“that’s the way we’ve always done it” isn’t a strategy

dragging timeBusiness is at a cross-roads. Business gets done for, through, and by people. Unfortunately, the human side of business has not evolved at the pace of technology, has not kept up with changing expectations, and is anchoring business in the past.

Leadership is at a cross-roads. The dictatorial command and control philosophy so repugnant in government yet so warmly embraced by business is losing effectiveness by the day. The world is changing too fast to leave all the decision making, planning, and creativity to only a few. A pyramid shaped hierarchy simply can’t keep up, can’t respond fast enough, and is too exposed to mistakes caused by the biases of its top leaders.

Organizational and work design is at a cross-roads. Trying to do 21st Century work with models and designs developed for the 20th, 19th, and 18th centuries has its limitations.

Human Resources is at a cross-roads. Changes in technology, business philosophy, and HR’s role in the organization mean it can play an increasingly important role or be so redefined that it essentially fades away, replaced by technology and outsourcing.

People know things are changing and need to change more. If you go to conferences that have “Reinvent,” “Future,” “Evolve,” “Change,” etc. in the name you quickly find that most of the attendees are already on the same page. Even at less future-oriented presentations, I’m finding large numbers of people embracing the idea of what their field could be, of how it could create more value or better results, of the need to leave the past behind and the opportunity to redefine the future.

There are people and companies leading the way, some for decades now, showing us how the future of work could be. Showing us how today could be. But they get dismissed as a novelty (not REAL business), of having unique circumstances that couldn’t possibly work in other businesses, of being faddish. Even though real life examples abound, it’s easier to dismiss new ideas than to invest in the effort to adapt them to our own circumstances. Easier to assume that what seemed to work well enough in the past is what will work best in the future.

Would anyone ever consider “but that’s the way we’ve always done it” a legitimate reason for continuing an outdated policy? No. So why is it so easily accepted as justification for clinging to antiquated business strategies, org design, or leadership? Why is it an easy excuse for sinking into the past as competition (and the world) passes by?

We know better, don’t we?

[Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc]

the #1 reason your company struggles with innovation

Houses the sameWhen people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” ~ Eric Hoffer

Businesses and leaders everywhere are crying out for innovation. For continual improvements and new ideas that will push the company forward before it falls behind. But there’s a problem. And it’s a problem that will prevent most innovation from ever happening.

We like to think that business is about numbers, rational decisions, and predictable results. Except that it’s not. Business is about people. Period. If there’s any doubt, simply try running a profitable business without leaders, employees, or customers. Can’t be done.

Business is about people and people are often unpredictable, irrational, and don’t really care about what spreadsheets or computer models say they should do. Although we like to think we’re rational and objective, we humans all have biases that have been deeply ingrained as survival traits over the past 50,000+ years.

I find these biases fascinating because we all make decisions every day yet rarely understand the factors behind how we decide. It doesn’t matter how smart, educated, or experienced a person is – biases exist. The best we can do is be aware of how they affect our decisions so we can counter for them. [Note: I know you and I are completely rational 100% of the time, only making decisions with precise objective reasoning and never with emotion or bias; it’s everyone else I’m talking about.]

One of the biggest but least talked about biases is known as Puttnam’s Law. I’m paraphrasing a little but this law tells us no one will fault you for conforming to status quo and “best” practices, but you will be attacked and ridiculed for having the lunatic gall to do things differently. It’s ok to fail as long as you are failing like everyone else but there is a huge social penalty for being different even (especially?) when it gets better results. There is more risk in succeeding differently than in failing like everyone else.

We humans like to divide people up into “us” vs “them” and non-conformity is one of the gravest career and social sins. Standing out a little bit is ok, standing out a lot will get you derided, discredited, or ostracized. History is full of people who were a little too far ahead of their time – revered much later but misunderstood and ridiculed while alive.

Even when people want to create and think and do different there are strong social biases rewarding conformity of thought and action. Everybody is accountable to someone and for most people in most circumstances – whether entry level or CEO – it is much less risky from a career standpoint to just try to do what everyone else is doing (only a little better) than it is to take a leap and try something different.

It’s easier to justify low performance by saying you stuck to “best practices” or used the same strategy as your competition than it is to justify low (or even better) performance by taking a chance on something new. Puttnam’s Law suggests our individual careers are better off sticking with what made us or the company successful over the last 20 years than to figure out what will create success over the next 20 (even though it’s highly likely to be different).

Does this apply to all people and all companies in all situations? No, nothing does. But it applies to enough people in enough companies in enough situations to realize how it’s holding us back.

Please note, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t innovate or even express individuality. Quite the opposite. What I’m suggesting is that even when we want and ask for innovation and new solutions there are often factors creating counter-incentives that get in the way. Puttnam’s Law represents a huge unspoken barrier.

Do we want innovation? Absolutely. But we want it to be similar to everyone else.

The problem is, that’s sort of impossible.

[Photo credit: lucianvenutian via Compfight]

what have you done to kill innovation today?

No InnovationPeople are naturally creative and inventive. Most of it has been squeezed out of a person by the time they enter the workforce, but a little always remains. Creativity and innovation are the bane of exacting accuracy and efficiency. Trying something new or different slows things down and introduces errors and variability into processes. It flies against the virtues of the status quo and state of the art best practices.

Yet, no matter how much you insist on ruthless adherence to rules, policy, and precedent, there will always be people in your organization who find new paths. Here are a few thoughts for preventing them from disrupting your business:

Who you hire is crucial to the company’s future. If there is a preferred “type” for your organization, hire those people. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious – ethnicity and gender are easy to play to and that’s really an amateur move. A pro knows that sometimes you have to dig a bit to find what your company really values. Maybe it’s only hiring people from one or two preferred colleges. Maybe it’s a preference for a specific major or having worked for a certain competitor. Maybe it’s seeking people from a specific church or with particular social interests. Maybe it’s fashion sense or a certain hairstyle. Maybe it’s living in a certain suburb or neighborhood. Whatever it is, you’re wanting to make sure everyone is as similar as possible. Remember: any diversity (including backgrounds, thoughts, experiences, perspectives, etc.) goes hand in hand with creativity and innovation. The more that people in the organization resemble each other in every aspect, the less disruption there will be.

Foster an environment where being (or at least appearing) busy is paramount. There’s no time for thinking because thinking doesn’t look busy. If people have time to think, they don’t have enough to do.

Put policy above common sense, business sense, human decency, or anything else really. Policy exists for a reason.

Never introduce variety into the day. Even go as far as keeping the same meetings at the same times in the same locations. Every time. Don’t be tempted to skip a meeting if there’s nothing pressing and never hold it in a different location. Variety sparks creativity. Let a philosophy of sameness guide your leadership.

Questions only lead to ideas. If you do have to ask a question make sure is a yes/no question. Never ask an open ended question unless you already know the answer and it’s still best to make it an obviously leading question. Remember, you don’t actually want new answers or ideas, you only want to reinforce the ideas you already have.

Even though you never want to ask a real question, a great technique for eliminating new ideas is asking for people’s ideas and then never, ever do anything with them. This does two things: 1) it identifies your trouble makers; and 2) it subtly helps people figure out their ideas aren’t wanted and they’ll soon stop making any suggestions for improvement.

If someone has a new idea, never ever seek to understand. Obviously you don’t want new ideas – that means change and doing things in new way – so why waste time learning about something you’re never going to do? Better to show strong leadership and gently ridicule the idea. Be condescending and have pity for any person dumb enough to suggest such a thing. Then move on.

If a new idea somehow gains traction always insist that it be fully developed and perfected before being put into action. Never allow people to pilot an idea with a small group in a low risk way. Never allow an idea to be launched and improved through rapid iteration. Always insist on it being perfect from the start. If the idea somehow ever gets put into use, be sure to react strongly to any stumble and use that as a reason to neuter the idea or shut it down completely.

Benchmark your competition to make sure you are doing everything exactly the same. Obviously, the only way to get ahead of your competition is to do everything just like them. This is called “best practices” and can be used to justify any failure. As long as you fail just like everyone else, no one can ever criticize you (but fail in a different way and you’ll become everyone’s whipping boy – that’s why you don’t want to be different).

Reward tenure above all else. Even new hires will quickly understand that advancement comes from keeping your head down and agreeing with upper management. Those who do enter the company with any ambition or creativity will become immediately frustrated and soon leave. Problem solved.

Oddly, even though you obviously want unchanging status quo and unvarying efficiency, it’s trendy to talk about the importance of innovation. All businesses have to do it so they look modern. Don’t worry, it’s just lip service. Just tell your employees things like: I want you to take chances on new ideas, but you better not fail. You can espouse the need for creativity and innovation and, as long as you make it clear that it’s better to fail by doing nothing that it is to fail by doing different, nothing will ever change.

There you are. It’s not an exhaustive list, just some ideas to get you started on eliminating creativity and innovation from your team or even organization. Again, people are naturally creative so you’ll have to be persistent to create and continually reinforce a culture of consistent sameness. Good luck.

whose policy is it, anyway?

Had a great conversation the other night with a friend about making organizations flatter and removing the barriers to people doing great work. It’s easy for me to get pretty excited and idealistic about the shift I see happening in companies and the future of work. I was brought down to earth with the memory of a silly process that stayed in place because it existed but no one knew who was responsible for it.

Several years ago a CFO complained about a form used by his accounting department to track training expenses. It was intended to make sure that employees weren’t going on some sort of training spending spree (does that happen?) by requiring several levels of approval before they were able to attend the training.

The reality was NO ONE filled it out in advance. They only completed it when accounting started calling well after the fact and insisting on it to justify the expenses. Plus, it applied equally to all “training” from attending a lunch at a professional organization to a multiple day program across the country. And, many of the people who had to fill it out had company credit cards and discretionary funds – I suspect they simply got around completing the form by not calling it “training”.

So here was the CFO griping that he had to complete a form that he thought was ridiculous and stupid. Although it was a training form, it never passed through anyone responsible for training so it was a form that only his department used. Think about that again. His department’s form. He thinks it’s stupid. He could kill it on the spot. But rather than risk eliminating it (who would protest?), he complained and let it continue. I’ve no doubt he is still complaining about it today.

Stories like that make me think the organization of the future is just a little bit further away than I want to imagine.

What thinks you?

you kind of remind me of…

Matt Serra (not me either) [photo from]

Ben Kingsley (not me) [photo from wikipedia]

Yesterday, a woman told me I reminded her of Ben Kingsley. That’s kind of fun. A while back I was told I reminded someone of Matt Serra. That’s kind of fun too. But other than height and hairstyle – cropped or shaved – there’s not much connection or much in common. At best, I have Mr. Serra’s acting ability and Mr. Kingsley’s mixed martial arts skills (if only it were the other way around!).

I always find it interesting to hear which celebrities people are told they look like. The associations are always positive. I’ve never heard anyone say, “Hey, you remind me of that actor I hate. Dude can’t act and he’s supposed to be a real jerk.” But maybe the focus on celebrities we like has more to do with being polite and avoiding conflict than it does with having only positive bias. We tend to not voice our negative biases directly to the person. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist though.

Out in the real world, we are strongly affected by both positive and negative bias. There are people we like and those we dislike within seconds of meeting. Sometimes it’s obvious why, but usually it’s just a feeling. Generally, there are four big factors at play:

1) We humans like to divide the world into “us” and “them”;

2) We humans like people who are like “us” (or at least we give them serious benefit of the doubt);

3) We humans make assumptions based on past experiences with people like “them” (or at least people we think are similar to them); and

4) We humans like to believe we are fully, wholly, 100% rational and we don’t have these biases (other people do, sure, but not us).

In the silly extreme, these biases are causing you to hire me for acting roles. It’s making you think I’d excel in the caged octagon. You’re making decisions about me and the future of your company because I remind you of someone you like, someone who is good at those things.

The cosmic joke’s on all of us and it’s hurting results. It’s destroying creativity and innovation. It’s perpetuating the stagnation and silos. It’s keeping people in roles they aren’t good at and keeping others out of roles where they’d excel. It’s shutting down new ideas, improvements, and progress. It’s destroying the potential for productive conflict and driving away those who would do better. It’s creating a culture of sameness and mediocrity where everyone fits in and no one stands out.

And that’s not good enough. What’s the business case for ensuring diversity (of thought, perspective, experience, skill, ability, demographics, etc.)? What’s the need for rigorous selection systems and ongoing interviewing training? What’s the reason for continuously developing managers? Us vs them is the psychology of surviving.

We need the psychology of thriving.

The Innovation Book: a completely biased unreview

The Innovation Book by Max Mckeown (@maxmckeown) was announced this week. You might know that I’m a big fan of Max’s books and his ability to distill huge concepts down into useful ideas. For me, a review of any of his books could be done as: “Max wrote it? Buy it, read it, use it, love it.” But this book is a bit special to me.

I have a strong interest innovation, but in our over-hyped, over-jargoned, over-#hashtagged world, the word loses meaning. It’s open to mis-interpertation, mis-use, and just plain missing the mark. Too often, we confuse innovation with technology or a direct line to profitability. We think of it as easy and straight-forward and talk about it as though it comes without cost or pain or failure. None of which is true.

The opening line of the first chapter brings some much needed clarity: “Innovation – or practical creativity – is mainly about making new ideas useful.” Practical creativity. Businesses like the results that come from successful innovation, but how many can stomach the process of innovation? It amuses me to think of business leaders telling their teams and divisions, “We need to be more practically creative if we’re going to stay competitive.” It’s true, of course, but creativity is a non-linear process full of starts, stops, failures, break downs, blind alleys, and happy accidents. It requires experimentation, iteration, and comfort with not knowing where things are leading. It means activity, decisions, and actions that may not pay off any time soon – certainly not this quarter – and requires a mindset of investing in the future. It requires giving up the known for unknown and business dogma for business heresy. That leader might as well say, “We need to spend more time and resources experimenting with ideas that might not work if we’re going to stay competitive.”

But we do want innovation, so how do we put practical creativity to good use? The Innovation Book is both guide book and user manual. Across the book’s six parts, it looks at how to increase your own ability to be more innovative, create environments and cultures to lead others to innovation, refine creative ideas into practical usefulness, and avoid the pitfalls that can prevent new ideas from never quite catching on.

The book shows examples of innovation winners – generally uncelebrated people and businesses whose new ideas pushed the world forward in often unglamorous ways. From non-stick cookware to feminine hygiene to medical products to corporate turnarounds, Max shows that innovation is so much more than being the next hot Silicon Valley startup.

On the flipside, we learn from examples of innovation losers – people and businesses at the tops of their games who painfully missed, ignored, or outright rejected changes in their industries they should have been leading. Money, technology, and a name brand don’t always lead to useful ideas, smart decisions, or happy endings.

The final section of the book is a tool kit with a couple dozen innovation models presented to provide guidance, frameworks, and different ways of thinking about and approaching innovation. As much as we humans might crave the One Right Answer and want the Five Point Plan For Guaranteed Success, the models are a useful reminder that there is no single way to approach innovation and no certainty of success. There are many, many approaches to choose from as you explore the unmapped areas of new ideas.

Unfortunately, I cannot provide an unbiased review because, well, I am biased about this book. I gave input on two pre-publication drafts and developed and facilitated a six-session class based on the book while the text was still being revised and updated (I wrote about the experience: here and here). The best review I can give for the book is to share an endorsement I provided for it: Strips big ideas down to their essence, making the complicated understandable and turning the theoretical into real-world practical.

In other words: Max wrote it. Buy it, read it, use it, love it.


Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Boldness does not come easily or naturally. Although we admire boldness, we humans struggle against it. We weave boldness into myth and legend, make a virtue of it, then actively discourage it. We celebrate boldness while striving to blend in out of fear of standing out.

One of the biggest societal sins we can commit is simply non-conformity. Standing out. Being different. We humans are wary of differences and look for anything telling that’s out of the norm. It creates a division, a wedge, an “us vs them” schism with those around us. It announces, “I am not one of you.”

Even those who rebel against the majority tend to conform to the rules and norms of their own group. The most rebellious are sometimes the most conservative of all. The biker or punk rocker or hipster programmer has just as many unspoken rules about what to wear, where to live, and what to drive as the banker or lawyer or accountant.

The penalties for standing out range from being ignored with the cold shoulder to being discredited and marginalized to being cast out, ostracized. The instinct to punish or reject anyone different persists so well and so strong we’ve had to create laws to prevent discrimination on the can’t-be-helped differences.

But what about the can-be-helped differences? Those who choose the non-conformity of being bold? Those heretics who bring different perspectives or dare to argue against the Truths of Best Practices? For those who aren’t doing as well as we are we point, criticize, and judge their non-conformity as evidence of inferiority. If they are doing better than us, we complain, resent, and discredit.

Yet, no person or organization ever stood out by being the same. No one ever got ahead by holding back. The world has never been changed by those wrapped in the warm, safe blanket of average. The joke is on use as we laugh when they go against the conventional wisdom that no longer works and we continue to predict their failure as they go about succeeding.

Boldness exists as a virtue in myth and legend, but in the everyday it’s easier and safer to say “no” than “yes”. More prudent to replicate the past than create the future. We seek to offend no one and become offensively inoffensive. Our businesses, our actions, our lives look like everyone else’s around us. We choose safe over meaningful, stable over fulfilling, secure over interesting, known over bold. And it’s keeping us trapped.

Bold fails. Bold succeeds. Bold is colorful. Bold is never boring. Bold is courageous. Bold risks. Bold leaps. Bold opens itself up to failure for the freedom and joy of the opportunity. Bold creates. Bold is a spark, a moment, a conviction, an inspiration. Bold is tenacious persistence. Bold is meaningful. Bold is unique. Bold is crazyscaryjoyful.

We need more bold.

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

a walk in the park

Cool crisp morning air. Mist blanketing the river. Lush lawns and trees in full bloom. It felt great being outside, walking around in the large park, watching the world ease into the day. Soon the participants for the class I was leading on innovation would be arriving. Walking along the river I noticed how different my mood and thoughts were than when waiting for meetings and classes in conference rooms and I wondered why, why, why do we tend to always hold meetings indoors, in the same rooms, always sitting down? After all, my best thoughts usually come when I’m outside walking, running, or cycling.

The class itself was simple enough: a one-hour class once a week for six weeks based around a prepublished version of Max Mckeown’s (@maxmckeown) forthcoming The Innovation Book. It’s no secret that Max is one of my favorite business writers and I admire his ability to compress huge ideas into simple sentences and shift abstract theory into real-world practicality. So, little surprise that I jumped at the chance to build a class around his newest book.

I currently work in the banking industry and banking and innovation are almost mutually exclusive terms. Customers tend to prefer their local bank being conservative, safe, and solid, which means that those who do well at the local bank tend to be, well, conservative, safe, and solid. Yet, there is a huge need and desire for being innovative, so this class was a great chance to introduce, clarify, and play with ideas around creativity and innovation.

When I laid out the class, I simply divided it into one session for each of the book sections. I used the book as backbone for the course and then added other articles and video relevant to innovation and the banking industry to further help participants bring the ideas into their daily life. The reading served as pre-work for the class sessions and the sessions focused on discussion and practical application. Pretty straight forward.

Yet, if we were discussing innovation why not use the class itself to demonstrate creativity, experimentation, stretching comfort zones, etc.? I warned the participants from the start that the class itself was an experiment and we played heavily with format and location. That’s where it got interesting.

We did two sessions in convenient conference rooms, one in a conference room in an out of the way location, one on WebEx, one as a Twitter chat, and one in a city park. From this I learned, re-learned, and confirmed changing location changes how we think and interact.

WebEx. This was a challenge to myself. I hate webinars and most online training. My attention span is too short and I get bored and just don’t pay attention. Yet, our employees are spread out over a three-hour footprint and the logistics of simply getting people together for meetings or training can be near impossible. My previous experiences as a participant on WebEx (GoTo meetings, etc.) weren’t positive, but I wanted to see if we could make it useful. The results were mixed. Some had technical problems and it completely lost the conversational feel, yet it did save travel time. Would I do it again? Maybe.

Twitter chat. I’d never seen a class done as a Twitter chat so I was excited to try it out. Banks in general don’t do social media well and NO ONE in the class was familiar with Twitter. A few had accounts but didn’t use them. The rest were starting from scratch. I provided some basic information to get started and asked them to play with it enough to be able to participate. I emphasized that it wasn’t about loving Twitter, it was simply about trying something new. One couldn’t figure it out at all (despite being very familiar with Facebook), two had issues because their privacy settings prevented anyone from seeing their responses, and the rest had a great time. Max was even able to join in on the class. Given the technical difficulties I can’t call it a resounding success, BUT the experience created a ton of discussion in the next class about experimentation, technology, customer experience and learning curves, etc.

Outdoors. It was surprising how much my mood and thinking changed by walking around outside. I heartily encourage doing this at every opportunity, particularly when trying to brainstorm and generate new ideas. Can’t do outside? Great, find a way to walk inside, change locations, or just hold the meeting in a room you never normally use. Do something – anything – different.

Next Time

If I did the class again, I’d play even more heavily with format and location. I’m not convinced that WebEx, Twitter, or a city park are the best places to hold every class or meeting BUT location served a fantastic role in demonstrating experimentation, taking risks, failing and learning, and giving little nudges (and shoves) toward the edges of people’s comfort zones.

Which is the whole point.

(note: this was originally posted at