After purchasing a cornfield in Iowa, the Kevin Costner character in the movie, Field of Dreams takes the wild leap to convert it to a baseball diamond on hearing the now iconic message: “Build it and they will come.” The happy-ending move is a tale of redemption, and the phrase became a New Age clarion. Combined with the power of positive thinking, which also blossomed around this time, it seemed if you built something with positivity and determination, surely people would come. Or conversely, if you built it and they did not come, maybe you just weren’t positive or determined enough.
Coming through a time when so much has been upended, determination and positivity figure prominently in the minds of leaders who are reimagining and reinventing what’s possible now. New pandemic-inspired businesses are being built at record rates in hope that people will come. New ways of working, recruiting, conferencing, collaborating and closing a deal are be reinvented daily with hopes that people will come along. While determination and positivity certainly contribute to the success of such efforts, they’re not enough. Something more basic, which even fuels these laudable traits, has to be functioning as well. That something is resonance. Skillfully working with resonance, when we build it, they do come. And we are changed as well.
What exactly is resonance and how can leaders master it? To resonate is to vibrate with, and it’s a physical fact, most easily understood with waves we can see or hear. For example, when waves of water come together, something’s going to happen. They’ll add up to a bigger wave, interfere in some way, or maybe cancel out, but they will vibrate together, exchange energy and each will be changed by the interaction. This exchange of energy by vibrating with—i.e., resonance—is how all change comes about, because all things, all matter and energy, have this wave-like nature.
While resonance is universal, it is also highly specific. A system only picks up energy that it can use; the rest is ignored. For example, if you were to shout into the strings of a grand piano, the strings that match frequencies in your voice would subtly start to vibrate. Those that don’t match would be still. Similarly, the chlorophyll in springtime leaves can use the red frequencies of sunlight, while green is unused and reflected. When chlorophyll production shuts down in the fall, red is no longer usable, so it, too gets reflected and leaves change color. The specificity of resonance is what gives us a world of wonderfully differentiated forms. The universality of resonance gives us an underlying principle for working with all of them.
In the realm of leadership, resonance shows us that life is an every-changing flow of energy and we are energetic systems in relationship with it. This is counter to a more particulate, individualistic way of looking at things, which has been our Western mindset anchored in a rational stage of development and 17th century science. Fast forward to our New Age and we now know that even matter is a rapidly vibrating form of energy, that the many frequencies of our body, from brainwaves to breathing rate, can resonate more-or-less coherently, and that getting on the same wavelength with another person is more than a metaphor. But that’s not to say anything goes, that if we’re determined and positive enough, whatever we build they will come to. The specificity of resonance shows us that if we want people to come, we have to build something their senses will recognize as useful.
So, as we reimagine and reinvent processes, products or whole businesses, resonance can be a guide toward success, in two important ways. First it can help us sense whether an idea is right for us, and second, whether the idea is ready to happen given the people and conditions around us.
Here are four crucial places to do a resonance check when an idea strikes us and we wonder, if we build it will they come?
Ideas can arrive in a flash, but a well-executed idea can take years. An important signal for whether an idea is worth pursuing is not only that it resonates with us initially (e.g., we get excited about it), but somehow it won’t let us go. When an idea “matches” us, our energy or enthusiasm for it sustains or even increases as we sense supportive connections or synchronicities.
A second test for whether an idea matches us and is ready to happen is what happens when we start socializing it. Do we light up? Do others light up? Having a few trustworthy colleagues with whom we can socialize the idea is a great way to start translating it into words and ways forward, and sense whether energy builds. If the idea is right and ready to happen, some others will sense it, too, and even those who are skeptical will clarify our own passion. What’s crucial in testing for resonance is not that we agree with or follow everything we’re hearing, but that we remain open to it.
A third resonance check comes when we move the idea toward implementation where a plan is called for. Depending on the idea, it may be a project plan, a business plan, color-coded onto a spreadsheet or scratched on the back of an envelope. But in making some plan, it will become more apparent whether this idea matches broader conditions. A project plan, for example, will often show where and how different stakeholders get involved. A business plan will generally consider the market and its size, the competitive landscape, and so on. Being attuned to the bigger picture may reveal that the idea is right for us, but people or conditions aren’t ready, which may lead to important steps that pave the way for the idea, much as the I-pod paved the way for the I-phone. We can sense the bigger picture any number of ways—through research, measurements, conversations, observations—and the more we take in this energy, the more it can inform our actions, letting them add up to something resonant with this bigger picture.
Finally, we can run a small experiment, build a minimum viable product, or try out our idea with a trusted group. Discovering whether people come once we build it is an obvious measure of success, or more generally, whether the idea achieves its purpose, but even terrific ideas can show agonizingly slow progress early on (e.g., when we’re operating at the bottom of the “S” curve). So, our listening and measuring has to be deeper than the obvious to hear what’s missing, what pain points still exist, what’s the experience of others when they interact with our idea? Listening doesn’t always mean we follow all the opinions we hear, but it means that we hear them and that energy has a chance to change how the idea comes to life. As Eric Ries advocates for lean startups, we want to fuel a virtuous cycle where we build something, measure how it’s going and learn for the next cycle, increasing resonance at each pass.
What becomes apparent in these resonance checks is that listening is not passive or optional. Rather, it’s an essential openness to the energy in and around us. If the idea we sense matches us and is truly in the Zeitgeist, supported by larger forces or real needs, then yes, build it and they will come. If what we’re sensing is a fantasy of our own ego and building it is a way to prove ourselves or feel like we’re accomplishing something, no matter how positive and determined we are, it may not work. Deep listening at these junctures will help us discern the difference. When an idea is right for us and ready to happen, the result is us making exactly the difference that is ours to make. When we can be that open and clear, we lead not for the sake of the ego, but rather use the ego in service of others. Build from there and all things will come to you.