What Explaining the Poop Emoji to a 5-year old Taught Me About Innovation

What Explaining the Poop Emoji to a 5-year old Taught Me About Innovation

A few weeks ago, my 5-year old niece and I spent the afternoon together at a paint-your-own-pottery place. My niece was adamant that she wanted to paint something for her dad and immediately zoned in on a piece — a 3D poop emoji.

Remembering my sister’s parenting advice, I started with a question, “Why do you want to paint that for Daddy?”

Her response was simple enough, “Because it’s chocolate.”

I could have easily left it at that.

But I didn’t.

“Ok….why don’t you paint the pegasus for Daddy instead?”

She looked up at me with her big brown eyes, “Why?”

“Ummm, well, I just think it’s better.”

She scrunched her nose as she usually does when she doesn’t understand something, looked back at the poop emoji, and then silently picked up the Pegasus and took it over to our table.

With a sigh of relief — I knew my sister would be none to happy with me explaining the poop emoji — I thought the issue was resolved. I was wrong.

An hour later, as we stood hand-in-hand on the sidewalk waiting for her dad to come pick us up, my niece asked, “Aunt Robyn, why didn’t you want me to paint the chocolate for Daddy?”

Crap (pun somewhat intended). I have to do this. I have to be honest and explain this, and I am going to be in SO much trouble when we get home.

“Well, darling, that’s not chocolate. It’s poop.”

She scrunched up her nose, pursed her lips, gave a quick nod, and continued staring out into the parking lot.

Later that night, I confessed the moment to her parents. They burst out laughing.

“That would have been hilarious!” my brother-in-law proclaimed.

“Why didn’t you just let her paint it? It’s not poop to her” my sister sighed.

That thought literally never occurred to me. It never crossed my mind that letting her paint what she thought was chocolate would result in a heart-felt (and amusing) gift to her dad of a rainbow (her favorite color at the moment and thus what everything gets painted) poop emoji to display in his office.

Instead, I thought I was saving her from embarrassment by correcting how she saw something so that her understanding was in-line with the status quo.

I’ve felt horrible about this since it happened but the experience, the ease with which it happened and the smug self-righteousness I felt about “saving” her, taught me a very important lesson about why creativity and innovation are so often killed in organizations.

For the first time, I could understand and empathize with every Dr. No I’ve ever encountered. You know who I’m writing about, the person in your organization who, whenever a new idea pops up, says, “No, we can’t do that because…

  • …that’s not how it’s done in our company/industry”
  • …we tried that back in 19XX and it didn’t work.”
  • …the bosses will never approve it.”
  • …now is not the right time.”
  • …it’s took risky/expensive.”
  • …you’ll get fired if it doesn’t work and I don’t want that to happen to you.”

My whole career, I’ve hated Dr. No and used him/her as motivation to innovate. I would focus all my energy on finding a way to prove them wrong by doing something new AND making sure that new thing was wildly successful.

What I thought I was saving everyone from

But, in that pottery shop, I was Dr. No and I didn’t realize it. In fact, I felt proud of myself.

I felt proud because I was acting out of love. I wanted to protect someone who is innocent and precious. I wanted to spare her the embarrassment and shame that I thought would surely result from giving her dad a rainbow-colored piece of poop pottery.

And maybe that is where other Dr. No’s are coming from. Maybe the are saying “No” as a way to protect you and/or the company. Maybe they tried to do what you’re suggesting and they are still smarting from the pain of it not working out. Maybe they are trying to spare you the embarrassment and shame of pursuing the proverbial corporate rainbow-colored poop pottery.

And no matter how often you try to explain that the new idea is chocolate and not poop, they won’t hear you. Because they are anchored in a status quo reality that demands things be seen in one, and only one, way.

And in that moment you, the innovator, has a choice. You can scrunch your nose and move on to something safer or you can defiantly insist on painting that poop, confident that it will become a rainbow work of art that is treasured by the people that matter the most.

And, hopefully, you can have a bit of compassion for Dr. No who is simply trying to help you because she loves you.


A few weeks after the poop pottery incident, my sister told me that my niece asked to send a text message to her dad. My niece’s text messages are entirely comprised of emojis and after a few seconds of tapping out flowers and suns and rainbows, my niece’s finger stopped, hovering briefly over the screen.

“What’s wrong, honey?” my sister asked

“Do you know what this is?” my niece responded, pointing to the poop emoji

“What do you think it is?”

“Aunt Robyn said it’s poop…”

“Well, a lot of people think that’s what it is. but your Daddy told me that he read an article that it was originally designed to be chocolate ice cream on top of an ice cream cone. So you can think of it that way too.” (my sister swears this is a true story).

“Ok. Then it’s chocolate ice cream!” my niece exclaimed before adding at least a dozen chocolate ice creams to her text

Well done, little one. Well done.