What Planet Are You From?

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If a point of view is worth 80 points of IQ, sharing it, however alien, can be ingenious.

“That’s where we are right now.” | The New Yorker

As a case study in misperception, it doesn’t get more obtuse than the proverbial exchange overheard during a Parent-Teacher Conference on back-to-school night.

Teacher: Your child really ought to consider becoming an astronaut.

Parent: Do you honestly think so? I don’t know that she’s ever considered it.

Teacher: Let me put it this way: She’s just taking up space.

I can’t tell you how many times people ask me the question titling this article with a screwed-up face.

“What planet are you from?”

Or how often I have either thought to reply or did so with something like,

“You ask me that as though being an alien was, well, alien.”

That’s because in my orbit, epithets like ‘Off your rocker’ and ‘Hunh? What?’ are precisely the kind of castles-in-the-air feedback I associate with progress. In a previous post, I cited the Alan Kay equation “A point of view is worth 80 points of IQ” and explained why he exaggerated its right side to drive home the point that perspective isn’t everything but the only thing. While gazing into space, we might appear to those who mistake imagination for just filling up that space; who can say that in working out how to traverse the cosmos at speed, Einstein himself didn’t also gaze into the heavens on occasion?

To icebreaker a recent back-to-the-office, face-to-face work meeting I attended, we were invited to give our names, explain our role in the organization, and share a favorite quotation with the team. As some eyes roamed floor-to-ceiling as if to retrieve some mislaid treasure, my north-star motto came instantly to hand.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

I would be taking up space in Albert Einstein’s presence: that of the terrestrial sort for ducking into if asked to expound on his ponderous statement. In my favorite scene from the comedy film IQ, I would be cast as Einstein’s car mechanic strolling down a Princeton sidewalk enjoying an ice cream with the famous professor. In their banter, something the mechanic says triggers an orthogonal synapse in the brain that brought us two theories of relativity.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Einstein inquires.

Between licks, the mechanic’s boyish reply gushes out.

“What are the chances of that happening?”

And yet, the subsequent chocolate-and-peanut-butter idea hatched by two mutually exclusive aliens in this scenario is creative enough to launch the clever story to its star-filled climax.

Years ago, my client Alan Reinhardt and I crisscrossed the planet, reviewing risks and management controls of various divisions of a global player in the fire and security industry. In one unnamed country, the company principals were adamant their controls were rock solid and why had we even bothered to visit?

“Did Corporate send you to spy on us? Because if that’s why you’re here, you’re not getting a peep.”

As diplomatically as we could, Alan and I explained the company’s goal to bring all countries into compliance with a global standard and that, in our view, their division had achieved a remarkable overall score of 90%.

On hearing our company line, the country officials became instantly defensive, insisting the rest of the world would be better off adopting their most excellent—100% compliant—standard.

“Go back and tell Corporate that any score less than that is unacceptable.”

The next day, we flew to a country so distant from the first that we couldn’t get there in one swoop. During breakfast at our stop-over hotel, Alan and I reflected on the intensity with which our colleagues had defended their compliance rating the day before. We were mulling whether there might be room to soften our evaluation when we eventually wrote up that country’s final evaluation.

“Is there something we might have missed?” I asked.

“Trust me on this,” my senior traveling companion confided. “We’re in the middle of The Great Negotiation. Once we’ve finished our tour, it will all be clear how this works.”

On arriving in the following country, as we again oriented management to the objectives of our global assessment process, instead of the “Heisman” we received from our previous hosts, our “We are so glad you came!” reception was a welcome breath of fresh perspective. After conducting our workshops, Alan and I sat down with country principals to explain that while their risk ratings and management controls had placed them above average compared to other countries—around 75% compliant—there was room for specific improvement. Nothing could have prepared me for their incredulous response, even after the previous country readout.

“75%? 75 perCENT? You’ve got to be kidding.”

Here we go again, I thought. What planet WERE we from?

“We were thinking of a number closer to 40. Seriously. You must lower our score.”

“Hunh? What? Are you off your rocker? What planet are you from?” I did not say.

Instead, Alan diffused the confusion by taking the high road.

“Tell us more about this death wish of yours.”

Their cagey explanation made immediate and common sense and put in ironic relief the hardline resistance we met at our previous stop.

“In our country, we reckon it’s always better to aim low. We have a long way to go here, and frankly, we need the money from Corporate to make those improvements. 40 feels like the perfect number, don’t you agree, boys?”

What planet were they from?

And You?

This post is from a series of “Declarations on Being and Becoming,” originally written as part of a LinkedIn Newsletter called Say the Change. You can access the entire series here.

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