Did you know that certain watercolor paints do not stain the paper and can be lifted by rewetting and blotting? The paper returns to its original white and you can start over and try again. Just like erasing a bad pencil line, your muddy mess disappears as if it never happened. But the type of watercolor paint matters; you must use non-staining colors to be able to completely erase their presence. Staining watercolor paints cannot be fully lifted and leave a dull under shadow when removed.
The concept of “erasing” a painting was a huge breakthrough in my painting experience this summer when I went to the southern highlands of North Carolina to the John C. Campbell Folk School. I wrote about my art camp week in last week’s blog. Knowing that I have the ability to correct my painting gaffs made me much freer and creative. In one particular painting, I discovered an expanse of green that was dull and boring. I need to add flowers in the foreground but had already made it look like open fields. With the guidance of my teacher, I lifted the green paint and painted bright pink gladiolus in the white space I unearthed.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could erase and create new white space in our working world? How much more innovation would we see if errors could be lifted out of the picture. Continuing with the metaphor, what actions can we take that are the equivalent of unstaining paints? I suggest that leaders think about their directions and decisions in terms of making them unstaining, able to be changed and modified without damaging work or working relationships. When a decision is staining, it is made with little flexibility and scant room to switch or adjust. Staining decisions sound something like this: “You will take on this new challenging assignment on short notice, with insufficient resources, with a fixed delivery date. Make it happen.” or “I’ve committed a fixed delivery date to the client. You weren’t around to check with. I am sure you can deliver.” Unilateral, locked in decisions are difficult to change later without leaving some kind of collateral damage. Yet I see this happen frequently. This form of direct command leadership makes mistakes almost inevitable, and they are the kind that can’t be erased without leaving a shadow of pain behind.
Maybe this paint metaphor is a bit of a stretch. I hope it does at least cause you to think a little differently about how you give direction or make decisions. Build in wiggle room, flexibility, and the results will be much more pleasing for all involved.