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]

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?

innovation is disruption

“What do the most successful companies do? They innovate. We need to start innovating immediately. Form an innovation committee and get going!”

At least, that’s how I imagine it going at a lot of companies. Everyone is all abuzz about innovation and the need for it, but I’m not convinced they completely understand it. I get the sense that so many think of innovation as more of the same, only better. But it’s not. Innovation is disruption.

Innovation is disruption. It goes against the status quo. It’s not how we do things around here. It’s not the way we always done it. It goes against how the average – normal – company does it.

Innovation = disruption. It causes worry and consternation. People oppose it. It’s change. It’s different. It’s weird. It’s messy. It causes problems.

Innovation is disruption. It takes time for people to try it out, to understand it, to appreciate it. It brings out the naysayers. It causes whining, complaining, screaming, and shouting. Terror and temper tantrums.

Innovation = disruption. It is uncomfortable. It slows things down while people go through the learning curve. It feels unnatural – it’s not what we’re used to.

Innovation is disruption. It’s new. It’s unknown. It’s untested and unproven. It’s value may take years to be understood.

Innovation = disruption. It’s a risk. It may take failure after failure before success. It may not pan out. It may make people look foolish if they support it and no one else does.

Innovation is disruption. It’s being out in a place where no one else is. It might pay off (big) or it might fizzle out. Some ideas are ahead of their time, others are simply different yet not better.

Innovation = disruption. But disruption is not always innovation. Innovation can cause trouble, but not all trouble makers are innovators.

Innovation is disruption. We say we want innovation and then our actions support status quo. We want the (perceived and false) safety of the known with all the wild upside of the new. But when push comes to shove and people start looking for someone to blame, Sameness is the corporate value that gets supported. The manager says, “I want you to take risks, but you better be right.”

Innovation = disruption. It means stepping away from the Known. Innovation ALMOST NEVER COMES FROM EXPERTS. Experts are really good at the Way Things Are and not so good at the Way Things Could Be.

You want innovation? Seek other perspectives. Bust up routines. Stop trying to “innovate” and start looking for better answers. Find solutions that no one else is doing. Create products and services that are better at solving your customer’s problems. Give unexpected value. Show that you have really thought it through.

You want still innovation? Develop an open mind and a thick skin. Poke. Prod. Change. Be Different. Put on your emotional flak jacket and get ready for the hate, the doubt, the ridicule. It just might be worth disrupting things.

Stability is a dangerous illusion: a brief review of “Adaptability” by Max McKeown

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory. ~ W. Edwards Deming

In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. ~ Eric Hoffer


Everyone talks about it, many fear it, but what do you do with it? The newness and novelty of change can be exciting or the uncertainty can be crippling. The faster and bigger the change, the more crucial our ability to adapt. Those individuals, companies, and even nations, who have long-term success are those who can successfully adapt from where the world was to where it’s going. Yesterday’s success strategy is tomorrow’s failure if the world moves on without us.

Adaptation is vital, but how do we adapt? How do we make the leap from doing what we know has worked in the past to what we think might work in the future? Big questions. Max McKeown (@maxmckeown) offers insights, rules, and steps for successful adaptation in his book Adaptability: The art of winning in an age of uncertainty.

He states, “Adaptability is the most important of human characteristics…. All failure is a failure to adapt. All success is successful adaptation.” (emphasis added). Think about that for a while: all failure, from the fall of nations to your cousin’s ugly divorce to giving up on your goal fit back in your old size is failure to adapt. Failure to change and adjust and evolve our strategies and actions.

Yet, just adapting is not enough. It is completely possible to adapt and still fail. The right solution at the wrong time for the wrong situation isn’t of much use, never mind the wrong solution. Likewise, just succeeding may not be enough either. Max identifies four possible outcomes of any situation, based on how well we adapt to that specific situation: collapsing (this is bad), surviving /coping (better, but not necessarily pleasant), thriving (what we often aim for), and transcending (game changing good).

Max’s focus, as stated in the introduction, is on winning. “Not just winning by playing the same rules, but playing better. And not just winning where there has to be a loser. My interest is in understanding more about how social groups can move beyond the existing rules to find games that allow more people to win more often.” I love this concept: why survive when you can thrive and why thrive when you can transcend?

So often our focus is just on getting by, getting through, putting the change behind us and returning to the way things were. Imagine what we could do if we elevated our game and consciously approached adaptation as an opportunity to radically expand the playing field; to get beyond the silly zero-sum games where someone has to lose in order for us to win; to create the rising tide that raises all ships?

To help us shift our approach to thriving and transcending, Max identifies 17 rules for successful adaption grouped into three steps. Everything is discussed with examples from an incredible variety of topics, some ancient, some still developing even as the book was published. He looks at adaptability through the lens of  Formula One racing, ants, the publishing industry, orange juice, Mini Coopers, NFL, Easter Island, Netflix, Starbucks, an Italian village, a women’s movement in Liberia, video games, Spiderman the Musical, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, baseball, the Occupy movement, Lego, Tata Motors, and more. Through it all, the ideas, rules, and strategies presented are relevant to everyone seeking to adapt better and play bigger.

I am a big fan of Max’s writing style. He consistently makes the complicated simple, the difficult understandable, the philosophical real-world relevant, and the seemingly ordinary brilliant. He has an easy to read approach, but it took me a while to get through the book because I found myself spending time highlighting, underlining, making notes in the margins, and staring off into space contemplating the ideas presented. Good, good stuff.

Adaptation is never easy. It requires letting go of the known, changing our perception, and jumping into uncertainty. Max shows us some ways to make the leap in the right direction.

Note: In the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, you should know I received a free review copy from the publisher. You might have too if you’d been paying attention when they offered them on Twitter.    🙂

read any good books lately (updated)

Note: I originally published this back on May 5 and thought it was time to revisit it. Instead of rewriting it, I decided to just make a few updates (in bold). The rest of the information still holds true.


I love books. One of my great frustrations in life is the knowledge that I will never be able to read (and reread) all the books I want to. No matter how deep the stack of “must reads” gets, I’m always looking for more. So, I thought I’d share my list of current reads and maybe a few favorites. There’s lots more I could have included (how could I skip Jim Rohn?!? – next time), but this is a good start.  (The links will take you to Amazon. I get nothing out of it and only provide the links as a convenience.)

Currently reading:

Adaptability: the art of winning in an age of uncertainty by Max McKeown (twitter: @maxmckeown). I’m a HUGE fan of Max McKeown. It frustrates me to no end that he is still relatively unknown in the States (that will change). I feel he’s one of the best at taking complex ideas and making them simple, practical, relevant, and important. I got so tired waiting for Adaptability to come out on paperback that I borrowed my wife’s e-reader and purchased it electronically. Well worth it. JUNE 25 UPDATE: Just finished it today and a review will be coming soon. Loved it.

Social Gravity by Jason Lauritsen and Joe Gerstandt (@TalentAnarchy). I actually started this book several months ago and then got sidetracked by Alf Rehn and Max McKeown. For shame! Jason and Joe put out outstanding blogs, both as Talent Anarchy and individually, and it’s been killing me to have this book on hold. I’ll be giving it my full attention again starting tomorrow morning. Yes!

Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed. In the vein ofTalent is Overrated and Outliers. A nice reminder that talent and interest get you in the game, but passion and hard, hard work keep you there.

Next Up:

Degrees of Strength: The Innovative Technique to Accelerate Greatness by Craig Ross and Steven Vannoy (@rossbestever). The latest from the boys who did Stomp the Elephant in the Office: Put an End to the Toxic Workplace, Get More Done – and Be Excited About Work Again. Full disclaimer: I used to work with Craig and Steve and consider them important mentors in my life. They are also two of the most passionate people you’ll meet when it comes to transforming leaders and workplaces.

Linchpin by Seth Godin. There are two blogs I seek out first thing in the morning and Seth’s is #1. I’m continually amazed by his ability to take some very big ideas and make them simple, clear, and brief. Daily. Can’t wait to read.

Dangerous Ideas: When Provocative Thinking Becomes Your Most Valuable Asset by Alf Rehn (@alfrehn). I haven’t read any of his books yet, but love the concept of the book and ideas he puts out on twitter. Can’t wait to read it. JUNE 25 UPDATE: Ok, I skipped ahead and read this one before some of the others. Once I got started, I couldn’t stop. I finished this one a while ago and thought it was great. Alf likes to push the reader beyond their comfort zones and shake things up a bit (as you might expect).  I did a review on it here.

 The Supermanager by Greg Blencoe (@gregblencoe). Greg’s been following this blog for a little while and I always appreciate his comments on leadership. I’m looking forward to reading his book and finding out more about his ideas behind the Supermanager. 

Recently Read:

The Strategy Book by Max McKeown. I recently did a short review of this book here.

The Truth About Innovation by Max McKeown. From the back cover: “Innovation rocks. It rolls. It makes the world go round. In a definitive set of ‘home-truths,’ you’ll discover how to harness its power to increase creativity, collaboration and profit. Are you ready to change the world?” Yes, Max, I am. Thanks for helping.

Unshrink Yourself, Other People, Business, the World by (you guessed it!) Max McKeown. No, I don’t know Max personally, have no stake in him selling more books, and do actually read books by other authors. However, I was so impressed by The Strategy Book that I immediately sought out other books by him and with each new book my enthusiasm only grows. He writes the books I wish I could write. Good, good stuff. This one is about destroying the myths that keep us small and prevent growing ourselves, those around us, business, and (yep) the world.

Long-Time Favorites:

Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Combine the ideas in these two books from the 1930’s and very, very little new has been written since then. Most personal development and success books since can trace their roots back to these two books.

The Greatness Guide: 101 Lessons for Making What’s Good at Work and In Life Even Better by Robin Sharma (@_robin_sharma). I’ve read this book at least four times in as many years. Although he’s better known for The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, I feel this collection of short lessons (none of them more than about a page and a half long) is a far superior, more practical, and more motivating book.

It’s Called Work for a Reason: Your Success is Your Own Damn Fault! by Larry Winget (@larrywinget). He’s fun, down to earth, and doesn’t suffer victims or fools.

How about you? What are some books you’d recommend adding to my must read list?