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.

Friday thoughts on innovation

Let’s dispel a myth right here and now: innovation is not a product of big budgets and information age technology.

In my experience, innovation comes from only one thing: Asking different questions to find different solutions.

And, innovation is almost always driven by scarcity. Some say, Necessity is the mother of invention. Others shorten that to Necessity is a mother. We get creative – we have to innovate – when solving problems using severely limited resources (time, money, manpower) or against constraints (rules, regulations, laws). These limitations force us to ask different questions. Questions such as: How can we get the result we need using our very limited budget? Rather then purchasing new software, how can we get better use out of what we have? How can we build social media presence without increasing the marketing budget? How can we get a good intern two weeks before the semester ends? 

But, asking different questions, challenging the way we always do it, seeking solutions that our outside of the proven/accepted/traditional/approved routes is not the path to popularity. Different questions create solutions which create different results. The challenge is, us humans usually want the different (better) results using the same questions and same solutions. So we try to “innovate” by doing more of the same things and just throwing more resources at it.

That’s a major reason why small startups tend to be more innovative than large and established companies. They have to solve problems differently. They have no choice. And they aren’t locked into legacy. They are ok with different.

Again: innovation comes from asking different questions to find different solutions.


*     *     *     *     *

You can stop reading right there. But I love music and it’s Friday and I wanted to share a quick music video highlighting of innovation driven be a lack of resources.

The first is from Van Canto, the world’s first (only?) a capella metal band. They do use a drummer but create all guitar and bass sounds solely with voice – very creative, innovative, and unique. (Clearly they were asking very different questions about what would make a great metal band.)

To make the video for the song Rebellion, the band posted a short clip on YouTube and asked their fans to: Listen to Rebellion loud, dress as Scottish People and film yourself headbanging and freaking around. You don’t have to sing, just have fun. If you can recruit some friends joining you – Great! The more, the better. 

No budget, no problem. They did far better without. The result is fun, creative, built relationships with the fans, and cost almost nothing to make. Much different than all the big budget videos that ask the same questions and get the same answers as every other big budget video (yawn!). [Bonus HR question: how could you create an onboarding video just as cool, fun, and inexpensive?]

Happy Friday!

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?


the fast and furious way to organizational shrapnel

Kris Dunn over at HR Capitali$t (you should be reading his posts daily) recently posted Is Giving Employees a Yes/No Vote in Firings a Better Way to Go? It’s an interesting piece about software company Valve’s unusual practice of terminating through employee vote.

It got me thinking about the danger of copying innovative pieces from other companies without also using all their supporting systems. Removing the key leadership responsibility of performance management from leaders and putting it into the hands of peers is a very good plan for disaster. It’s not too hard to imagine the workplace devolving into the Lord of the Flies anarchy of a 6th grade popularity contest.

It’s also pretty easy to make the mistake of off handedly dismissing it as “it’ll never work”. Remember Puttnam’s Law: It is more acceptable to fail in conventional ways than in unconventional ways. The reward for succeeding in unconventional ways is less than the risk of failing in unconventional ways. Us humans like to downplay and ignore innovative success despite evidence that it seems to be working.


My only knowledge of Valve is from reading their Employee Handbook and their organization is completely unlike  99.99% of the companies out there. It is as flat of organization as you will find so the management structure as most of us know it simply doesn’t exist. In their structure, the employee vote doesn’t undermine performance management, it supports it. And it works because all the supporting systems work together. Analyzing or adopting this one component in isolation of the rest of the system is futile.

Consider it this way. Highly modified cars often have giant turbochargers, use nitrous oxide, run on exotic fuels (not available at your corner mini-mart) and can put out 4,5, or even 10 times the original power. But, installing a huge turbo or filling the trunk with nitrous bottles in your economy car after a marathon weekend of The Fast and the Furious is a quick shortcut to turning your engine into very expensive shrapnel. Yes, turbos, etc. can provide big-time power, but all the supporting systems (engine block and internals, transmission, differential, axles, etc.) must also but upgraded. Radically changing one component of interrelated systems rarely works.

What thinks you?


Conformity Now!

The other day I wrote conforming our way to greatness? about how it is impossible to stand out while blending in. You don’t need to go read the whole post (though I’d be happy if you did), but the conclusion was:

There is a choice to be made every with every decision and every action. Do you choose greatness or do you choose mediocrity? It sounds like an easy choice, but it really isn’t. Mediocrity comes with a map and endorsements and approval. Greatness comes with the big risks of never having a map, of letting go of the known, and with disapproval and criticism. If it works you’ll be attacked and if it doesn’t you’ll be ridiculed for trying. Yet…

If you’re doing the same thing as everyone else, you will never get better results than everyone else.

This fear us humans have is a noose on innovation and progress. It is barely discussed, yet I believe it’s one of the single biggest constraints facing business today. There is such tremendous pressure to not stand out, to not do different, to reinforce the norm as Right that this is an extraordinarily difficult choice to make and stick with. We use terms like “best practices” and “state of the art” to make it sound like we are blazing trails through the wilderness. (And if we really want to feel all George Jetson futuristic we’ll create “state of the art best practices”.)

Don’t believe the hype. “Best practices” and “state of the art” are synonymous with the “status quo,” “the norm,” and “the way we all do it.” Innovation, diversity of thought, and progress can’t happen when we stick to the “industry standard.” We simultaneously choke, bind, and hobble our individual, group, and organization’s potential while convincing ourselves how progressive we’re being.

Puttnam’s Law sums it up best: It is more acceptable to fail in conventional ways than in unconventional ways. The reward for succeeding in unconventional ways is less than the risk of failing in unconventional ways. In short, you can screw up with impunity so long as you screw up like everybody else.

Study, think about, maybe even memorize that. Puttnam’s Law is in effect any time two or more people get together. It’s in every team, organization, society, and country; every activity, sport, profession, and trade. And it’s holding us back.

Why do we conform? Simple. Reread the second sentence of Puttnam’s Law: “The reward for succeeding in unconventional ways is less than the risk of failing in unconventional ways.” Failing (or just being mediocre) like everyone else carries much less social risk than failing OR succeeding on your own path.

Failing together the way we’ve always done it is somehow safer and more comforting that succeeding in new ways. Yet, despite the reassuring solidarity, we’ve still failed.

What thinks you?

knew ideas

Steve Boese recently ran a post called Lessons of an Man #1. In it he summarized a key lesson gleaned from David Ogilvy’s book Confessions of an Advertising Man, which was published in 1963. You might ask: What on earth is relevant from a book published back in the “olden days” (as my daughter calls anything before about 1990)?

I won’t spoil the surprise – go read Steve’s post for the full story – but the biggest insight is that it’s a lesson leadership experts are preaching today. Steve concludes his post by saying: Ogilvy had it figured out in 1960. How long do you think it will take the rest of us to catch on?

How long indeed?

Neil Usher coined the concept “Knew Ideas” (he’s the first I heard use the phrase, so I’m giving him credit). Knew Ideas are simply ideas we already know, repackaged as new. Us humans so desperately want the latest and greatest, the new and different, the simple and easy, that we ignore what we know works and leap from Shiny to Shiny.

The weight loss industry is a great example of Knew Ideas. How many more ways can we repackage the simple concept: eat less, exercise more? They are an easy target, but the personal and leadership development industries don’t lag far behind.

Interestingly, because there isn’t much new when it comes to leading and dealing with other humans, we eventually loop back around to where we started.

Today’s “innovations” in leadership and interpersonal skills have been around for years, only recently re-discovered, re-packaged, and soon to be re-discarded.

Your thoughts?


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?


3 favorite short videos: truth, innovation, 21st Century worklives

Thought I’d do something quick and fun on a Saturday morning. Being able to communicate big thoughts in a short time is very difficult to do, but powerful. Below are three of my favorite short videos that quickly serve up big ideas. Enjoy.

The first is from Joe Gerstandt (@joegerstandt) on Why Profanity Kicks @ss. It’s not really about using swearing words, more about bringing truth, passion, and authenticity into our jobs and lives (but, yeah, there’s some swearing words in it). Time to BBQ those sacred cows in the company.

Next is Max McKeown (@maxmckeown) and his brilliantly short Why Does Innovation Stop?

Wrapping it up is a song about modern worklife from Doug Shaw (@dougshaw1) called Livable Lives.

Thanks for the inspiration!

punk rock HR worksluts

I’ve got punk rock and HR on the brain this week, so let’s build on it. A little while back, Laurie Ruettimann over at The Cynical Girl ran a great post on 5 Lessons from Henry Rollins. Tons of great stuff in there (go read it!), but the lesson that really stuck with me was “Don’t be a workaholic, be a workslut.”

As Laurie says:

Henry Rollins works hard, but he doesn’t have one job that defines him. He speaks, he writes and he plays music. He works in media, he travels and he volunteers. He doesn’t say no to opportunities that can lead to more opportunities. What’s the alternative? Sit at home and let your muscles (and your brain) atrophy?

I love this. As a jack of all trades with too many interests and too short of attention span, I’ve struggled with being defined by one job, one category, one field. How freeing to open things up and embrace it all!

We tend to over-define ourselves through our jobs and under-define ourselves through our interests and passions. Remember, there is no such thing as work/life balance. There is only Life and work is but one (significant) component of it. Every aspect of our life is a potential outlet for our passions and interests.

Some (including me) will point out there are opportunity costs to everything you say “yes” to so you need to be selective. Absolutely. But how much fun is it to be engaged it things that really jazz you. Being too focused on any one thing creates burnout – you tire of it. Slipping back and forth between interests builds stimulation and ideas and recharges. Exercise provides a great example: if you only do one exercise you set yourself up for injury, boredom, lack of interest, and diminishing returns. But if you keep changing it up, the routine stays fresh, challenging, invigorating, and your results don’t plateau.

My 11 year old daughter recently demonstrated all this beautifully (and made me feel like a no talent slacker). The world will need to step it up in a big way if we’re going to keep up with her. I recently mentioned that she wrote a short book for National Novel Writing Month last year and she’s back at it for this year. Saturday morning, I got up at 6:30 and she was already typing away before she had to get ready to compete in a horse show where she won High Point for the day and the season before leaving to go do a final evening performance in a school play (where she also sold several copies of her book to other kids) before coming home and getting in trouble for staying up too late working on the new book. Start to finish, it was a 16+ hour day of focused effort. An unusually long day for her, but a great demonstration of how to be successful in several arenas without becoming overly defined by any one.

What do I take from my daughter, Henry Rollins, and Laurie’s insights?

1. Passion is the heart to motivation. I could never-in-a-million-years get anyone to put forth the effort my daughter does willingly and without a paycheck.

2. Having several interests is good. Over-commitment is a real risk, but mixing it up keeps the spark alive. When we’re tiring of one thing we can fluidly shift to another. Also, creativity, innovation, and inspiration are ignited when we pull disparate concepts together (some refer to this as being at the intersections of ideas). From my experience, the most innovative people have wide ranging interests and experiences to pull from.

3. There is a huge difference between saying yes to all things asked of you and saying yes to the things that excite you. The first prevents you from doing the things you’re passionate about; the second keeps you focused on them.

4. You never know where the opportunity is going to come from. Pour enough passionate effort into the world and it will come back – even if it’s not from where you expect it. Name one other punk with Henry Rollins’ longevity, credibility, and vibrancy.

5. Define yourself before the world does it for you. Authenticity is a doubled edged sword, but a key advantage when used well. When we allow others to define us by their narrow perspective of who they think we are, we get typecast and stuck. Look at all the musicians, writers, and actors unable to move beyond their past success. They are damned to recreate the past over and over and over.

6. All work and no play is no good at all. But when we can hit the sweet spot of working really stinkin’ hard on “play” – our areas of passion – really amazing things can happen. I use the phrase “play bigger” to describe this. Changing the world, denting the universe, being the difference we want to see in the world is hard work and big fun.

The title of this post is Punk Rock HR Worksluts, so how can we apply these lessons to HR?

1. How broadly have you let HR in your company be defined? Are you the “payroll people” or the “policy police” or are you the place employees and leaders go to make better decisions about careers and leadership? Do people only see you when they have been called to HR (ugh!) or is HR a strong and continual presence throughout the company? Is HR involved in non-HR committees and task forces (you know, beyond the Christmas party) or is HR isolated, barricaded, siloed, and remote?

2. Do you like HR; are you passionate about it? Were you drawn to it or did you just sort of end up here? Are you passionate about people and business or did you just need a job and HR seemed as good as any?

3. Can you understand and talk all aspects of the business? You don’t need to be a CFO, but can you understand the income statement? Does the marketing strategy make sense? Can you explain your company’s core business and competitive advantage? Do you know the most important company goals for next year (and how your job supports them)?

4. What projects are coming up that you are really excited about? What new skills are you fired up about learning? What are you actively doing to make next year 2X better than this one?

5. Who shows up at work – you or the plastic worker drone persona so many of us have perfected? Are you playing safe or playing to win?

6. As an HR professional, do you like you? Are you proud of who you are, what you do, and how you do it?

Your thoughts?