In the Before Times, we attended conferences to learn, make connections, and promote ourselves and our businesses. Then COVID hit, and conferences became virtual. Although that made them easier to attend, it also made them easier to skip. Because, if we’re honest, most conferences were more about connecting and promoting than learning.
Last week, I went to one of those rare, almost mythical, conferences more focused on learning and connecting than promoting. It was fantastic! It was also in Nebraska (which is a pretty interesting place, btw).
It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but if you asked me to define “Strategy,” I’d respond with a long and rambling answer. Which means I can’t define “strategy.” This admission is especially embarrassing because I have a resume littered with places where I developed, drafted, and implemented strategies, so I should have learned what the word means. But nope, I didn’t.
I suspect I’m not alone.
Asking for the definition of strategy is like asking if you must wear clothes to the office. You should know the answer. But unlike whether or not clothing is mandatory, most of us don’t know the answer, AND it’s easy to get away with never knowing the answer.
The elegant simplicity of Kareen’s definition of strategy blew my mind. It’s short, memorable, and something that most people can understand. Maybe I should share the definition with my alma maters and past employers.
“When we feel threatened, our IQ drops 50 to 70 points”
When I first heard talk about Psychological Safety and Safe Spaces in today’s business world, I rolled my eyes. Hard. As a Gen X-er, I grumbled about how we didn’t need “safe spaces” when I grew up because we were tough and self-reliant, and I lamented the inevitable downfall of society caused by weak and coddled Millennials.
I was wrong.
Psychological Safety is absolutely and unquestionably essential for individuals to grow, teams to work, companies to operate and innovate, and societies to function and evolve. I’ve seen teams and businesses transform and achieve unbelievable success by discussing and living the elements they require for Psychological Safety. I’ve also seen teams and businesses fail in its absence.
These results aren’t surprising when you realize that you feel threatened when you are in a complex situation in which you cannot accurately predict the outcomes. And when you feel threatened, you are half as intelligent, effective, and creative as you are when you’re calm.
So, if you’re a manager and you’re upset that your people aren’t as intelligent, effective, or creative as they should be, it may not be their fault. It may be yours.
“Stage expertise, not industry expertise, is key to innovation success“
There is deep comfort in the known. It’s why we gravitate to people like us. It’s also why companies ask job candidates and consultants about their experience in the industry and choose those with deep experience and impressive expertise. Often, there’s nothing with this question or the resulting decision.
Sometimes, it’s precisely the wrong question.
Sometimes, functional expertise is significantly more important than industry experience. After all, if you’re the hiring manager at a healthcare company looking for a Director of Finance, who would you hire – a Marketing Director from a competitor or a Finance Director from a CPG company?
That’s the case with innovation.
Decades of real-world experience (not to mention the successful launch of 100+ startups) show that successful corporate startup teams had expertise (mindsets, skillsets, executional drive) in the startup’s phase and a working knowledge of the industry rather extensive industry expertise and little to no innovation experience.
Questions are good. The right questions are better. So, the next time you’re staffing up an innovation team (or hiring a consultant), choose based on their innovation experience and willingness to learn about your industry.
Innovation happens everywhere
That’s why people from San Francisco, Austin, Washington DC, NYC, Toronto, Boston, and dozens of other places converged on Lincoln, Nebraska.
We went to see innovation in action and learn about the thriving startup community in the middle of the country. We also went to learn and connect with others committed to creating new things that create value.
Several months ago, a colleague sent me a link to Roger Martin’s latest article, “The Presumption of Guilt: The Hidden Logical Barrier to Innovation.” Even though the article was authored by one of the preeminent thinkers in the field of innovation and strategy (in 2017, Thinkers50 voted him the #1 most influential management thinker in the world), I didn’t have too much hope that I would read something new or interesting. After all, I read A LOT of articles, and 99 times out of 100, I’m disappointed (80 times out of 100, I roll my eyes so hard I give myself a headache).
This one blew my mind.
With just a few sentences and applying a well-known analogy, Martin explained a phenomenon that plagues every organization and kills most innovation.
Presumed Innocence is a fundamental human right
Martin begins by pointing out that in the legal systems of modern democracies, all citizens are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In 1948, the United Nations extended this concept to all nations (not just democracies) in Article 11.1 of their Declaration of Human Rights.
The presumption of innocence is so important because “the presumption of guilt (or even neutrality) puts an almost impossible burden on the defendant. The State is strong and has resources far beyond that of the individual.”
Presumed Innocence is not a fundamental innovation right
Now let’s apply this analogy and the lens of presumption of innocence or guilt to business, arguably a field where we spend much more time and make far more judgments.
You, and your fellow decision-makers, are judges and jury.
It is up to you to determine whether the projects in front of you are innocent (worthy of additional investment) or guilty (not worthy).
If you presume all defendants are guilty, you place the burden of proof on them. They must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they will succeed and are, therefore, worthy of investment.
If you presume all defendants are innocent, you place the burden of proof on yourself (or the business as a whole). You must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they will fail.
What type of judge are you? What kind of decision-making system do you preside over? Do you presume guilt or innocence?
In most boardrooms, projects are presumed guilty.
Presumptions in practice
Let’s consider the two “defendants” (types of projects) that appear before you – core business projects and innovation projects.
Each defendant has a team of advocates. The core business typically has a large team with ample resources and a history of success. Innovation has a much smaller team with far fewer resources and few, if any, “in-market” successes.
To be fair, you ask the same questions of both defendants – questions about market growth, performance versus competitors, and what the P&L looks like.
The team advocating for the core business produces data-filled slides, reports from reputable third parties, and financials blessed by Finance. In the deluge of facts, you forget that all the data is about the past, and you’re making decisions about the future. You find the evidence compelling (or at least reassuring), determine that the team met their burden of proof, declare the Core Business innocent, and allocate additional funds and people.
Innovation’s team also comes with slides, reports, and financials, but it’s not nearly as compelling as what you just saw from the current business team. But you are a fair judge, so you ask most questions like
We believe we can get X% of a Total Addressable Market estimated to be Y
There are no direct competitors, but consumers rated this better than current solutions
We don’t have a 5-year NPV or P&L for this business at scale because we’re not asking for permission to launch. We’re asking for $100,000 to continue testing.
Believe? We need to know!
No direct competitors? Perhaps there’s a reason for that!
No P&L? I’m not going to throw scarce money away!
“Guilty!” you declare, “no more resources for you! Try again!”
This example illustrates what Roger Martin considers corporate innovation’s fatal flaw. In his article, he argues,
“the status quo must play the role of the prosecutor and prove that the innovation is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The innovation asserts its case, laying out the future that it imagines is plausible and explains the logic that buttresses the plausibility. The onus is on the status quo to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the innovation’s logic is flawed — e.g., the proposed economics are unrealistic, customers haven’t shown a hint of caring about the unique selling features of the innovation, competitors already have a lead on us in the proposed area, etc.
If the status quo can do so, then the innovation is guilty. If it can’t, then the innovation is not guilty, and the organization should invest.”
As much as I love the idea of requiring the status quo (managers? Executives? Stockholders?) to prove that investments should not be made (i.e., the default answer is “Yes” to all requests), it’s just not a practical solution.
Burden of proof as barrier
There’s another fundamental principle in our legal system that Martin doesn’t touch on: the burden of proof shifts as the stakes increase.
Specifically, the State’s burden of proof increases from warrant to arraignment to grand jury to trial. For example, the State must provide probable cause based on direct or other reliable information to get a warrant. But the State must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt when the defendant goes to trial and risks losing their freedom or even their life.
But in the example above, the questions (proof required) remained the same.
The questions were appropriate for the Current Business because it’s already in the market, consuming massive resources, and its failure would have a catastrophic impact on the company.
But the questions aren’t appropriate for innovation in its early days. In fact, they were the business equivalent of demanding proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to get a search warrant. Instead, a judge evaluating a project in the early Design phase should ask for probable cause based on direct or other reliable information – observed consumer behavior, small-scale research findings, or simple prototypes.
The Verdict is In
I love the concept of Presumed Guilty vs. Presumed Innocent. I see it all the time in my work, and it is painfully prevalent in Innovation Council meetings and other boardrooms where managers sit as judge and jury over a project’s (ad a team’s) fate.
I want to flip the paradigm – To make “yes” the default instead of “No” and to require managers, the keepers of the status quo, to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a project will fail.
But I don’t think it’s possible (if I’m wrong, PLEASE tell me!).
Instead, our best bet for true innovation justice is not to shift who bears the burden of proof but rather how heavy that burden is at various points. From probable cause when the stakes are low to beyond a reasonable doubt when they’re high. And certainly more than a ham sandwich at any point
Giant corporations need big innovations to move the needle
Entrepreneurs need big ideas to get attention
Investors need big returns to take risks
But innovation thrives in constraints.
And “Go Small” may be the biggest constraint out there.
Here are three stories about small innovations that created big value
Lollipops Reduce Violence
Closing time at the bars is never pretty. It can be downright dangerous. What starts as a few insults shouted back and forth between individuals or groups of friends can quickly devolve into brawls, assaults, and even murder.
Every year, dozens of cities and towns run experiments to find ways to decrease incidences of violence around bars and clubs:
Closing bars earlier
Keeping bars open 24/7
Training bouncers in crowd control tactics
In 2001, various cities and towns in the UK began giving lollipops to people as they streamed out of pubs and clubs. The rationale varied:
“It’s hard to suck and fight at the same time.” – Leicester, 2001
“Research shows the sugar content helps to stabilise the behaviour of those who have consumed alcohol.” – West Oxfordshire, 2006
“[Offering food] can stop people shouting, make them less aggressive and prevent post-alcohol hunger” – Camden Town, 2010
It’s estimated that these efforts, which eventually expanded to include flip flops and cookies, cost “tens of thousands of pounds,” a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of pounds spent each year on police and medical resources to deal with the drunken behavior.
Waffle Maker Saves the Planet
Imagine throwing away 20 BILLION wax-coated bowls and plastic spoons every year.
Imagine that you could keep 12 BILLION of those out of the waste system by doing just one thing.
Giving up ice cream.
Would you do it?
Yeah, me neither.
This is why we should be very thankful to a Syrian waffle vendor at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
Even though ice cream cones were in use as early as the 19th century, it wasn’t until a chance encounter at the World’s Fair that they went mainstream. In the sweltering summer heat, ice cream was a popular treat for the 20 million people visiting the fair. So, it’s not surprising that vendors eventually ran out of serving bowls.
Luckily for us and the planet, one of those popular ice cream vendors was next to Ernest A. Hamwi and his very unpopular warm waffle stand. Seeing his fellow vendor’s plight, Ernest took one of his waffles, rolled it into a cone, and a tasty partnership was born.
Town Crier Out Shares Facebook
On Thursday, August 11, as thousands of tourists arrived in Provincetown eager to begin celebrating the Cape Cod town’s largest summer festival, the sewer system failed. Although only 356 of the town’s 1500 properties were affected, most of those affected were the restaurants, hotels, and businesses at the heart of the town’s tourist industry.
Naturally, officials took to social media to alert businesses and residents of the impact. In a Facebook post, restaurants were told to close, and residents were told they “must reduce water use, including dishwashing, laundry, showering, and only flush when absolutely necessary,”
Naturally, such restrictions created problems for businesses and residents alike. But what about the thousands of tourists just arriving who were not subscribers to Provincetown’s Facebook account?
The Town Crier
In 1864, Provincetown created the position of Town Crier as a way to spread news throughout the community quickly. Over time, as technology made spreading information easier and faster, the Town Crier became more of a tourist attraction, responsible for greeting visitors and promoting members of the Chamber of Commerce.
Until August 11, when the 22nd Town Crier was called back to duty.
“All is not well in Provincetown,” the Town Crier proclaimed as he stood in front of Town Hall dressed, as usual, in historical garb and swinging his heavy bell. As Thursday turned into Friday, the Town Crier issued updates, listing the re-opened restaurants and the areas where toilet flushing and showers were now allowed.
“Let us pray to the supreme architect of the universe that the system will have been rectified,” he pleaded. I’m sure town officials gave thanks to the supreme architect of the universe that their small investment in maintaining an old solution was, again, creating quite a lot of value for the town.
Size doesn’t matter
Innovation is something new that creates value, and, as innovators, we naturally want to create BIG value. Heck, we want to change the world!
It’s easy to forget that Small can have a big impact, whether physically small like lollipops, a small distance away like waffle and ice cream vendors, or only able to reach a small audience like the Town Crier.
So when you find yourself obsessing about size, just paraphrase Dr. Seuss, “An innovation’s an innovation, no matter how small!”
You have, no doubt, seen the design squiggle. The ubiquitous scribble is all loopy and knotty in the beginning until it finally sorts itself into a straight line by the end.
It illustrates the design process – “the journey of researching, uncovering insights, generating creative concepts, iteration of prototypes and eventually concluding in one single designed solution” – and its elegant simplicity has led it to be adopted by all sorts of other disciplines, including innovation.
But when I showed it to a client, her immediate response was, “It’s Jeremy Bearimy!”*
And that is how I discovered The Good Place, a sitcom about four humans who die, go to The Good Place, and struggle to learn what it means to be good.
The show, created by Michael Schur of The Office and Parks and Recreation fame, is a brilliant treatise on ethics and moral philosophy. It also contains valuable wisdom about what innovators need to succeed.
With all due respect, “It’s the way it’s always been done” is an excuse that’s been used for hundreds of years to justify racism, misogyny…
This quote was a gut punch from the show’s fourth and final season. As innovators, we often hear people ask why change is needed. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” they proclaim.
But sometimes it is broke, and we don’t know it. At the very least, it can always be better.
So, while “it’s the way it’s always been done” at your company probably (hopefully) doesn’t include racism, misogyny, sexism, and other genuinely horrible things, framing the status quo as an enabler of those horrors is a harsh wake-up call to the dangers of an unquestioning commitment to continuing to do things the way they’ve always been done.
Decisions (not just Ideas)
If you’re always frozen in fear and taking too long to figure out what to do, you’ll miss your opportunity, and maybe get sucked into the propeller of a swamp boat.
Even though Jason Mendoza is the resident idiot of The Good Place, he occasionally (and very accidentally) has moments of profound insight. This one to a situation that innovators are all too familiar with – analysis paralysis.
How often do requests for more data, more (or more relevant) benchmarks, or input from more people slow down decisions and progress? These requests are rarely rooted in doubt about the data, benchmarks, or information you presented. They are rooted in fear – the fear of making the wrong decision, being blamed or shamed, and losing a reputation or even a job.
But worse than being wrong, blamed, shamed, or unemployed is missing an opportunity to radically improve your business, team, or even the world. It’s the business equivalent of getting sucked into the propeller of a swamp boat.
Actions (not just decisions)
In football, trying to run out the clock and hoping for the best never works. It’s called “prevent defense.” You don’t take any chances and just try and hold on to your lead. But prevent defense just PREVENTS you from winning! It’s always better to try something.
Jason does it again, this time invoking a lesson learned from his beloved Jacksonville Jaguars.
Few companies publicly admit to adopting a prevent defense, even though most companies engage in it. They play prevent defense when they don’t invest in innovation, focus exclusively on maintaining or incrementally improving what they currently do, or confine their innovation efforts to events like hackathons and shark tanks.
Incremental improvements and innovation theater keep you competitive. But they won’t get you ahead of the competition or make you a leader in your industry. In fact, they prevent it by making you feel good and safe when you’re really just running out the clock.
Come on, you know how this works. You fail and then you try something else. And you fail again and again, and you fail a thousand times, and you keep trying because maybe the 1,001st idea might work. Now, I’m gonna and try to find our 1,001st idea.
It’s hard to explain this quote without sharing massive spoilers, so let’s just say that The Good Place is an experiment that fails. A lot.
But it’s also an experiment that generates profound learning and universe-altering changes, things that would not have been possible without the failures.
Yes, smart innovators know when to kill a project. They also know when to try one more time. Wise innovators know the difference.
One final bit of wisdom
Innovation is hard. You will run into more resistance than expected, and things will rarely work out as planned. As long as you keep trying and learning, you won’t fail.
To paraphrase Jason Mendoza (again), you’re not a failed innovator, you’re pre-successful.
*For those of you who are, like I was, unfamiliar with Jeremy Bearimy, here’s a clip explaining it (WARNING: SPOILERS)
It just landed on your desk. Or maybe you campaigned to get it. Or perhaps you just started doing it. How the title of “Innovation Leader” got to your desk doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that it’s there, along with a budget and loads of expectations.
Of course, now that you have the title and the budget, you need a team to do the work and deliver the results.
Who should you look for? The people that perform well in the current business, with its processes, structures, and (relative) predictability, often struggle to navigate the constant uncertainty and change of innovation. But just because someone struggles in the process and structure of the core business doesn’t mean they’ll thrive creating something new.
What are the qualities that make someone a successful innovator?
A lot of people have a lot to say about the qualities and characteristics that make someone an innovator. When you combine the first four Google search results for “characteristics of an innovator” with the five most common innovation talent assessments, you end up with a list of 70 different (and sometimes conflicting) traits.
The complete list is at the end of this article, but here are the characteristics that appeared more than once:
It’s a good list, but remember, there are 62 other characteristics to consider. And that assumes that the list is exhaustive.
It’s not. Something is missing.
There is one characteristic shared by every successful innovator I’ve worked with and every successful leader of innovation. It’s rarely the first (or second or third) word used to describe them, but eventually, it emerges, always said quietly, after great reflection and with dawning realization.
Whether you rolled your eyes or pumped your fist at the word made famous by Brene Brown, you’ve no doubt heard it and formed an opinion about it.
Vulnerability is the “quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.” Without it, innovation is impossible.
Innovation requires the creation of something new that creates value. If something is new, some or all of it is unknown. If there are unknowns, there are risks. Where there are risks, there is the possibility of being wrong, which opens you up to attack or harm.
When you talk to people to understand their needs, vulnerability allows you to hear what they say (versus what you want them to say).
In brainstorming sessions, vulnerability enables you to speak up and suggest an idea for people to respond to, build on, or discard.
When you run experiments, vulnerability ensures that you accurately record and report the data, even if the results aren’t what you hoped.
Most importantly, as a leader, vulnerability inspires trust, motivates your team, engages your stakeholders, and creates the environment and culture required to explore, learn, and innovate continuously.
n + 1 is the answer
Just as you do for every job in your company, recruit the people with the skills required to do the work and the mindset and personality to succeed in your business’ context and culture.
Once you find them, make sure they’re willing to be vulnerable and support and celebrate others’ vulnerability. Then, and only then, will you be the innovators your company needs.
Here’s the full list of characteristics:
Action-oriented, gets the job done
Analytical, high information capacity, digs through facts
Most of my advice to leaders who want to use innovation to grow their businesses boils down to two things*:
Talk (and listen) to customers
But what if you don’t want to talk to customers?
After all, talking to customers can be scary because you don’t know what they’ll say. It can be triggering if they say something mean about your product, your business, or even you as a person. It can be draining, especially if you’re an introvert.
Plus, there are so many ways to avoid talking to customers – Send a survey, hire a research firm to write a report, invoke the famous Steve Jobs quote about never doing customer research.
Isn’t it just better to stay tucked away in the office, read reports, state opinions as if they are facts (those opinions are based on experience, after all), and make decisions?
It is not better. It is also not safer, easier, or more efficient.
To make the best decisions, you need the best data, which comes from your customers.
But that doesn’t mean you need to talk to them to get it.
The best data
The best data helps you understand why your customers do what they do. This is why Jobs to be Done is such a powerful tool – it uncovers the emotional and social Jobs to be Done that drive our behavior and choices (functional Jobs to be Done are usually used to justify our choices).
But discovering Jobs to be Done typically requires you to talk to people, build rapport and trust in a one-on-one conversation, and ask Why? dozens of times so surface emotional and social JTBD.
Luckily, there are other ways to find Jobs to be Done that don’t require you to become an unlicensed therapist.
Observe your customers
Go where your customers are (or could be) experiencing the problem you hope to solve and try to blend in. Watch what people are doing and what they’re not doing. Notice whether people are alone or with others (and who those others are – kids, partners, colleagues, etc.). Listen to the environment (is it loud or quiet? If there’s noise, what kind of noise?) and to what people are saying to each other.
Be curious. Write down everything you’re observing. Wonder why and write down your hypotheses. Share your observations with your colleagues. Ask them to go out, observe, wonder, and share. Together you may discover answers or work up the courage to have a conversation.
Quick note – Don’t be creepy about this. Don’t lurk behind clothing racks, follow people through stores, peep through windows, linger too long, or wear sunglasses, a trench coat, and a fedora on a 90-degree day, so you look inconspicuous. If people start giving you weird looks, find a new place to people-watch.
Humans are fascinating, and because you are a human, you are fascinating. So, observe yourself when you’re experiencing the problem you’re hoping to solve. Notice where you are, who is with you, the environment, and how you feel. Watch what you do and don’t do. Wonder why you chose one solution over another (or none).
Be curious. Write down everything you did, saw, and felt and why. Ask your colleagues to do the same. Share your observations with your colleagues and find points of commonality and divergence, then get curious all over again.
Quick note – This only works if you have approximately the same demographic and psychographic profiles and important and unsatisfied Jobs to be Done of your target customers.
Be your customer
What if your business solves a problem that can’t be easily observed? What if you don’t have the problem that your business is trying to solve?
Become your customer (and observe yourself).
Several years ago, I worked with a client that made adult incontinence products. I couldn’t observe people using their products, and I do not have important (or unsatisfied) Jobs to be Done that the products can solve.
So, for one day, I became a customer. I went to Target and purchased their product. I went home, wore, and used the product. I developed a deep empathy for the customer and wrote down roughly 1 million ways to innovate the product and experience.
Quick note – Depending on what’s required to “be your customer,” you may need to give people a heads up. My husband was incredibly patient and understanding but also a little concerned on the day of the experiment.
It’s about what you learn, not how you learn it
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking there is one best way to get insights. I’m 100% guilty (one-on-one conversations are a hill I have died on multiple times).
Ultimately, when it comes to innovation and decision-making, the more important thing is having, believing, and using insights into why customers do what they do and want what they want. How you get those insights is an important but secondary consideration.
* Each of those two things contains A TON of essential stuff that must be done the right way at the right time otherwise, they won’t work, but we’ll get into those things in another article