After months of tests, quizzes, career counseling sessions, and peer support groups, I was sitting in the expansive wood-paneled office of Harvard Business School’s Head of Career Services, eagerly anticipating learning what my ideal career would be. I did not expect to be told that I was a fish.
“You are only happy when you are rebelling against something. You are a salmon. Whatever you choose to do, you must swim upstream.”
This did not sound like a recipe for the peaceful, easy, frictionless career that I envisioned. This sounded like a career of frustration, struggle, and just generally being annoyed most of the time.
It was 100% accurate.
Innovators are salmon
Quick tutorial on salmon – they hatch in freshwater, swim out to the ocean and live in the saltwater before returning to freshwater to spawn and die (assuming the don’t get caught by a bear or fisherman first).
Quick tutorial on innovators – they are born (like everyone else) with creativity and a sense of unlimited possibility, they go out into the world and face the sting of reality before returning to their natural creative state to ask questions, challenge the status quo, drive growth, and (like everyone else) die.
Swimming upstream is exhausting for fish and for people. That’s why most don’t do it. That’s why most fish and people make the sensible choice to go with the flow, work within the system, and find better ways to do the same things.
But innovators, like salmon, instinctively know that to create, they must follow a different and much harder path. Instead of going with the flow, they must question the status quo. Instead of finding a better way to do the same things, they question whether those things even need to be done and create new ways to do new things.
Companies recognize that they need innovators. They need people who think differently and aren’t afraid to take smart risks because these are the people that will create new revenue streams and drive companies’ long-term growth. But, like the river, the company can’t change how it operates.
Companies need salmon ladders
Quick tutorial on salmon ladders – they are structures on or around natural barriers like waterfalls and dams, that have a high enough water velocity to attract the fish but not so much as to exhaust them, and often have very low steps that the salmon can leap up to get to their destination
Quick tutorial on innovation processes – they are structures separate from companies’ existing processes (and the barriers that often slow progress), that allow enough freedom for creativity and experimentation but not so much as to put the company at serious risk, and often have steps or stages that innovators and their projects must leap up in order to launch a scalable business.
Salmon ladders help salmon progress more rapidly and efficiently, decreasing the odds that they die from exhaustion before reaching their destination. Innovation processes help innovators progress ideas more rapidly and efficiently through an organization, decreasing the odds that they die (or quit, or get fired) before reaching their destination.
How to build a salmon ladder for innovators
Google “innovation process” and you will get 1.8 BILLION results in 0.59 seconds. That’s because there is no one magic innovation process that works for everyone.
But as varied as effective innovation processes are, they share common characteristics.
People over process. If you announce the implementation of a new process, send out a user manual, and then walk away, the process will fail. If you involve people in designing and pressure testing the process, support them in the first 6-12 months of use, and they experience the value of the process for themselves, the process will succeed.
Goals are good.Constraints are better. Innovation is an investment, and the company expects a return on that investment. Be clear about those expectations from the start. Innovation is not “anything goes!” Be clear about what the company is and is not willing to support before your start.
Guidance, not direction. Innovation is filled with known unknowns and unknown unknowns and, for that reason, the path to launch isn’t a straight line. But it also can’t be an infinite loop. Innovation processes should set guardrails for the work to be done but shouldn’t be overly prescriptive.
Insights, not information. Innovation processes should enable learning and encourage its sharing. Building in time for teams to reflect on their experience and write down their insights is critical for continued growth. Weighing the team down with detailed analyses, complicated templates, and constant update presentations doesn’t enable and encourage learning, it slows it down.
Celebrate milestones, not just launches. More innovation projects will be stopped than will be launched. The stopped projects aren’t failures, they’re lessons learned and steppingstones to the next big launch. Celebrating the milestones that projects achieve, even the milestone of being stopped, will keep innovators energized and swimming upstream far longer than celebrating only the launches.
Innovators do the hard work of swimming upstream.
Help them out by building a process to guide and propel them.
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 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.
According to a 2018 survey by NPR and The Marist Poll, the most common New Year’s resolution is to exercise more. Not surprisingly, losing weight and eating a more healthy diet ranked third and further, respectively (“stop smoking” was #2, in case you’re curious).
Hitting the gym to drop weight and build muscle is a great habit to build, but don’t forget about the regular work needed to build other muscles.
Specifically, your innovation muscles.
Innovation mindsets, skills, and behaviors can be learned but if you don’t continuously use them, like muscles, they can weaken and atrophy. That’s why it’s important to create opportunities to flex them.
One of the tools I use with clients who are committed to building innovation as a capability, rather than scheduling it as an event, is QMWD – the Quarterly-Monthly-Weekly-Daily practices required to build and sustain innovation as a habit.
Leave the office and talk to at least 3 of your customers
It’s tempting to rely on survey results, research reports, and listening in on customer service calls as a means to understand what your customers truly think and feel. But there’s incredible (and unintended) bias in those results.
Take, for example, this story from former P&G CEO AG Lafley:
One very quick story; I will never forget this. We used to do annual research in the laundry detergent business, and every year consumers would rate the Tide powder cardboard package as excellent; excellent to shop; excellent for opening; excellent in use–on, on, on.
So, probably 27 or 30 years ago, I’m in basements in Tennessee, in Kentucky, doing loads of laundry with women, and after three or four or five of these one-on-one sessions, I’ve realized that not a single woman has opened a box of Tide with her hand. Why not? You’ll break your fingernails!
So, how did they open the box? They had nail files; they had screwdrivers; they had all kinds of things sitting down on the shelf over their washing machine, and yet they thought our package was excellent. And we thought our package was excellent because they were telling us our package was excellent. We had to see it and experience it.
Here’s the problem–consumers cannot really tell us what they want. They can tell you why they like it or why they don’t like it, but they cannot tell you what they want.
Schedule a day each quarter to get out of the office and meet your customers. Ask them what they like and what they don’t. More importantly, watch them use your products and then share what you heard and saw with your colleagues.
Share with your team a mistake you made and what you learned from it
Silicon Valley mantras like “fail fast” and “fail often” make for great office décor but, let’s be honest, no one likes to fail and very few companies reward it.
Instead of repeating these slogans, reframe them to “learn fast and learn often” and role model the behavior by sharing what you learned from things you did that didn’t go as expected. You’ll build a culture of psychological safety, make smart risks acceptable, and increase your team’s resilience. All things required to innovate in a sustainable, repeatable, and predictable manner.
Do 1 thing just for the fun of it.
In the research that fed into their book, The Innovator’s DNA, professors Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen, found that the most common characteristic amongst the great innovators of our time was their ability to associate – “to make surprising connections across areas of knowledge, industries, even geographies” (page 41). Importantly, their associative thinking skills were fed by one or more “Discovery Skills” – questioning (asking “why,” “why not,” and “what if”), observing, experimenting, and networking.
Fuel your associative thinking ability by doing something NOT related to your job or other obligations. Do something simply because it interests you. You might be surprised where it takes you. After all, Steve Jobs studied calligraphy, meditation, and car design and used all of those experiences in his “day job.”
Make 1 small change for 1 day
Innovation requires change and, if you’re an innovator, that’s the exciting part. But most people struggle with change, a fact that can be frustrating for change agents.
In order to lead people through change, you need to empathize with them and their struggles which is why you need to create regular moments of change in your work and life. One day each week, make a conscious change – sit on the other side of the conference room table, take a different route to the bathroom, use a black pen instead of a blue one. Even small changes like this can be a bit annoying and they’ll remind you that change isn’t always the fun adventure you think it is.
Ask “How can we do this better?”
Innovation is something different that creates value. Which is good news because that means that all it takes to be an Innovator is to DO something DIFFERENT and create VALUE. The easiest way to do that is to find opportunities for improvement.
The next time you’re frustrated with or confused by a process, ask “how can we do this better?” Better can be more simply, faster, cheaper, or even in a way that is more enjoyable but, whatever it means, the answer will point the way to creating value for you, your team, and maybe even your company.
Block time on your calendar for these quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily habits. After all, the best reflection of your priorities are the things in your calendar. And, if you stick with this, you’ll be among the 8% who achieve their New Year’s goals.
Originally published on December 5, 2019 on Forbes.com
In the past two days, three people in two different companies across two different industries said these exact words to me.
If Step #1 in solving a problem is admitting that you have one, then my clients should feel pretty good about making progress.
But what’s Step #2?
“Killing the project” is an obvious and fundamentally unhelpful answer. But before we get to the less obvious and helpfully actionable answer, we need to acknowledge a fact about humans
We decide with our hearts, justify with our heads, and require guts to act.
As much as we would like to believe that we, as humans, are logical and fact-driven, we’re not. If we were, we would not be swayed by brands and we would all agree on the best restaurant, music, and political candidate.
Beliefs, values, emotions, and connections (our heart) drive our behavior. We choose things that help us feel a certain way, create a certain perception, or signal our belonging to a certain group. As Clay Christensen would say, we choose things that solve emotional and social Jobs to be Done.
We then find or seek out facts and evidence that justify the decisions our hearts have made. We want to be logical and rational, to make “the best choice,” and to be able to sway people with our arguments. We use our heads to justify our hearts.
But that alone isn’t enough. We don’t do things that we know we should (flossing, eating vegetables, maintaining long-term investments in innovation). We do what we want even though we know we shouldn’t (eat a lot of sugar, drink too much, binge watch anything that starts with “Real Housewives of”).
We need motivation and courage (guts) to translate our wants and our thoughts into action. Perhaps, even more importantly, when our heads and our hearts disagree, we need guts to make the decision and act.
Because without guts, when the head and the heart disagree, the heart always wins.
That’s why you’re not good at killing projects.
Here’s a common scenario: after working for several years on a new product you get data that shows that it won’t “work.”
Perhaps it’s clinical data indicating that the product doesn’t provide the efficacy required. Or market data showing that customers aren’t willing to buy the product at the current price or buy as much of it as expected to justify the investment. Or benchmarking data that estimates that your product will be in the bottom 5% of products ever launched by your company.
Whatever it is, it’s not good and the data and logic all dictate that the project should be killed.
Instead, you deem it to be “strategic” and keep working on it.
This is because, in your heart, you believe in the project. You were part of creating it. You nurtured it from concept to concrete, guiding it through near-death experiences, and celebrating its successes. You love this project.
Your heart says “keep going,” while your head says “make it stop.”
You need guts to make the decision.
It’s hard to decide, but Step #2 makes it easier.
If the first step is knowing in your head that the project is not viable and will not meet expectations no matter what you do, the second step is finding the guts to resist your every instinct and decide in favor of your head.
To find the guts to make the call, you need to acknowledge your heart and the feelings, emotions, and beliefs that are motivating you to try just one more thing.
(If you’re a Very Serious Business Professional and are super freaked out by the last sentence, imagine that I wrote, “you need to acknowledge your cognitive biases like the sunk cost fallacy, not invented here bias, or the IKEA effect” and keep reading)
To acknowledge your heart and empower your guts, you need to say goodbye and create closure.
How to do this effectively is determined by the culture of the team and company, but here are some examples I’ve seen and been part of:
Write the project’s eulogy
Hold a funeral (traditional, New Orleans, Irish, or Viking all qualify)
Have a “Reading of the Will” in which the project bequests mementos and silly awards to team members
Create a memorial like planting a tree or, taking a cue from Ben & Jerry’s, a graveyard
Establish an award in its name and give it out every year to a person who has shown the courage to preserve and the wisdom to know when to quit
Yes, I know this sounds silly but so does having funerals for goldfish and we do that. We do it for the same reasons we struggled to kill the project – because we love it, and we will miss it.
Just as we feel very sad but know we did the right things when we flushed the goldfish, you will feel sad but know you did the right thing when you kill the project.
And while it will never be easy, it will get easier and you will get better at killing projects (just like I did after going through 23 goldfish my senior year of college).
When I was a senior in college, I took a pottery class.
One of our assignments, before learning to throw on the wheel, was to create a functional piece using slabs of clay. I designed an Alice in Wonderland-inspired vase and built something that somewhat resembled the design.
Obviously impressed by my innate talent, the instructor offered to teach me a special glazing technique that used highly toxic chemicals to create…well…I stopped listening as soon as I heard “toxic chemicals.” It was dangerous, so I was in.
The result was a rather misshapen (not Alice in Wonderland-inspired) vase that looked like it was made out of chunks of rusted metal.
I loved it!
My roommate hated it.
She declared it the ugliest thing she ever saw and forbid me from placing it anywhere in the apartment where she might have the misfortune of laying eyes on it.
To this day, she swears it’s the ugliest thing she’s ever seen.
I display it proudly on the bookshelf in my office.
It would be easy to explain our different reactions to my work of art as simply the result of different aesthetic preferences. And while there may be some truth in it, I suspect the better explanation is the IKEA Effect.
The IKEA Effect
First identified and named in 2011 by professors from Harvard Business School, Yale, and Duke, the IKEA effect is a cognitive bias in which people place a disproportionately high value on products they partially create.
Think about it. We all have that piece of furniture, art, craft project, or home improvement effort that we assembled, designed, crafted, installed, or built that we absolutely love and refuse to part with.
No one understands why we won’t let go of that broken, worn out, dust collecting, out of style, money pit but, we believe, it’s simply because they don’t understand or see what we do and that, once they do, they too will see it for the treasure it is.
The same behavior happens in innovation. Teams invest months, even years, developing, testing, and launching new products and services, and yet, when the market doesn’t respond (i.e. there’s no demand, meaningful revenue, or potential profit), the product or service continues to be offered.
This is the IKEA Effect in action.
And the result is Zombies.
IKEA Effect Zombies
As evidence mounts that the project will not achieve market success, innovation teams invest with urgency, believing that more marketing, more sales calls, and more discounts will attract the customers that are surely out there. When the increased investment doesn’t produce the desired results, resources are slowly “reallocated,” the project is “deprioritized,” and a skeleton crew is left to make it work. The project is a Zombie, the living dead incarnation of an innovation project.
Given the commonality of this behavior, you might think it would be easy to spot Zombies. You would be wrong.
While the IKEA effect is believed to contribute to both the sunk cost effect and to “not invented here” syndrome, it is a far more fundamental effect, deeply rooted in people’s emotions and identity, and likely to manifest in “logical” arguments based on carefully selected data.
This makes spotting an IKEA Effect Zombie almost as hard as killing one.
Which is why it’s important to know your Zombies:
HiPPOPs – Highest Paid Person’s Opinion Projects (HiPPOPs) are envisioned, developed, and driven by a senior executive. When data counter to the executive’s opinion surfaces, the executive finds another piece of data to support their opinion. The project lurches on for years, fed by the executive, as people throughout the organization watch it slowly rot.
Perennial Pivoter – These projects are always just one pivot away from success. Created by a team of eternal optimists, there’s no such thing as failure, there’s only learning what not to do and what to try next.
Windfall Walker – When you hear “It’s a small investment and the upside could be huge,” a Walker is not far away. Often the brainchild of a single individual, the promise of these projects is far greater than their return. But they live on because everyone silently agrees that it’s easier to live with the Zombie than kill it.
Hope Hunter – Perhaps the most dangerous and cruel of all the Zombies, these projects always offer a glimmer of hope that the hockey stick of success is just a quarter, a customer, or a PR moment away. Convinced that staying the course and investing just one more dollar, month, or customer call will bring the project back to life.
How to Deal with IKEA Effect Zombies
Just like all other adventure stories, the source of the problem is also the solution. In this case, IKEA created the effect and their stores point to the solutions.
To Kill a Zombie, Stand Your Ground.
Zombies appear when you lose focus on creating and delivering something desirable (solves a customer’s problem), feasible (can be created), and attractive (meets or exceeds key strategic and financial targets).
Because Zombies are a sign that you’re lost, you need to do the same thing you do when you get lost in IKEA – stop, pull out the map, and re-orient yourself.
Go back to your original criteria for pursuing the project. Does the project still meet the thresholds or has something, like the company’s strategy or the project’s results, changed? How does the change impact the project’s desirability, feasibility, and attractiveness? What is the right thing to do for the business based on these changes?
Try to be objective as you re-orient yourself and avoid the urge to blame others or beat yourself up. What matters most isn’t how you got here, it’s where you go from here.
To Avoid Zombies:
Focus on the Meatballs. Let’s be honest, the best part of every IKEA trip is the meatballs (and lingonberry jam) in the café after you checkout. Every distraction and double-back in the Showroom delays the gratification of eating meatballs (and lingonberry jam).
When you start an innovation project, set a clear, objective, and measurable goal at the beginning. That’s your meatball. At every project milestone, revisit the goal. Is it still a desirable goal or has something in the business fundamentally shifted, requiring the goal to change? Is it still reasonable to believe that the project will achieve that goal, or have you learned something that makes the goal improbably or even impossible?
Staying focused on the goal and objectively evaluating your odds of achieving it makes it easier to let kill a project that can’t get you to where you need to go.
Follow the Arrows. IKEA Showroom maps are often as helpful as the assembly instructions that come with their furniture. Not at all. That’s why there are arrows on the floor and signs hanging from the ceiling to guide you through the shopping experience and, ultimately, to the meatballs.
A project process with clear governance is the innovation equivalent of floor arrows and ceiling signs. Before starting an innovation project, identify the activities required, thresholds that must be met for additional resources, roles and responsibilities of team members, and decision-making criteria.
As you do the work of innovation, you’ll refine the process and governance. By your third project, it should be 80% set and by your fifth, it should be 90% set (you never want it to be 100% because innovation does need a bit of flexibility).
Creating and following a standard process and objective governance model helps to remove the emotion that drives the IKEA effect and creates Zombies.
A Zombie and IKEA Effect Free Innovation Zone
By acknowledging the Innovation Effect in your organization, identifying and killing the Zombies it creates and putting the goals, processes, and governance in place to prevent a Zombie recurrence you’re on your way to more efficient, effective, and successful innovation efforts.
I recommend celebrating with meatballs (and lingonberry jam)!
Things we know we should do because they’re good for us:
Eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day
Floss twice a day
Get 10,000 steps a day
Consistently invest in innovation
Let’s be honest, the above list could also be titled, “Things we know we should do but don’t.”
Why? Why do we choose not to do things that years of research prove are good for us and for which solutions are readily available?
Because they’re inconvenient, uncomfortable, expensive, and, most of all, because we have not yet been burned by not doing them.
Experience is a better motivator of change and driver of behavior than knowledge. We don’t floss until we’ve had one (or more) painful and bloody dentist appointments. We don’t buy insurance until we have to deal with a break-in. We don’t invest in innovation until we’re desperate for revenue, profit, or growth.
The good news is that, at least when it comes to innovation, we don’t have to wait to be desperate or to get burned before we do what we know we should. We can create experiences that motivate change.
Borrow relevant experiences
Experiencing success, even if it’s vicariously, is key to getting people to do what they know they should. One way to do this is to find proof that the change is possible and do-able. To do this you need to find relevant and recent examples (i.e. not a field trip to Silicon Valley and not stories about Steve Jobs).
Find a company in your industry (or a similar one) that has successfully achieved the goal you’ve set. Tell their story to people within your organization. Set-up a conversation between a current or former member of their team and a key stakeholder in your organization. Buy their product and display it as evidence that success is possible.
Create experiences of success
Innovation takes time, especially if you’re working on something breakthrough. But people lose interest and faith quickly, especially in organizations that are judged by quarterly numbers. As a result, the worst thing you can do is to go into “stealth mode” and try to “fly under the radar” until you have a huge, earth-shattering success to announce.
Instead, spend time learning about your decision-makers’ and stakeholders’ doubts at the same time you’re learning about your customers’ problems. Then, when you prove those doubts wrong, celebrate the win…politely, and publicly.
Does your boss think Legal will never approve your idea? Work with Legal, ask them what it would take to get an approval, and when you do that and get the Yes, tell your boss. Does Finance think no one will ever pay the price for your solution? Open a “lemonade stand” to sell the product and then take Finance out for drinks, using your first dollars of revenue to pay for the first round.
Small and steady wins give people experience with success and buy you the time, resources, and support you need to achieve the earth-shattering ones.
Immerse everyone in the experience
While borrowing and creating experiences can be powerful, nothing is as convincing or compelling as actively engaging people in achieving success.
Involve innovation leaders, decision-makers, and key stakeholders in the hard work of customer discovery, solution design, and business testing. Make them listen in live to customer interviews, hand them the sharpie (or the mouse) during ideation sessions, and “hire” them to staff your “lemonade stand.”
By making people lean in, roll up their sleeves and do the work, they’ll experience how hard innovation is and why it takes longer than they think. They’ll be invested in your work and your results. They’ll feel the rush of the small successes.
Innovation is a Head, Heart, Guts endeavor
People decide what to do with their hearts, justify their decisions with their heads, but it takes guts to take action. Knowledge feeds the head, but it takes experience to have guts.