Do you sometimes feel like you’re living in an alternate reality?
If so, you’re not alone. Most innovators feel that way at some point.
After all, you see things that others don’t.
Question things that seem inevitable and true.
Make connections where others only see differences.
Do things that seem impossible.
It’s easy to believe that you’re the crazy one, the Mad Hatter and permanent resident of Wonderland.
But what if you’re not the crazy one?
What if you’re Alice?
And you’re stepping through the looking glass every time you go to work?
In Lewis Carroll’s book, the other side of the looking glass is a chessboard, and all its inhabitants are chess pieces that move in defined and prescribed ways, follow specific rules, and achieve defined goals. Sound familiar?
Here are a few other things that may sound familiar, too
“The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.” – The White Queen
In this scene, the White Queen offers to hire Alice as her lady’s maid and pay her “twopence a week and jam every other day.” When Alice explains that she doesn’t want the job, doesn’t like jam, and certainly doesn’t want jam today, the queen scoffs and explains the rule.
The problem, Alice points out, is that it’s always today, and that means there’s never jam.
Replace “jam” with “innovation,” and this hits a little too close to home for most innovators.
How often do you hear about the “good old days” when the company was more entrepreneurial, willing to experiment and take risks, and encouraged everyone to innovate?
How often do you hear that the company will invest in innovation, restart its radical innovation efforts, and disrupt itself as soon as the economy rebounds, business improves, and things settle down a bit? Innovation tomorrow.
But never innovation today. After all, “it’s [innovation] every other day: today isn’t any other day, you know.”
“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more, not less.” – Humpty Dumpty
In this scene, poor Alice tries to converse with Humpty Dumpty, but he keeps using the “wrong” words. Except they’re not the wrong words because they mean exactly what he chooses them to mean.
We all know what the words we use mean, but we too often think others share our definitions. We use “innovation” and “growth,” assuming people know what we mean. But they don’t. They know what the words mean to them. And that may or may not be what we mean.
When managers encourage people to share ideas, challenge the status quo, and take risks, things get even trickier. People listen, share ideas, challenge the status quo, and take risks. Then they are confused when management doesn’t acknowledge their efforts. No one realizes that those requests meant one thing to the managers who gave them and a different thing to the people who did them.
“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to go somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” – The Red Queen
In this scene, the Red Queen introduces life on the other side of the looking glass and explains Alice’s new role as a pawn. Of course, the explanation comes after a long sprint that seems to get them nowhere and only confuses Alice more.
When “tomorrow” finally comes, and it’s time for innovation, it often comes with a mandate to “act with urgency” to avoid falling behind. I’ve seen managers set goals of creating and launching a business with $250M revenue in 3 years and leadership teams scrambling to develop a portfolio of businesses that would generate $16B in 10 years.
Yes, the world is moving faster, so companies need to increase the pace at which they operate and innovate. But if you’re doing all you can, you can’t do twice as much. You need help – more people and more funding, not more meetings or oversight.
“Life, what is it but a dream?”
Managers and executives, like the kings and queens, have roles to play. They live in a defined space, an org chart rather than a chessboard, and they do their best to navigate it following rules set by tradition, culture, and HR.
But you are like Alice. You see things differently. You question what’s taken as given. And, every now and then, you probably want to shake someone until they grow “shorter – and fatter – and softer – and rounder – and…[into] a kitten, after all.”
So how do you get back to reality and bring everyone with you? You talk to people. You ask questions and listen to the answers. You seek to understand their point of view and then share yours.
Some will choose to stay where they are.
Some will choose to follow you back through the looking glass.
They will be the ones who transform a leadership problem into a leadership triumph.
But knowing and doing are two different things. When I first learned Jobs to be Done, it felt painfully obvious, exactly like the customer research I did for five years at P&G. Then I had to do it (conduct a Jobs to be Done interview), and it was difficult (ok, it was a disaster).
And teaching others to do it is a third entirely different thing. Because by the time you have the skills and expertise to teach others, you’ve forgotten what it was like to start from the beginning.
It’s easy to forget that before you can read a sentence, you must know how to read a word. Before you can read a word, you must recognize a letter.
So let’s go back to basics. Back before the methodologies. Before the frameworks. Before the theories. Let’s go back to the letters and words that are Innovation’s essence.
Let’s go back to the Innovation Alphabet.
Assumptions, every innovation has them, and every innovator tests them to reduce risk
Brainstorming, a great way to get lots of ideas and maybe even some new ones
Customers, the people we innovate for
Disruptive Innovation, cheaper, lower quality products that appeal to non-consumers
Experiments, how you test assumptions and reduce risk
Fun, what innovation should be
Hope, it springs eternal in the heart of every innovator
Ideas, where most innovations start
Jobs to be Done, the problems people have/the progress they want to make (and the hill I will die on)
Leadership, the most crucial element in innovation (and often the biggest barrier)
Mistakes, how we learn, grow, and make progress
No, the start of a conversation, not the end
Opportunities, a nice term for “problem”
Problems, where all innovations should start
Quiet, what we sometimes need to think big and create something new
Team, how innovation gets done
Uncomfortable, what innovation should make you (especially if you’re a senior executive)
whY, the one question you can never ask enough
Zzzz, what you finally get to do when you’ve changed the world
As you can see, some letters still need words. What should they be?
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)
Before setting off on a journey to strange lands, most travelers take time to learn an essential phrase or two in the native tongue. After all, the ability to say “Hello” or “Help” or “Where’s the bathroom?” in the local language can mean the difference between a trip you remember forever and one that you want to forget immediately.
The same is true for people in large companies who set off on a quest to innovate – you’re in a strange land, and having a few handy phrases at the tip of your tongue can mean the difference between success and failure.
Here are the four most important phrases you should know as a corporate innovator
What does success look like?
Ask this at the beginning of every innovation effort. If you don’t, it’s very likely that what you view as success and what decision-makers view as success will be two different things.
Staffing up a new innovation team? What does success look like?
Starting a new project? What does success look like?
Developing and testing a prototype? What does success look like?
And don’t accept a vague or even qualitative answer to the question, like “we’ll know it when we see it” or “better employee engagement.” You need to know precisely what an effort contributes to and how leaders will evaluate the effort. Otherwise, it’s easy for managers to “move the goalposts” right when you think you’re about to score.
We expect a new innovation team to hold five brainstorming sessions and test 3 new products this year
We need this project to generate $10M revenue in 3 years from today
We need to understand how consumers will use this if we don’t give them any directions
Will you help me?
This question is perhaps the most challenging but most potent phrase in the innovation-to-corporate dictionary.
By the very nature of your work – making something new that creates value – you’re doing something that doesn’t fit cleanly into the existing structure. While that can be liberating, it also means that there are few, if any, people obligated to give you advice, resources, or support. That’s where this phrase comes in.
We all love to feel important and valued, and nothing makes people feel more important or valued than being asked for help. Plus, when you ask for help, people feel like they’re contributing to what you’re doing and start to feel a bit of ownership (or at least fondness) for it. Soon, you not only have advisors, but you also have partners, advocates, and champions.
Tell me more
This phrase is the ultimate innovation jiu-jitsu phrase because it turns your opponents’ strength (of opinion) against them and gives you powerful insights.
That will never work. Intriguing, tell me more.
We tried it, and it failed; the same thing will happen this time. I didn’t know that, tell me more.
If you do that, you’ll be fired. We don’t want that, so tell me more about why that would result.
Sometimes the rationale behind powerfully delivered dogmatic statements is logical and valid. Often, it’s emotional. The person who said it would never work is afraid that, if it does, their job will be in jeopardy. The person who remembers when it was tried before still bears the scars of that attempt and wants to protect you from the same experience. The person who says you’ll be fired for doing something may think that the rules are stricter than they are, and they’re trying to help you.
This phrase helps you figure out the reason behind the statement, the Why behind the What, so you can figure out what is true versus believed and how to get to your desired outcome.
What do you need to see to say “Yes”?
This question is my personal favorite, taught to me by a good friend, career innovator, and successful entrepreneur.
It is easy to say “No” and, in fact, that is the purpose of many people in a large organization.
Legal says No to keep the company o the right side of the law and out of lawsuits.
Accounting says No to keep the company financially healthy
Your boss says no because you have more work than you can handle, and this doesn’t seem essential.
Sometimes “No” is the correct answer. But if you start there, you’ll never know if it is the right answer or just the first, easiest, or most instinctual answer.
So, once you hear “No,” engage the person you’re talking to in a quick intellectual exercise and ask what they need to see to say “Yes.” By engaging them as an expert and your thought partner, you’re lowering their defenses and bringing them into a problem-solving mindset. Plus, you’re getting valuable insight into the type of data and evidence required to make progress.
What are other phrases every innovator should know?
As anyone who has ever tried to quickly learn a language for an extended trip, you’re best served by seeking out multiple sources.
After all, if I relied solely on Rosetta Stone to learn Danish before I moved to Copenhagen, I would have arrived knowing only how to say “the girl is on top of the airplane” (phonetically, it’s “pia pa flu-va-ma-skine”) and not “Hello” or “Help” or “Where’s the bathroom?”
So what are the phrases you repeatedly use to navigate your corporate innovation journey?