Leadership Caffeine™: It’s Vuja De All Over Again

A Cup of Leadership CaffeineWith apologies to Yogi Berra for borrowing and twisting his classic phrase, a little Vuja De in your daily leadership life might just be the prescription to turbocharge team and individual performance.

I’m re-reading Tom Kelley’s outstanding book, “The Ten Faces of Innovation,” based on his experience with design firm IDEO, and came across his wonderful use of the term, Vuja De (the opposite of that feeling we call Déjà vu) in the chapter on acting as an anthropologist to observe people’s true behavior.

With attribution for the concept ascribed to the late comedian George Carlin, “Vuja De is a sense of seeing something for the first time, even if you have actually witnessed it many times before.” Kelly goes on to describe how anthropologists develop the ability to see what’s always been there but has gone unnoticed—what others have failed to see or comprehend because they stopped looking too soon.”

In my experience, too many leaders give up on the power of observation once they’ve formed initial impressions. They stop looking for opportunities and start managing based on perceptions and all of the inherent biases that go into forming these perceptions.

Stop looking too soon, and you’re liable to miss some remarkable opportunities.

It’s time to walk into your workplace with a freshly scrubbed mind in search of new opportunities and insights.  While it is admittedly difficult to flush personal experience and opinions from our minds, imagine the power of walking into your office today without all of the perceptions, preconceived notions and outright biases that govern your behavior towards others.

If you were seeing your team members for the first time, you would not have the bias baggage that weighs us down as we come to know people. You would have a fresh start, and you would not assume that Bob was a lousy negotiator or that Mary was the rising star or that Sam’s tattoos reflect values that you don’t support.  Instead of the negatives and the biases guiding your decisions and interactions, you would look for the talents and importantly, the opportunities.

12 Questions to Ask Yourself as a Leadership Anthropologist:

  1. How do people interact?
  2. What obstacles do they have to navigate around to get work done?
  3. How comfortable are they being creative?
  4. How do they deal with each other when it comes to performance on teams?
  5. How do people deal with their bosses?
  6. Where do ideas come from?
  7. How do new ideas turn into solutions?
  8. Who is respected and not respected on the team?  Why or why not?
  9. What motivates people?
  10. What activities suck the life out of people?
  11. What work goes on that seems to contribute to nothing?
  12. How many things are done because “they’ve always been done.”

The Bottom-Line for Now:

From an article in Fast Company,  “So if you want to find untapped innovation opportunities, watch the world around you with “fresh eyes.” Go for a sense of Vuja de, and then ask yourself why things are the way they are.”

As a leader, you can practice this same “innovator’s secret,” and periodically challenge yourself to step back and assess why things are the way they are on your team.  And again, I don’t doubt the difficulty of this assignment, however, the alternative is for you to continue leading from a shrinking and grossly biased view of your workplace and the people around you.

Remember, it’s your job to create success, not manage to minimize failure.  Just for today, quit talking too much, start asking, listening and importantly, start observing.  What you see might just surprise you.


  1. Hey Art!
    ;-)thanks for your art!;-)
    But, seriously, you are very right:
    to step back, stopping the noise and hearing the voices around is a must have skill for all those who want to lead others.
    Very few are realizing that every day is new day and nothing is constant, that falling into routine view of the world around is very dangerous, which leads to “I know it all” attitude, as “I have been there, I have done that”, forgetting that now is the only unique moment and what might seem as same situation is pretty much different now. Nothing repeats just by co-incidence, there are hidden lessons and challenges for us to recognize in such situations;-)

    Have a super cool day,

    cheers from Slovakia

    • Ivana, thanks for reading and sharing your enthusiasm! Right you are on the “I know it all” attitude. That is a leadership credibility/effectiveness killer. Always appreciate you sharing your wisdom here! -Art

  2. Art,
    Thanks for the Monday reminder to keep a fresh outlook. That’s the way we stay creative and rise above the sameness to the level of outperformism.

    Very thoughtful and accurate. -Bill

  3. Great post, Art. Sort of “beginner’s mind” applied to everyday management work.

    • Thanks, Bill and Wally! Bill, I love the “rise above the sameness” phrasing. And Wally, spot on with the “beginners mind.” -Art

  4. Loved your reference to “fresh eyes,” Art. It’s so important to get perspective from others who can help us see the same things in a new way – that’s why consultants are so important! I wrote about this topic myself recently, sharing a few examples of how my daughter (when she was 3) helped me see everyday things in a new way. Children definitely have what Wally called the “beginner’s mind.” In case you’d like to see that post, it’s at: http://ow.ly/12B9f

  5. Hi Art,

    Another great post. Often times we develop a listening for certain things from certain people and we see things through our filtered glasses. It’s so important for a leader to stop playing old tapes and take that step back to see things that we looked at before but didn’t really see. I especially like the idea of looking for the positive as you start fresh.


  6. Work that contributes to nothing. This is the challenge of trying to rise above all patterns and processes and come up with new ideas for more efficiency and easing the burden on overworked employees.

    We all have to keep our minds open to new ideas and always ask can this be done. We have found that by doing that we have streamlined process which have made our employees happier with their tasks and better bottom line for Company.

  7. Considering Question 10, about those “sucking” activities, I suggest creating an ad hoc time wasters group. Ask them to to identify what they view as no longer needed reports, meetings, services, and processess. Then get out of the way — there will be fireworks. While the group may not get everything right, they will help remove waste and road blocks, improve effectiveness and efficiency, and enhance morale.


  1. […] Its Vuja De All Over Again (artpetty.com) February 15th, 2010 | Tags: Emotion, Motivation, Productivity, PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT, Reason, Soul, VALUES | Category: General Interest, PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT […]

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