One of the surest ways to gain in subjective wellbeing - AKA Happiness- is to practice your particular character strengths on a regular basis (Achor, 2010) . 

Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson developed a Character Strengths and Virtues framework that identifies six classes of virtue (i.e., "core virtues"), made up of twenty-four measurable "character strengths". A handy infographic below provides a good summary: 

You may know your own particular strengths, but I love taking self-assessment surveys, so  I just completed the renowned VIA Survey of Character Strengths on the University of Pennsylvania department of Psychology's Authentic Happiness website. The 240 questions, took me about an hour. The results are obviously worthwhile, but the test itself was also interesting, as it also revealed some not-so-strengths that I wasn't aware of. 

In-case you're interested (hi, Ma!), here are my results... 

Your Top Strength

Creativity, ingenuity, and originality

Thinking of new ways to do things is a crucial part of who you are. You are never content with doing something the conventional way if a better way is possible.

Your Second Strength

Capacity to love and be loved

You value close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated. The people to whom you feel most close are the same people who feel most close to you.

Strength #3

Humor and playfulness

You like to laugh and tease. Bringing smiles to other people is important to you. You try to see the light side of all situations.

Strength #4

Zest, enthusiasm, and energy

Regardless of what you do, you approach it with excitement and energy. You never do anything halfway or halfheartedly. For you, life is an adventure.

Strength #5

Love of learning

You love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own. You have always loved school, reading, and museums-anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn.

I was initially surprised, but on reflection, these make SO much sense for me. 

Developing my Character

The thing about character is that it's not a fixed state. We are all predisposed to certain strengths, but with practice we shape and develop our character strengths. This has been my primary practice for 2016. 

Inspired by Tiffany Shlain's Science of Character short film and resources, I have been focusing on a particular character strength every week. Practices for this have included identifying the focus value for the week (for example, Integrity), and then keeping a daily journal about my success in practicing that value. 

I have found that a week's dedicated practice is more valuable than just having a list of things I value. Through the week I become increasingly mindful of the value, and I deepen my understanding of it as it applies to me and my world. 

So here's the take-out challenge, if you want to join me on this fulfilling journey of character development: 

  1. Choose a focus value for the coming week: Have a look at the 24 character strengths, and identify ONE for the coming week that you'd like to work on (if you want an easy feel-good week, do the character strengths survey, then maybe start with something you're already good at)
  2. Declare your intent to practice:  Post on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, your blog, wherever suits you. If you post on your social media, write #characterscience with your post, so you can find and encourage other people who are doing the experiment with us. 
  3. Practice! Start every day for the coming 7 days with a reflection on the practice of your value. You can journal about it (like I do), meditate on it, draw it, photograph it, paint it - whatever works for you. 
  4. Share the love. Lastly, if you enjoy and get value from this exercise, induct someone else into the #characterscience movement. 


AuthorDave Duarte

A few years ago the pioneering technologist Erik Hersman introduced me to an idea that I have since used in virtually all my teaching and consulting.

Addressing a group of senior managers in the car industry in Kenya, Erik said that their greatest breakthroughs were likely to come from "whitespace projects" - proactive employee-driven projects that fall outside of formal roles and responsibilities.

The three criteria for these projects when they start are: 

  1. Roles are undefined
  2. Strategy is unclear
  3. Budget is non-existent

"Whitespace innovators don't wait for funds, or supporters to get going on a project", Erik explained, "they start, and hope to attract the resources as the project gains momentum". This approach lowers the costs of failure, and concentrates resources on projects that have traction. 

Consistently innovative companies like Google, 3M, Atlassian, Ideo, Ogilvy, and more all make time for this kind of proactive experimentation, and in each of these companies you will hear about how many of their greatest breakthroughs have come from projects developed in the whitespace of their organisation. Employees are allowed a certain amount of time to work ideas that excite them, with the only requirement that they share the outcome of their work with the organisation. It can lead to a more engaged workforce, and a more agile organisation. 

An organisational chart, where the blocks represent formally defined roles and the lines represent formally defined relationships and hierarchy.

An organisational chart, where the blocks represent formally defined roles and the lines represent formally defined relationships and hierarchy.

Finding Whitespace

If we look at an organisational chart, the formally defined roles and responsibilities are inked in neat black lines of reporting. We call the gaps between those lines, which is what actually fills most of the organisational chart, "Whitespace". 

Whitespace is unpredictable, chaotic, and creative. And so as companies grow, it seems necessary to fill in all the whitespace - to replace it with policies, procedures, rules, and regulations to control it. For a while this can improve productivity, reduce costs, and increase predictability in the business. But as we so often see with over-regulated organisations, it can also become stifling - resulting in a demotivated workforce, a decreased ability to respond to threats and opportunities, and ultimately, mediocrity. 

While it is the manager's role to deal with blackspace, it is the leader's role to deal with whitespace. Whitespace is where company culture lives and where the interesting and unexpected stuff happens. It is the space in companies where we are allowed to make autonomous decisions, to be leaders in our own way, and to tinker and experiment, to tackle a problem or pursue an opportunity. Leaders need to protect it, and encourage a culture in which the whitespace is used to the benefit of the company.

The Whitespace story of BRCK

An early BRCK prototype. Rough and ready. 

An early BRCK prototype. Rough and ready. 

That Erik Hersman happened to be the person who introduced this concept to me is not really surprising. Erik has an incredible track record of founding innovative companies and projects that inspire technologists around the African continent and help the world think about African innovation differently. 

His most recent startup, BRCK, grew out of one of Africa's most admired software companies, Ushahidi, which he also co-founded. I asked Erik for the backstory. 

"BRCK was actually a whitespace project within Ushahidi. It had no funding for the first 9 months, no real buy-in from anyone besides me - or at least, not enough for anyone to commit to doing anything on it -  and we had no real idea what it would become".

Even though the idea started without funding, the early protypes of BRCK started costing money, and Erik ended up drawing a total of around $2500 from Ushahidi's operational budget to pay for parts. This is a paltry amount considering the level of funding many tech startups demand before they're prepared to even start working on a product.  

About 9 months and several prototypes later, Erik was confident that the BRCK could be a great product and he was ready to get the next level of funding. "We had an Ushahidi board meeting where they asked 'what is Ushahidi doing that is new and interesting?', to which I pulled out a BRCK v4 [see image] and put it on the table, and said 'this'." The prototype was impressive, and the board immediately unlocked a further $30k for the next version of the product, which in turn raised $172k on Kickstarter.  

One last piece of advice for would-be whitespace innovators from Erik: "Traction is more important than anything. People say 'ask forgiveness, not permission'.  This is true, but only if you have traction to ask forgiveness on". 

AuthorDave Duarte
3 CommentsPost a comment