Follow This 1 Simple Rule to Build a Culture and Capability of Innovation

Follow This 1 Simple Rule to Build a Culture and Capability of Innovation

I do.  We do.  You do.

My Mom taught pre-school.  It wasn’t a job; it was her calling.  Kids gravitated to her like she was the Pied Piper, and she greeted them with unequaled patience, acceptance, and love.  Years later, her students would talk about how she changed their lives when they were only four years old.  And she did it by following one simple rule.

I do.  We do.  You do.

Whatever she was teaching, whether it was sitting still at a table and eating a snack or writing the alphabet, she always did it first so the kids would know that it’s possible and not be afraid to try.

Then, they would do the activity together.  Side-by-side, they would eat a snack or draw letters, the kids occasionally glancing to the side to mimic her and my Mom gently coaching and encouraging.

Finally, she would step back, never disappearing completely, always within sight, but no longer right there.  By doing this, she created the space for them to be independent and to build confidence.

It is easy to say that she was teaching.

It is more accurate to say that she was leading.

It is precisely what executives need to do if they want to build a culture and capability of innovation within their teams and businesses.

I do.

It is not enough to encourage your team to take risks.  YOU need to take risks.  Ask a question in a meeting.  Say, “I don’t know.”  Challenge the status quo.  Be the first to do something different or uncertain, so your people know that it’s possible and aren’t afraid to try.

We do.

Don’t sit back in judgment, demanding that your teams present their work to you, and bombarding them with questions that begin with, “Did you think about…?” or demands for data that couldn’t possibly exist.

Instead, coach them and encourage them.  Sit next to them as they share the work they’ve done and ask questions to learn more.  Work with them as they think through options and examine alternatives. 

You do.

It’s tempting to want to stay in the work and continue exploring and creating, but you eventually need to step back and let the team work.  Give them the time and space to make progress without constant updates.  Give them the resources to do bigger and better things.  Give them more independence so they can build their confidence and a track record of success.

But don’t disappear.  Be close enough that when the team needs you, you’re just a shout away.  Most importantly, actively advocate for and defend the team when the cultural antibodies hell-bent on defending the status quo arrive and begin their attack.

I do We do You do is what leadership looks like.

Whether you’re learning the alphabet or innovating within a big company.

The Case for De-Humanizing Work

The Case for De-Humanizing Work

Some conversations stick with you for a long time. 

Some conversations take your breath away the moment they happen. 

A few weeks ago, I had one that did both.

“Everyone is focused on ‘humanizing’ work,” my client said.  “I wish people would de-humanize work.  I would love nothing more than to be treated like a line of code or a piece of equipment. We treat our code and equipment better than we treat our people.

When a piece of equipment doesn’t work, we send in teams of people to fix it.  We study what went wrong, we fix the error, and we take action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  We don’t expect a line of code to work in every operating system, to be able to do everything in every context.  We know that we need to adapt it for iOS or Android.”

As I picked my jaw up off the floor and put my eyes back in my skull, she continued.

“But people…when a person is struggling, we don’t send anyone to help. We don’t ask why they’re struggling or study the situation or take action so that no one else experiences the same problem.  We expect the person to either fix their own problem or to leave.

We expect everyone to be able to work in every situation and when there’s a mismatch, we expect the more junior person to ‘expand their toolkit’ and ‘learn to work with other styles’ or to leave. 

“If we treated our people the way we treat our products, our people would be so much happier, and we’d be so much more successful as a company.

Talk about a truth bomb.

And it’s not just her company.  It’s almost every company I’ve worked for or with.

Think about it.  What happens when a project is going off the rails? Or a product is malfunctioning?  Or a shipment is delayed or missed?  The team, maybe even the full company, shifts its focus to solving the problem.  People, time, money, all of it funnels to fixing the problem and getting things back on track.

But what about when a person or a team is struggling? Or about to burn out? Or devolving into dysfunction?  They become the problem and people start to back away.  They’re given self-guided training.  They’re reminded of their job responsibilities and expectations.  They’re put in a new role and made someone else’s “problem.”  They’re let go from the company.

When a product isn’t meeting expectations, we rush to help.

When a person isn’t meeting expectations, we back away.

Maybe we do need to start treating our people like our products.

Maybe de-humanizing work is the key to making it work for humans.
10 Times When Innovation is NOT The Answer

10 Times When Innovation is NOT The Answer

We all love Innovation but there are times when it isn’t the answer.  In fact, there are times when it is the absolute last thing a business should do.

Do NOT innovate if:
  1. Your current business is declining
  2. You need immediate results
  3. You want to play it safe and follow rather than lead
  4. You’re afraid of losing customers
  5. You’re afraid of falling behind the competition
  6. You’re getting pressure from shareholders
  7. You want to hang out with famous CEOs/be on TV and the cover of magazines
  8. You read an article/book/had a conversation and it doesn’t seem that hard
  9. You want to do something fun/different/exciting/noteworthy
  10. You can

Luckily, there is a corresponding list of times when Innovation is the answer.

DO innovate when:
  1. Your current business is solid
  2. You need a pipeline to deliver new revenue now AND in 3, 5, 10 years
  3. You are willing to take smart risks so you can lead instead of follow
  4. You want to better serve your customers
  5. You are confident in the business fundamentals and its future potential
  6. You believe in investing and building for the long-term
  7. You care about the long-term health of the business and your people
  8. You are committed to learning and building an organizational capability
  9. You are willing to work hard for a long time to do the impossible
  10. You will

Did you notice some themes in those two lists?

In the first list, you’re reacting.  The beliefs, biases, and prejudices of your unconscious mind are controlling and driving you.  An event occurred in your environment and now you’re afraid of losing something – great business results, competitive advantage, stakeholder support, your reputation. You’re afraid of losing something so you’re looking for something to save you and innovation is a bright shiny object that everyone loves, and no one will fault you for pursuing it.

In the second list, you’re responding.  Your conscious and unconscious minds are working together to take in information, considering the well-being of those around you, and factoring in your beliefs and values.  An event occurred in your environment that presents new information.  Instinctively you perceive it as a threat but then reframe it as an opportunity to create, change, or improve the status quo.  As a sign of your commitment and belief in the possibilities and potential, you use innovation as a tool to drive long-lasting impact.

The next time you consider starting an innovation project, hosting an innovation event, or staffing up an innovation team, pause to consider why you’re doing it.  Is the answer on the first list or the second?

After all, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
The Four Horsemen of the Innovation Apocalypse

The Four Horsemen of the Innovation Apocalypse

The Horsemen are drawing nearer

On leather steeds they ride

They’ve come to take your life

On through the dead of night

With The Four Horsemen ride

Or choose your fate and die

– “The Four Horsemen” by Metallica

No scene from The Bible’s description of the Apocalypse has captured the popular imagination as much as that of the Four Horsemen.  In Revelation 6, four beings are summoned, each riding out on a different colored horse – Conquest on a white horse, followed by War on a red horse, Famine on a black horse, and, finally, Death on a pale horse.

“The Four Horsemen” has been used as an analogy to describe everyone from Notre Dame football players to Supreme Court Justices, and referenced in books for everything from dealing with addiction to relationship counseling.

There are also Four Horsemen that foretell the end of innovation in a company

The White Horse: Short Term-ism

Like Conquest, Short Term-ism wears a crown and is hailed as a bringer of victory, prosperity, and health.  After all, the only thing better than hitting your quarterly numbers is hitting them two quarters in a row.  Then three, then four…

Short term-ism convinces you that the good times are here to stay if you just keep investing in today.  Anxious to continue reaping immediate rewards and blind to the fact that it will end someday, executives dedicate more and more financial resources to short-term initiatives, reducing and ultimately killing long term investments

The Red Horse: Size

Size matters.  Rulers fight wars to expand their empires.  Executives spend, acquire, and merge to expand theirs.

The result is that an idea, business, or investment that was attractive 5 years ago needs to be 10x the size and 100x the certainty today.  As companies get bigger the size of new products, business models, and revenue streams need to get bigger to move the needle.

I spoke to a CEO recently who lamented that he regularly shuts down ideas for new products because they’re “not big enough.”  The irony, he told me, is that the new product that’s not big enough for today’s business would have doubled the size of the business 7 years ago.

But innovation often starts small, with a single spark, and needs to be incubated and nurtured over (a reasonable amount of) time.  Companies that will only invest in big innovations that produce immediate results, don’t invest in innovation.

The Black Horse: Scarcity

When there’s not enough to go around, you have a famine.  It can be food and water, or money and time.  It can be real or perceived.  It is always deadly.

We live and work in environments of scarce resources.  Even the biggest companies don’t have infinite amounts of time, money, and people.  That means that $1 spent on innovation (something new that creates value) is $1 NOT spent on the certainty of today’s business.

Trade-offs are a part of life.  The problem is when trade-offs stop being seen as choices we make to achieve the best possible outcome, and start to become us-versus-them battles.

The result is corporate cage matches in which a small band of innovators must battle powerful business unit owners and influential functional heads for scarce resources.  Spoiler alert, innovators rarely emerge victoriously.

The Pale Horse: Fear

Corporate innovators can survive short-term-ism, size requirements, and scarcity.  They can’t survive fear.

Rarely is it their own fear – of failure, humiliation, or unemployment – that stops them.  It is the fear that senior executives have of poor results, losing customers, no bonuses, and, yes, failure, humiliation, and unemployment.

Like Revelation’s depiction of Death as empty-handed and followed by Hades, its jaws open to receive Death’s victims, Innovation’s apocalyptic Pale Horse rider neither shows nor speaks of its fear and is usually followed by HR*, its arms open to welcome innovators into new roles in the core business.

Averting the Apocalypse

Unlike the Biblical Apocalypse, the Innovation Apocalypse can be stopped and even prevented.

To prevent the Innovation Apocalypse, embody the opposite mindsets and behaviors of the Four Horseman:

  • Invest in the long-term and patiently wait for results
  • Invest in things that start small but have the potential to grow
  • Remember that growth isn’t about slicing up the same pie differently, it’s about making the entire pie bigger
  • Confront fear and minimize real risk through experiments, pilots, and other small-scale tests

Of course, all of this is easier said than done.

The reality is that the Four Horsemen are already running rampant in most organizations.  The only way to stop them from ushering in the Apocalypse is to confront them.

This takes guts.

It’s not easy or risk-free to challenge, however politely, a senior executives’ decisions that prioritize the short-term over the long-term, big business over small, preservation of resources over investment, and certainty over the unknown.

You may need to set-up a one-on-one conversation.  You may need to pull someone in as an ally or messenger.  You may need to talk to someone with the hopes that they can talk to the decision-maker.

But if you don’t speak up, the Horsemen will ride roughshod over your business and the Innovation Apocalypse will come.

* To be very clear, I am NOT equating HR to Hades.  I love HR.  They have a very important and very difficult job, and they are woefully under-appreciated.  They also have the misfortune of being the people who show up immediately after an innovation initiate gets shut down with the task of picking up, reallocating, or separating the people left behind.  Which, unfortunately, makes them a great element for this analogy.

The One Word that Transforms Your Approach to Innovation

The One Word that Transforms Your Approach to Innovation

Have you heard any of these sentences recently?

“We don’t have time”

“Our people don’t have the skills”

“We don’t have the budget”

“That’s not what we do”

I hear them all the time.  

Sometimes they’re said when a company is starting to invest in building their innovation capabilities, sometimes during one-on-one stakeholder interviews when people feel freer to share their honest opinions, and sometimes well after investments have been made.

Every single time, they are the beginning of the end for innovation.

But one word that can change that.

“We don’t have time – yet.”

“Our people don’t have the skills – yet.”

“We don’t have the budget – yet.”

“That’s not what we do – yet.”

Yet.

Yet creates space for change.  It acknowledges that you’re in the middle of a journey, not the end.  It encourages conversation.

“We don’t have time – yet.”

“OK, I know the team is busy and that what they’re working on is important.  Let’s take a look at what people are working on and see if there are things we can delay or stop to create room for this.”

“Our people don’t have the skills – yet.”

“Understand, we’re all building new muscles when it comes to innovation.  Good news, skills can be learned.  Let’s talk about what we need to teach people and the best way to do that.”

“We don’t have the budget – yet.”

“I get it.  Things are tight. We know this is a priority so let’s take a look at the budget and see if there’s a way to free up some cash.  If there’s not, then we’ll go back to leadership and ask for guidance.”

“That’s not what we do – yet.”

“I know.  Remember, we’re not doing this on a whim, we’re doing this because (fill in reason) and we have a right to do it because of (fill in past success, current strength or competitive advantage.”

You need to introduce the Yet.

It is very rare for people to add “yet” to their own statements.  But you can.

When someone utters an innovation killing statement, simply respond with “Yet.” Maybe smile mischievously and then repeat their statement with “yet” added to the end.

After all, you’re not disagreeing with them, you’re simply qualifying what they’re saying.  Their statement is true now but that doesn’t mean it will be true forever.  By restating their assertion and adding “yet,” you’re inviting them to be part of the change, to take an active role in creating the new future state.

There’s a tremendous amount of research about the massive impact of this little word.  It has helped underperforming students to overachieve and is closely associated with Dr. Carol Dweck’s research into fixed and learning mindsets.

The bottom line is that “yet” works.

Put Yet to work for you, your organization, and your efforts to innovate and grow.
Our Approach to Innovation is the Definition of Insanity, so Let’s Try Something Different

Our Approach to Innovation is the Definition of Insanity, so Let’s Try Something Different

“The definition of insanity is repeating the same actions over and over again and expected different results.”

This quote, often (wrongly) attributed to Albert Einstein, is a perfect description of what has been occurring in corporate innovation for the last 20+ years.

In 1997, The Innovator’s Dilemma, put fear in the hearts of executives and ignited interest and investment in innovation across industries, geographies, and disciplines.  Since then, millions of articles, thousands of books, and hundreds of consultants (yes, including MileZero) have sprung forth offering help to startups and Fortune 100 companies alike.

Yet the results remain the same.

After decades of incubators, accelerators, innovation teams, corporate venture capital (CVC), growth boards, hackathons, shark tanks, strategies, processes, metrics, and futurists, the success rate of corporate innovation remains stagnant.

Stop the insanity!

I have spent my career in corporate innovation, first as part of the P&G team that launched Swiffer and Swiffer WetJet, later as a Partner at the innovation firm founded by Clayton Christensen, and now as the founder of MileZero, an innovation consulting and coaching firm.

I have engaged in and perpetuated the insanity, but I’ve also noticed something – 90% of what we do in corporate innovation speaks to our logic and reason, it’s left brain focused, and 10% speaks to creativity and imagination, our right brains. BUT 0% of our work speaks to the hearts hopes, fears, beliefs, desires, and motivations of the corporate decision-makers who ultimately determine innovation’s fate. 

We spend all out time, effort, and money appealing to their brains when, in reality, the decisions are made in their hearts.

Of course, no corporate executive will ever admit to deciding with their heart, after all, good management is objective and data-based.  But corporate executives are also human, and, like other humans, they make decisions with their hearts and justify it with their heads.

Consider this very common scenario:

A CEO announces to investors and employees that “Innovation” is a corporate priority and that the company will be making a “significant” investment in it over the next 3 years.  A Chief Innovation Officer is put in place and Innovation Teams start popping up in every Business Unit (BU). 

These BU Innovation Teams are staffed with a few people and given budgets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  They are told to use Design Thinking and Lean Startup methods to create new products or services to better serve existing or new customers.

Each BU team, excited by their new mandate and autonomy, fan out to talk to customers, host brainstorming sessions, and create prototypes.  They pull together business cases showing the huge potential of the new product or service and run experiments to prove early market traction.  They meet regularly with the BU President and other key decision-makers. 

Everything is going perfectly until, about a year into the work, the company has a bad quarter, or the BU is likely to miss expectations, or an innovation experiment delivers worse than expected results. 

Suddenly, everyone is a skeptic.  Budgets get cut.  Team members are re-assigned to “help” other projects.  The team’s portfolio shrinks to a single project.  And like that – poof – the Innovation Team is gone.

As apocalyptic as that scenario may seem, the numbers back it up.  According to research by Innovation Leader, the average tenure of a Chief Innovation Officer is 4.18 years while an Innovation Manager’s tenure is 3.3 years.

What went wrong?  The company did everything by the book – they hired the right talent, established dedicated teams with dedicated budgets, talked to customers and created a portfolio of ideas, built prototypes and made small bets.

Innovation is an investment in the future so one bad quarter shouldn’t be its death knell. But it is. 

The reason is that executives know that innovation must be invested in today to produce results in the future, but they do not believe that they will be rewarded for prioritizing the future over the present. 

This belief then leads to fear about the uncertainty of future returns and the repercussions of failing to deliver the present, which then leads to fear that their career will stall or that they will lose their job, which then spirals into all sorts of other fears until, eventually, the executive feels forced into a “them or me” decision.

They decide with their heart (fear) and justify with their head (bad quarter).

The solution to this is neither simple nor quick but it is effective – we must dedicate as much time and effort to recognizing and addressing the thoughts, feelings, and mindsets (heart) that executives and key decision-makers face in the pursuit of corporate innovation as we spend on the structures, processes, and activities (head) of corporate innovation.

If this sounds like coaching, you’re right.  It is.  Just as executives benefit from coaching as they take on new and greater responsibility, they also benefit, in the form of increased confidence and better results, when they have coaches guide them through innovation.  This is because innovation often requires executives to do the opposite of what they instinctively do when managing the core business.

Innovation is a head AND a heart endeavor, and we need to start approaching it as such. 

To do anything less is the definition of insanity.

*** Originally published on on Forbes.com ***