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Learning to Walk Your Bunnies - 5 Tips for Innovative Leadership

How do you walk your bunnies?

About twenty minutes from my home is a park. Not your typical city park. It's not in the city at all. It's where I go for a horseback ride or to mountain bike. There are days when I don't want to load up any gear or toys. On those days, I instead prefer to take the convertible down the winding roads and enjoy a solo hike or hike with a friend. This weekend was one of those perfect Chamber of Commerce gorgeous SWFL winter days. It was blue skies, sunshine, and a high of 75, so I decided on the convertible and a solo hike. My goal - soak up the beautiful day and some creative inspiration for the week. In the most bizarre turn of events, my walk did not disappoint. I learned an essential lesson for innovative leaders. If you want to develop more adaptive and creative teams, you must know how to walk your bunnies.

I love hiking the bike trails because they add some semblance of hilly terrain from southwest Florida's usual flat roads. The course is pretty simple, twelve miles total and in the shape of an eight. The front loop is smaller than the back, about three miles total. In light of the hills and usual time constraints, I generally stick to the front loop, which takes about an hour. There is a picnic table under a big oak tree where the four points of the eight converge. It's been coined the "tree of life" as after you've finished biking the back loop, you generally need to stop and catch your breath. As I approached the picnic table on this beautiful day, my eyes widened, and my jaw dropped. There were a couple of bikers checking out the map. They must be new to the park, I surmised, as you really can't get lost. And another biker approaching from the opposite side. But it was the person at the picnic table that made me rub my eyes to see if I was hallucinating.

Mary Poppins out for a walk with her bunny

There at the table was a woman with a bunny on a leash. She wasn't the real Mary Poppins. But she was dressed suspiciously like her. Long dark dress reaching well below her knees with long sleeves. She had matching opaque stockings. The knit sweater type that I imagine you might wear in Chicago in the winter. And to finish the strange outfit, she was wearing Dapper Dan oxford-type loafers. Spread across the table - a rather sizable pet career, food with a lunch box, and journal. So many questions were running through my mind. Did she somehow make the same two-mile trek I had just made? Even if she was a regular to the park (which she certainly didn't appear to be), the back way into the picnic table is still over a quarter-mile.

I stared awkwardly, thinking to myself - what the heck is going on here? Am I really seeing what I think I am? As I assessed the situation, I thought perhaps the couple wasn't new to the park at all. Just taking the usual rest break but trying to avoid the crazy lady sitting at the picnic table. The solo rider on the opposite side was asking if he could take a picture. In an effort to not appear rude by continuing to stare, I decided I would ask a couple of questions. What's your bunny's name? Juniper she said. How long will he walk? Huh? she replied. You know like a dog, how long of a walk will he go on? And with a tisk and slight eye roll, she replied.

"You don't walk bunnies like you walk dogs. They're too curious for that."

I nodded with a curious hmmm and continued on. Still, thinking to myself, what just happened? But more importantly, what am I suppose to learn from what just happened?

Bunnies, dogs, and developing creative teams

That's when the inspiration hit. In several interviews (see links below) I had spoken of the challenge for leaders to develop and lead creative teams as being like "herding cats". But the bunnies were a much more appropriate analogy. After all, when it comes to the animal kingdom rabbits are known for their superb ability to create. Get two bunnies collaborating together and they can generate as many as 84 or more bunnies in a single year. Think of that in terms of innovation. What if you could harness the creative power of your employees to create 84+ viable innovations a year!

However, I don't mean to offend anyone by referring to employees as dogs. Although, I do hear horror stories of leaders who treat their dogs better than their employees. However, in this instance, it's just an analogy between the handling and goal achievement of two distinct animals. And it correlates quite nicely to how we manage the employees of the linear task, information age (dog) vs. the employee of the creative, more experiential work of the experience age (bunny).

Why is it essential to see your employees as bunnies vs. dogs?

This transition from the information age to the experience age is just the beginning of the change coming to the workplace. While it started with focusing on customer experience it is quickly finding its way into the organization. Unless you've been under a rock you know that the future workforce is a creative one. World Economic Forum, Gartner Research, and many thought leaders following the trends have declared it so.

For further evidence, look at the jobs that are being replaced (or in the planning stages) for AI. The linear, task-oriented jobs of the information age are being handled increasing more by machines. As this movement progresses, the jobs that it leaves to be filled are creative jobs. This is why understanding the differences in leading and developing creative employees is paramount. And it's the foundation of why I believe design thinking or leading by design (as I like to call it) is the future of leadership.

5 lessons for walking your bunnies

So if you need to nurture creativity and build more adaptable, creative teams, then you must learn to walk your bunnies. Here are the five innovative leader's lessons from my Mary Poppins encounter.

1. Encourage Curiosity.

Allow freedom to explore and experiment. Let employees be curious. Curiosity not only includes exploring new territory or experimenting with new ways of doing things, but for humans, it also contains lots of questioning and observation. As a leader, it's important that you also get curious about your employees' curiosity. Don't allow your ego to be offended or get in the way. Questioning employees are signs of potentially innovative employees. For the most part, they are not questioning your leadership. Instead, it's very likely that they are questioning because they have ideas about how to improve (aka innovate) the area of questioning. The ego will attempt to project that internal insecurity onto the employee. Be aware of that pitfall and remain open to curious employees.

2. The Leash is about boundaries, not control.

Note a leash is still required, but its purpose is different. When walking a dog you don't want to have to pull the dog behind you or be drug down the road by the dog. Instead, you want the dog healed and walking beside you towards the goals. Ideally achieving the goal at exactly the means and pace you decide. In contrast, the leash for walking a bunny is quite different. The leash is about boundaries. Boundaries, aka constraints, improve creativity. Budgets, time, and resources are necessary. For more info on that check out this Fast Company article - How Constraints Force Your Brain to Be More Creative.

3. Focus vs. awareness.

The goals remain. Whether you're walking a bunny, a dog, leading a sales team pre- or post-experience age the goals are likely the same. What has changed is the manner in which you achieve them. Your top-of-mind focus remains on the goal, but your present moment awareness is on what's unfolding in the exploration, experimenting, and current creative process. Leading creative teams requires patience and present awareness. Yes, the goal is still there but it is your awareness of the present that gets you there.

4. Embrace your creative nature.

While granted, the information age has done its best to suck the creativity out of us - by nature, humans are creative creatures - like bunnies. You're being alive and reading this blog post is proof that you have used creativity many times to overcome problems and create the life you now live. Humans, like bunnies, who are given an environment to explore, and other bunnies to collaborate with - soon discover creation is a given.

5. Model creativity.

Animals sense fear. Control is born out of fear. To develop more creative teams, leaders must embrace their own creativity, seek to grow their abilities, and model all of that for their employees. Get curious. Create boundaries. Schedule creative time in your schedule. Allow time just for exploring and experimenting. Share what you learn with your employees.

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