Elvin's LawnmowerWith great consistency, I pour over the Internet looking for quality articles that offer insights for leaders on the topics of organizational culture, trust, empowerment, leadership, and innovation. My intent is to find ideas that I can share with leaders to whom I try and provide a steady drip of professional reading. Sometimes I discover a golden nugget in the Harvard Business Review, other times it’s Forbes or Inc., but this weekend I stumbled upon inspiration in the backyard of my childhood home.

I traveled to Ranger, Georgia to do some work at my father’s house. He will be 86 in November, and while he still gets around pretty well, he struggles to keep up with house work and a large yard. My aunt, brother, and I decided to focus our efforts inside the house, so I called our friend Elvin to see if he was available for hire to mow the near five acres of grass.

Within an hour I heard the familiar sound of a mower zipping across the front yard. As my brother and I stepped outside the basement door, Elvin saw us and drove over to say hello. He pulled up and hit the kill switch on his old Snapper lawn mower. As the engine went silent he pointed at it, smiled broadly and said, “It runs cooler with the hood off.”

“It looked like you were mowing at about 20 mph,” I said, laughing.

“Well, not that fast with the blades turning, but she’ll get on down the road when you disengage the blades,” he said. “My fuel pump doesn’t work, so you just have to park her with the nose slightly downhill so gravity can help out. Then she’ll fire right back up.”

“What’s going on there?” our mutual friend Ricky asked as he pointed to a car battery sitting on the foot rest.

“My battery died, so I went to the parts store to buy one, but they wanted $100 for a battery. I had a spare car battery, so I fastened it to the foot rest and it works just fine,” he said.

“What about that,” Ricky asked, pointing at a 5.56mm ammunition can.

“Well, my friend’s mower broke, so I let him borrow mine. He mowed his yard then opened the cap on a reservoir he thought was the fuel tank. He told me he wanted to return it full of gas, so he poured it full alright. The problem was he filled my hydraulic reservoir with gas,” he said.

“You’re kidding?”

“Nope. So, I had to fix that. I had an ammo can that fit in that hole perfectly, so I cut two holes in the bottom of it and welded fittings in the holes. Then I ran the hydraulic hoses to the fittings, filled that ammo can with hydraulic fluid, and it’s never missed a lick since,” he said proudly.

Amazed at his problem-solving skills, Ricky continued the questioning. “Is that a kill switch?”

“Yeah,” Elvin said. “My starter switch would start the engine, but it would not shut it off, so I just wired a kill switch. Now, you simply use that switch to start it, and that one to cut it off.”

I took my phone out and began snapping pictures of his mower. “Elvin, you are one innovative, problem-solving Muldoon,” I said. “The world needs more people that think like you.”

“You making fun of my lawn mower, Jimmy?” he asked.

“Heck no,” I said. “There are business leaders all over the world trying to shape innovative cultures within their companies. All they need is people like you, people who can creatively fix anything. I think you would get the juices flowing, inspire others in the workplace. It would not be long before everyone would start thinking more like you. How do we fix this? How do with make that better? How can this be more efficient, faster, cooler, cheaper, etc.? It’s how you think that matters most. That’s invaluable.”

“Well, when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, you had no choice but to solve your own problems. We didn’t have money to go buy a new one. We had to figure out how to fix things,” he said.

“Exactly. That way of thinking is very valuable. In a society that defaults to replace verses fix, our creative, innovative thinking skills have atrophied. We need more fixers like you,” I said, to his delight. “That mindset not only repairs things, but it discovers what would work better. That’s the mind of an innovator and we need more of them.”

My encounter with Elvin reminded me of a challenging period for me as a leader. During sequestration, we had to change the way we operated. For about thirteen years we simply replaced components as they broke on military equipment. Once the war started, our mechanics and repairers had stopped troubleshooting and fixing. Over time their skills diminished, so when the money was no longer there to replace components our productivity suffered. We had to relearn how to troubleshoot. I believe our creative minds are like a muscle – we have to exercise them in order to keep them in shape.

People like Elvin are healthy for our companies. I recall visiting Don Baker’s company, Paddock Pool Equipment, last year. During the visit, I met Don’s version of Elvin. He had a gentleman who had worked there for decades. The man had designed all types of water park creations. By my estimation, he was about Elvin’s age. Sure, their minds were shaped by their environment – necessity is the mother of all creation, but that environment made them inquisitive, creative, and innovative.

My weekend experience made me think about workplace exercises designed to motivate and shape creative thinking in the workplace. Perhaps, that’s something worth thinking about… Until then, be well.