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.

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

checklist counterproductivity

Consider for a moment the possibility that checklists just might destroy innovation, block creativity, stymie thinking, roadblock excellence, and basically hurt the customer and employee experience.

Checklists, like screwdrivers, email, insecticide, etc. are simply a tool that’s great for doing the job they were designed to do. And they are dangerous and damaging when used for most anything else.

Where do checklists work great? Keeping us on track for superstandardized but critical tasks. Pilots follow a pre-flight checklist even though they’ve done pre-flight checks hundreds of times because: 1) every step is crucial; and 2) the tasks are so routine it would be easy to start taking shortcuts. Checklists are critically important in these types of situations. Not coincidentally, these are situations where innovation, creativity, etc. are not desirable. We really, really want the pilots to do the exact same process every single time.

Checklists are fantastic for ensuring a minimal standard by removing variation. Fast food places standardize everything to ensure a consistent result are delivered, no matter who is doing the work. You’ll never be wowed, amazed, or delighted by the food, but that’s not the intention.

Where do checklists NOT work? In situations where we want people to experiment, think, create, innovate, and improve, where the purpose is more important than the step, where doing it right is more important than simply getting it done.

Checklists aren’t bad, but like any tool they can be misused. It’s very easy for people to abdicate their results and responsibilities to the checklist. They become reactive order takers, waiting to be told what to do, focused on checking the task off the list instead of thinking through the task. “I did it,” they say, but they rarely say, “I found a way to do it better.”

In my world, I see this when people focus on attending a training, getting the certificate, or earning the degree but put no value on what they learned, how they will apply it, or how it will help them do the job better. I see it when people say “I can’t move this forward because I called but they didn’t answer” instead of “I called, emailed, and tracked them down to get the information I needed.” It’s there when people stick to the letter of the policy, never considering the spirit or situation. It shows up when people cannot tell you the value their job provides, only the tasks it accomplishes.

The problem is that checklists don’t measure quality of work. They don’t measure persistence, adaptability, or caring about a job well done. Checklists treat every customer and every interaction the same. They ensure a minimal standard. They allow people to say “I did it”.

Some days, some situations, some tasks that’s enough. But any job that can be reduced to checklists is a prime candidate to be farmed out, done cheaper, mechanized/computerized, or eliminated. Any person who cannot think beyond the check box is setting themselves up for irrelevance.

working to prevent innovation

I recently wrote about people wanting to play with and explore ideas. It struck a chord with several folks but raises the question: where do ideas come from?

Hmmm. We are in an idea economy but we plan our day and treat work as though we are in a manufacturing economy. We behave as though we get medals of honor for scheduling as many meetings as possible, topped only by the sheer number of emails we must answer.

The problem with ideas is they don’t come on cue and never behave in an efficient manner. They bob, weave, and show up when you least expect them. My best ideas come while running, mountain biking, showering, playing with my kids, reading, etc. Almost never have I ever had inspiration strike in a meeting (except when the sole purpose of the meeting was brainstorming), while answering routine email, on a conference call, etc. And the times I did it was because I was checked out, daydreaming, and ignoring the topic at hand.

I can’t even pretend to be an expert on how our brains work, but from my own experience ideas happen most frequently when my brain is mildly occupied (running, cycling, reading), when I’m away from distractions for an extended period (phones aren’t ringing, email isn’t popping up, I can’t check facebook, etc.), and/or when there is something new or novel happening. Hmmm, mildly occupied, undistracted, and/or something new happening. How often do even two of those three things come together during a typical work day?

How often do we let it? We talk about the value of ideas and innovation, but in the name of efficiency, metrics, measurable output, Taylorism, and just looking busy we design and conduct our work in ways that are almost guaranteed to block creativity. It’s as though we do everything we can to avoid thinking even while we claim to want ideas.

There is a legendary story of Henry Ford, a man who understood that efficiency is important AND so are ideas and innovation. As the story goes, an efficiency expert complained about a man sitting in his office with his feet up on his desk. Ford’s response was, “That man once had an idea that saved me a million dollars. When he got it, his feet were right where they are now.” It’s been mentioned that so many innovators and entrepreneurs get their start in college because that’s a phase of life when they have time to play with ideas. Some companies (famously 3M and google) build in time to play and explore. Unfortunately, these examples stand out because they are so rare.

When we are competing on copying and price, efficiency is crucial. When we’re competing by standing out, differentiating, and creating better solutions I can’t help but think that the blind busyness of efficiency might be getting in our way.

It’s worth saying again: We are in an idea economy but we plan our day and treat work as though we are in a manufacturing economy.

Time to do better.


new ideas wanted, creativity not allowed

Good and bad is rarely as black and white as movies depict. Simple distinctions make for easy storytelling, but miss the sloppymessines of humanity. Strengths and weakness are rarely opposites – it’s not one or the other, but one with the other.

I recall reading a sci-fi book as a teenager where humans had crated enormous self-contained and mobile cities – rolling fortresses. For protection and law and order, the computers controlling the cities had been programmed to expel undesirables. Convicted criminals were expelled first, then those with criminal tendencies, then those who might be commit crimes under the right circumstances (say, stealing bread to feed their starving children), then… Soon the cities were empty of all people.

Life is mostly grey, rarely black and white, and insisting on clear divisions carries consequences. The other day, Max Mckeown (@maxmckeown) noted this on twitter, saying: Removing troublemakers may also squeeze out idea creators… There is a lot in that simple sentence. The line between troublemaker and creator is blurry at best. Under the right circumstances creators are often considered troublemakers – they ask questions (sometimes very inconvenient questions), reject the status quo, suggest other solutions, ignore politics and power base, have little regard for tradition and legacy, etc. They can be a real thorn in the sides of those who like things just so and it would be easy to expel the useful with the counterproductive.

It’s a brilliant and important reminder that us humans don’t all fit into neat shinyhappy boxes and our strengths can come at a cost. In his book Dangerous Ideas, Alf Rehn (@alfrehn) noted that many companies say they want creativity and innovation, but they really don’t. Sure, they want the benefits of designing the next hit product, but they aren’t prepared to deal with the idiosyncrasies of creative people. It’s as though “creativity” is viewed as a skill that can be produced on demand and then put away when not needed rather than a completely different perspective and thinking process.

I suspect that often, leaders are excited about bringing really creative, innovative, daring, visionary people on board. Early on, they produce some really great ideas so we ignore their quirks, but after a while their eccentricities and unwillingness to be confined to the neat and tidy “employee” box stops being cute and starts to hurt their careers. So the leaders who were so excited about having creative, idea generators on board are soon expelling them. Or the creative folks get tired of rigid walls and move on. Either way, the company is left more dogmatic, less creative, less innovative, with fewer and fewer ideas. They now offer more of the same with nothing to distinguish them from the competition.

Remember the timeless advice: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

linearity is a lie

Us humans so want certainty and security in an uncertain and insecure world that we’ve created this myth – a lie – of the importance of living a linear life. Life in a straight line, always stepping forward, never getting sidetracked, each movement building on the past – it sounds so great.

We created the lie and we’re suckers for believing it. Buy into the lie and we’ve undermined our own success and fulfillment. Believing in the Myth of Straight Lines leaves us asking why our life isn’t that way; it leaves us unhappy and wondering what we’re doing wrong. The reality is simply LIFE IS NOT LINEAR. It rarely moves in straight lines. It leaps forward, sideways, backwards. It zigs, it zags. Sometimes it does nothing at all. Dumb luck, random events, accidents, disease, decisions that made sense at the time, poor choices, and timing conspire to ensure life is not straightedge precise.

Life is sloppymessy. Zig Ziglar once advised us to: Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and capitalize on what comes. It appears that those who play big and make a difference understand this and can work with it. They have the end destination in mind but are flexible about how to get there and even willing to accept a different destination if a better one reveals itself along the way.

Consider the possibility that when we buy into the lie of linearity and are unwilling to deviate from the straight line, we are generally unable to accept setbacks and failure as a part of the process. Unable to risk creativity or innovation or simply trying something different. Perhaps even unable to recognize how strong, how unique, and resourceful we actually are. We might miss how much we’ve actually done, the difference we’ve made, and the success we’ve had.

What thinks you?


control freakout

Times of great change (now), times of uncertainty (now), and times when yesterday’s formula for success is tomorrow’s expressway to failure (now) cause us humans to feel out of control, insecure, and stressed. It’s hard to know what to do next or move forward with certainty in a world where there aren’t templates and formulas; where you can’t get to where you want to go by just checking the boxes along the way; where the new maps haven’t been created yet.

Disruption is what is. The music, book publishing, and movie industries have changed in ways barely imaginable less than five years ago. Stable, conservative, aeon old industries with long histories are being taken to their foundations, blown up, and rebuilt in amazing ways – even if the practitioners don’t realize it yet. My humble, supersecret prediction is that the industries that have changed the least in the last 50 years will change the most in the next five. The FutureNow is here.

When your business is caught in the maelstrom of change you can choose one of three paths: 1) focus on what you can control; 2) focus on what you can influence; or 3) become the disruptor that creates the change others have to deal with.

The third path is really hard to do because there is a very, very fine line between being the company that goes against the grain and changes the industry and the company that goes against the grain and becomes irrelevant. I really want to focus on the first two choices.

In the past, industries drove change and the pace of change. Now, the ability to access and transmit information faster and faster and cheaper and cheaper means technology, customer demands, and off the radar upstarts are fueling change. There is less and less that we can actually control and more and more we can only influence. I assume it’s like sailing – we can’t control the waves or the wind, only anticipate and ride them. In fact, the more we try to control, the more out of control we get. Paradoxically, the more we go with the flow and focus on influence, the more control we actually have.

But us humans really like to feel in control. We like the feeling of security and certainty that control brings. If we can control it, we can prevent it from harming us. So, in a time of change (read as: time of FEAR) it’s tempting to concentrate on the unimportant things we can control instead of the big, important, and uncertain things we can only influence. Caught in the storm of change we seem to focus on polishing the ship’s brass and mopping the deck rather than anticipating the wind and the waves. Cleaning the ship is completely within our control and makes us feel successful right now, but the ship is adrift and about to sink. The painful paradox is that the more out of control we feel, the more we often try to control, which means we focus more and more on things that matter less and less. It’s an ugly downward spiral

Here are a  few simple questions to help determine whether your company is trying its hardest to influence a new path through the storm or headed for the rocks with the cleanest ship around:

Are you spending your time on principles and experimentation or policy and tradition?

Are you most concerned with finding ways to delight customers or ways to minimize change and disruption?

Are your most passionate and creative people at the helm, relishing the challenge or are they preparing their life rafts while you hand out mops and tins of polish?

There are no guarantees to success and every path is uncertain, but there are no awards for having the cleanest ship at the bottom of the ocean.

Your thoughts?