lessons from experimenting with innovation

I get sick of hearing about innovation. It’s too buzzwordy; there’s too much noise around it and far too many misconceptions. Yet, wherever an old idea isn’t working, wherever a new idea would work better, we need more innovation. We really need less talk and more action, but telling people to “go be innovative” doesn’t work.

I recently wrote about a class I put together around the soon-to-be-published The Innovation Book from Max Mckeown (@maxmckeown). Not only did the class help people in my organization better understand how to bring innovation and creativity into their own jobs, but by playing with class format and location it served as an experiment for me about learning and development.

Over the six session class we held sessions in two common conference rooms and one out-of-the-way board room, hosted a session on WebEx, had a Twitter chat, and met up in a city park. There were pros and cons to each format but board rooms have an oppressive/stuffy/stifling feel, technical difficulties devolved the WebEx session into a slightly more painful than normal conference call, user inexperience with Twitter kept two from participating in the chat, and I didn’t give good directions so two people got lost on the way to the park. Failure, right?

Not a bit, because I learned some important things along the way:

  • People want to experiment. They want to play and try new things. Not everyone, but more than we generally think. They are looking for permission; signs that it’s ok to tinker and tweak.
  • People want to be successful. No one wants to fail and a lot of the fear around change and trying new things is simply fear of failure. So, it’s important to let people know that it’s an experiment and you know that some of it won’t work the first (or second or third) time out. Keep a sense of humor about it and be transparent when it doesn’t work. Then use that to fuel better discussions.
  • People can deal with ambiguity if they aren’t concerned about 100% success right from the start. Remove blame and turn it into a journey where everyone’s in it together and they are more than happy to join in.
  • People confuse innovation with computer magic worked by geniuses with big budgets. No surprise then that they don’t know how to bring innovation into their jobs. But, they are pretty comfortable with figuring out how to make new ideas practical (The Innovation Book’s definition of innovation) or finding new uses for existing ideas.
  • Location matters. A lot. There isn’t a single perfect location and each has its own distinctive feel. I can’t help be wonder what would happen if teams experimented with meeting locations. How might that affect participation, creativity, idea development, information flow, etc.?

It turns out that just talking about innovation isn’t the same as experiencing experimentation. I’d do this class again in a heartbeat and I’d push and twist the formats and locations even further to help participants get even more comfortable with play, change, stretching comfort zones, and stuff just not working out as planned. Innovation is a creative process so it’s not static, it’s not linear, and it’s not formulaic.

So why do we try so hard to pretend otherwise?

(Note: this was originally posted on brocedwards.com)


  1. How about helping a person on your team break apart obstacles to new techniques/programs? The inertia of doing something new can be an overwhelming “tax” that suffocates an innovative idea. The person with the new-fangled idea sometimes gets shunned and shut down.


    1. Yep, that happens all the time. We often thing that the best ideas win, but it’s the ideas we can get others to buy in to that win. And I like the description that the refusal to change operates as a tax on new ideas.

      From my experience, anything we can do to get people to play and experiment with new ideas without risk of failure or judgment greatly helps the causes. For example, a friend in the publishing industry tells me was facing challenges a few years back getting leadership to understand how technology was changing the industry. So, he gave them all iPads for Christmas – no strings attached, just go have fun with it. Over Christmas break they tried out the pre-installed Kindle apps, etc. and came back understanding and ready to think about where publishing was going.


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