcher who studied the notebooks, diaries, and correspondence of leading biologists and chemists of the 19th and early 20th centuries concluded that the most creative scientists are likely also to be talented artists, musicians, and craftsmen, Einstein, at the age of fifteen was reading Spinoza, Euclid, and Newton, but he also immersed himself in Beethoven and Mozart and played the violin. Nicola Telsa conceived a motor rotating in a magnetic field while he was reading Goethe's Faust:

They often convert seeing into seizing. Opportunity does not always knock twice. Sometimes it doesn't knock at all, Sometimes opportunity is disguised, like a king at a masquerade party, waiting to be unmasked; like an uncut diamond lying amidst worthless stones in a river bed; like a great painting at auction. The bidding pushes the price higher and higher and finally the gavel falls. Seizing opportunity involves making the highest bid. There is no second place in an auction, only highest bid and might-have-beens. Shakespeare put it this way:

There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and miseries,, And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.

Many high achievers have told me about literally grabbing opportunities, Often it was not one dramatic event, but it was one little opportunity that they seized and then later another one and then another. As the actor Bob Hoskins describes the process, “Everybody gets a little chance here, a little chance there, They are part of the jigsaw, I want to live my life so that I may have disappointments but no remorse,” I asked, “What's the difference between a disappointment and remorse?” He replied, “A disappointment is when you try something and it doesn't work out, Remorse is when you wish you had tried something and didn't do it.”

Erskine Caldwell, author of Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, in the last major interview before his death in 1987, described the same process with these poignant words: “You have to recognize an opportunity, and when you see this opportunity, you foster it in some way. You use it as a springboard to something better or something higher...When you get a glimmer of it, when you see a suggestion of good luck, then you have to enlarge upon it, you have to encourage that good luck to bring the kind of result you anticipate.”

This article is adapted from The Achievement Factors: Candid Interviews With Some of The Most Successful People of Our Times, NY: (Dodd Mead, 1987) and from the audio cassette, “Lessons Learned From High Achievers,” (Omni Media, 1989).

See the advertisement on page 51 for more information on the book and tape.

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

April 1990

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