Mentor Mutualism?

There’s a new man in my life.

While I’m not sure quite how to describe our relationship, I do know it’s an important one. He boosts my confidence and self-esteem, expands my comfort zone, and makes me think with greater clarity. In a deeply respectful way, he challenges things I’ve thought were true, and helps me grow.

Although I’ve yet to meet Rick Smyre face to face, we’ve spent hours talking, emailing, and sharing resources. He lives in North Carolina, is devoted to his wife of 45 years, and is the youngest 69 year old I’ve ever met.  An internationally recognized futurist, he has pioneered the concept of “community transformation” and keynoted and presented at over 300 events in the United States, Scotland, England, and Canada.  He is a brilliant man with a sponge-like mind, extraordinary emotional intelligence, and an incredible capacity for listening.  He has, by his own admission, been able to avoid becoming a pale, male, and stale old boy by working hard over the last several decades to unlearn almost everything he learned about leadership from his former life as a CEO in the business sector. 

Introduced by an astute mutual colleague, I often refer to Smyre as my “mentor guy” although I’m not sure that’s the best description. However, after reading an article in this month’s issue of a magazine called the Futurist by Peter Denning, I’ve been able to better define and understand why the relationship is working.

In the article called, Innovating the Future: From Ideas to Adoption, Denning defines both futurists and innovators.  Futurists like Rick Smyre are good at, and see their role as determining how social, economic, and technological developments will shape the future. By doing this, futurists help us to understand and respond to the coming changes. They also assist us in applying anticipatory thinking to challenges that will be faced within education, business, government, and social-profit settings. Typically they do this in a variety of ways but the three most common are (1) interpreting our current reality by examining the data and proposing new, well-grounded policy and action to change that reality, (2) extrapolating trends and drawing conclusions about the consequences, and (3) developing scenarios that lay out in some detail what the future might look like if assumptions are made about trends and other factors.

Denning suggests that the work of futurists may sometimes overlap with innovators. While talk of innovation these days is common, there are differing understandings of what it means.

Many still think of innovation as being the bailiwick of an isolated, slightly mad scientist who has a flash of genius. Yet, the reality is that there are many brilliant ideas that never get implemented. In fact, business surveys reveal that only about 4% of innovation initiatives meet their financial objectives. Denning and his colleague Bob Dunham instead concluded that it is the adoption of new practice in a community that leads to successful innovation.

Innovation isn’t about clever ideas, stimulating creativity, producing more ideas, or encouraging inventors as much as it is about practices that lead to adoption. While not necessarily performed in a sequential order as the innovator will move constantly among them, these practices include sensing, envisioning, offering, adopting, sustaining, executing, leading, and embodying.

These eight ways of innovation need to be present within individuals or collectives if we are to experience success as innovators.

While, I’m blessed to be part of a team that has embodied and embraced the skills needed for innovation, it’s also become clear that as a futurist Smyre has added critical, and previously missing, value. Whereas I’ve always just assumed people will see the need for change, he has helped by generously sharing the trends and data needed to build a compelling case for investing in doing things differently. He has also better equipped us to reduce change as a threat. On the other hand, I think Smyre is intrigued by our stories and the tools and resources we’ve developed as we work toward the comprehensive community transformation he has envisioned for the future. Our experience is useful to him in part because we are able to provide tested frameworks and paths that will take communities from the present to the desired future he sees so clearly.

In the end, what Smyre and I have is perhaps a symbiotic relationship that allows us both to benefit. As such, maybe it isn’t a traditional mentorship but rather something best described as “mentor mutalism” -  a must-have collaboration for every potential futurist and innovator.

Posted on 01-29-12

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