Bring the Tiger into the Room… a Prototype is worth 1,000 Ideas

Bring the Tiger into the Room

I went on a Disney Cruise with my family a couple of years back, and attended a talk on Innovations (yes… I am “that guy” who attends presentations while on a cruise ship in the Caribbean ). There were a lot of fascinating stories and insights, but the one that most stuck with me was the story of Joe Rohde, an Imagineer who was determined that Disney should build a live animal theme park. Rohde first pitched the idea with CEO at the time, Michael Eisner, and his leadership team… and his idea was shot down. “Disney doesn’t do zoos” was the general consensus from the team, and Rohde walked away unsuccessful. Undeterred, Rohde returned a second time, this time armed with an amazing presentation, charts, and data and he made a compelling case for why Disney should start this new “Animal Kingdom”. The pitch generated a lot of conversation and debate, but at the end of the meeting Eisner again rejected the proposal citing something to the effect of “Live animals just don’t capture the ‘magic’ that people expect from Disney”. Again, Rohde left the meeting discouraged but just as resolved that this idea was still a winner and that he needed to bring it to life. So… Rohde went back a third time, but this time went without any slides, charts, or reports. This time, he brought a 6-Foot Bengal Tiger into the room and watched the room go from ‘shock’ to ‘awe’, as child-like wonder crossed the faces of the executives in the room. The moment was “magical”, the Animal Kingdom project was approved, and the park has been a successful endeavor for the Walt Disney Company.

The point here, of course, is not literally to bring a tiger into the board room (although I had a couple of Monday morning meetings where I could have used one!), but rather to remember the power of prototyping. How much time is wasted in an average week, debating hypotheticals and possibilities? We can easily spend endless energy arguing hypotheses, shooting holes in others’ points of view, and stalling on decisions to move forward when the substance of the conversation is solely conceptual. Taking the time to translate a concept into even a rough prototype can make a world of difference in driving real progress.

1) It brings it to life for them. A colleague once told me that I was having trouble selling in a new idea to a team because I was seeing “rainbows”, when they were seeing in “black & white”. Translating the rainbow in our minds into a tangible prototype can help bring possibilities in our minds to life for others and drive consensus.

2) It brings it to life for ourselves. To carry the metaphor further… sometimes the “rainbow”, when real, may not have a pot of gold at the end of it. Maybe what seemed amazing in our minds, is not as compelling or actionable when prototyped. Maybe there is a fatal flaw in the thinking that can be uncovered early before developmental work is done. Even better, maybe the art of prototyping will strengthen the initial concept and better bring the whole idea to life. Regardless, early prototyping helps not only communicate the idea to others, but also strengthens it for ourselves.

3) Move from a hypothetical debate to a tangible discussion… and turn a war of passionate opinions into productive, pragmatic deliberations. If there are 10 people in a room, there will be 10 different mental pictures of how an idea could come to life- a prototype can help make sure that everyone is having the same conversation about the same opportunity.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a prototype is worth a thousand ideas. To be clear, when I say “prototype”, these don’t necessarily need to be professional, functional, and proven… just a way to tangibly turn a concept into a reality. One of my favorite examples is the initial prototyping of the computer mouse. When Steve Jobs and Apple first brought the mouse idea to life, they used guitar wire, wheels from a toy train, and jar lids- clearly not an actionable product in itself, but this ‘scrappy’ effort brought the concept to life in such a way as to sell the idea and stimulate technology development. Taking the time to make it “real” helps the discussions go beyond ideas into actions, forces debates to go from abstract to tangible, and decisions to go from hypothetical to concrete. Go beyond dreams into actions- bring the Tiger into the room!

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

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Are you GROWING… or merely STRETCHING?

Stretch Armstrong

At our core, I believe that each and every one of us is driven by a desire to grow- through new experiences, skills, and accomplishments we all want to better ourselves in rich and meaningful ways. And as leaders, we further all should look for growth opportunities not only for ourselves, but for those around us as well. In the pursuit of “growth”, however, how often do we instead take on a “stretch”… essentially taking on more work to expand the breadth of our capacity, but not necessarily to grow in deep and meaningful ways?

Webster defines “Growth” as a “progressive development or an evolution”. “Stretch”, on the other hand is defined as “to enlarge or distend, especially by force”. At a time where we are all being asked to “do more with less”, there is no shortage of “stuff” with which to fill our time. Whether it be extra projects, late night meetings, or incessant emails, there are far more demands on our time today than there have ever been before… and it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. This trend, teamed with the high amount of uncertainty in our environment- the ecomomy, our companies, our careers- have created a world in which the paths before us are foggier and muddier than we ever expected them to be. The combination of these factors can often lead us to take our desperate need for growth and fill it instead with an excess of “activity”… an illusion of progress and control through a sheer volume of work being completed. The satisfaction of checking boxes and over-achieving can provide some instant gratification, but in the long-term can lead to burnout and disengagement. And worse than that, this “addiction” to over-extension robs us over our most valuable assets… energy and time with which we can truly invest in purposeful, amazing accomplishments.

That being said, the demands on our time are not going away, and the ability to demonstrate a broad capacity will likely be a key survival tool in our careers. However, while stretching is important, it is not sufficient if we truly want to reach our full potential as well as to experience self-fulfillment. Essentially, stretching helps us to “flex our muscles” and strengthen us, but doesn’t offer any real transformation. Growth, on the other hand, is what offers a permanent metamorphosis allowing us to evolve into the people that we want to become. Below are some signs that you might be over-stretching at the expense of growth.

Stretch vs. Growth

1) Your day is filled with somewhat “random” activity vs. steady progress toward a greater purpose.

2) You spend your downtime worrying about what is not getting done vs. imagining what you yearn to accomplish next.

3) You are proud of the quantity of your numerous completed tasks vs. the quality of an amazing accomplishment.

4) You are overwhelmed but comfortable vs. active and uncomfortable.

5) You wake up on Monday with a sense of overwhelmed anxiety vs. a sense of purpose.

Again, this is not saying that it is realistic or even desirable to exist without stretching our capacity… for many of us, this is just the “new normal” for surviving in the world today. However, if constant stretching replaces rather than enhances our true and meaningful growth opportunities, then we are destined for longer-term dissatisfaction. Activity does not equal progress… and we need to be deliberate in insuring that we take the time to define what growth looks like for us and invest our time against it, versus squandering these precious and limited assets on merely surviving another day.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

Would Thomas Edison survive in your innovation group if he worked there today?

thomas-edison

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  This famous quote, attributed to Thomas Edison, hangs on the walls in laboratories and conference rooms of innovative companies around the world, and represents an inspirational philosophy of one of the greatest innovators of all time.  Edison’s vision, persistence, and commitment have changed the world as we know it, and he serves as a gold standard for Research & Development and Breakthrough Invention.

That being said… if a young Thomas Edison came up in your organization today, would he be successful?  In an environment of extreme impatience for results, multi-tasking, and internal competition, would Edison be allowed the time and budget to fail “10,000 ways” in inventing something truly breakthrough like the light bulb, or would he be weeded out through annual performance reviews?  After one or two years of learning and measurable “progress” but without tangible, actionable business results, would your organization have the patience to stick with him?  Would he be told to “Pick something less risky- find some ‘low hanging fruit’”?  Would he suffer in performance reviews against peers with multiple “low risk, low reward” contributions as he strives for the “high risk, high reward solution”?  Would he be told to “not put all of his eggs in one basket” and hedge his bets with some easier projects, diluting his time on the bolder, more challenging work?  Would his managers cut his R&D budget after some initial failures, and encourage him to do the “last experiment first”?  Basically, would Edison be encouraged to continue his pursuit of the light bulb, or would he be pressured to merely deliver a better candle (Longer-lasting? Scented?)?

While obviously this is an extreme example, the question is still relevant.  In a world of annual, results-based performance reviews, would a young innovator in pursuit of a high risk, breakthrough invention survive in competition with peers delivering safer but actionable business results?  I truly believe that for organizations, “you are what you measure”, and if performance reviews and promotions go to individuals who deliver safer, short-term results, then the organization as a whole will trend toward these objectives.  Now, by no means am I saying that results are not important- clearly at the end of the day delivering results is what keeps us in business.  However, if your objective is to be an innovation leader and to deliver breakthrough results, then there needs to be a mechanism for recognizing, rewarding, and encouraging risk-taking, focus on the long-term, and even failure if you are to truly do something amazing.

Considerations in Recognizing and Rewarding Breakthrough Innovation

1)      Recognize short term behaviors and long-term results.  Often organizations prioritize short-term results over everything in conducting performance reviews and in setting assignment goals.  While results clearly are important, most truly innovative goals won’t be fully delivered in a year (and will often take several years).  If an employee’s focus is solely on the short-term, he/she will often modify behaviors to compromise depth for breadth and tradeoff risk for safe.  There needs to be a balance of rewarding innovative behaviors in the short-term, while evaluating actionable results in the long-term.

2)      Redefine success and reward “smart” failures.  To steal a quote from Woody Allen, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative”.  Fear of failure is a key barrier in doing something truly breakthrough, and individuals need to be encouraged to take risks and push boundaries.  The failures should be smart (bold but not reckless), but if innovators don’t push too far then they will never know how far they can go.  Net, reward learning, milestones, and even failures… not just end results.

3)      Give credit for “degree of difficulty” in measuring performance.  If you want your top innovators working against your top challenges, then you need to reward them for taking on the extra challenge and risk.  With gymnastics as a metaphor, it is much harder to ‘nail the landing’ on a complex, risky routine than on a basic and simple one… and this acknowledgment goes into the judges’ evaluations.  In the same manner, this “degree of difficulty” factor should be also enacted in innovation performance reviews to encourage top talent to push the envelope.

It is an interesting dilemma, particularly as organizations get more lean, the need for speed increases, and competition increases exponentially.  So… can your organization be “impatient for learning, but patient for results” and would a young Thomas Edison be successful today?

*Interesting footnote… Those of you at Procter & Gamble might particularly enjoy the irony of the following story.  In 1865, as a Western Union employee, Thomas Edison spent time with P&G (which at the time was predominantly a soap and candle company), helping to install a telegraph line system between headquarters and a plant.  Upon finishing the job, Edison went on his way and of course ultimately invented the mass producible light bulb.  This invention, of course, was no small factor in driving the end of P&G’s candle business!  Another good reminder to always be on the lookout for top innovative talent and for potential disruptions to your business…

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

Why Failure to EMPOWER Your Teams Will Strangle Your Innovation Culture

empower

One of my favorite questions to ask successful innovators is, “Can you tell me about your best experience as part of an innovation team?”  Almost unanimously, the story goes something like this…

“We were a small, empowered, under-the radar team, and nobody thought our project was going to be successful.  We were scrappy and creative about making prototypes and getting data, and were free to learn and to experiment.  When we emerged with a winning proposition, we shocked everyone… and the program went on to be more successful than other higher-profile and higher-scrutinized innovation programs.” 

One thing that is typically absent from these stories is the role of “management”.  The stories don’t consist of examples like, “Thankfully my boss was willing to get in the trenches with us” or “Those weekly in-depth management reviews were key to our success.”  The stories are absent of statements like, “Whenever we reached a disagreement within the team, we went to our bosses and they solved it for us” or “Thankfully, my manager narrowed the scope early so we didn’t waste time exploring risky, out-of-the box ideas.”  No- if anything, the role of management was “Thankfully, our management trusted us and left us alone so that we could actually get something done!”

When looking at the above story from the innovation team’s perspective, it is easy to nod our heads and say “Hallelujah!  If all programs worked like that we would have a much more successful innovation culture and far better results.”  But, what about from the perspective of management?  For the most part, managers shared these same experiences back when they were working on teams and understand the inherent benefits.  However, it is much harder to “let go” of control and to relinquish the reins when actually in the management seat as the one accountable, but not responsible for the results.  Particularly in times of business crisis, managers often feel more pressure to be seen outwardly as “leaders”… to tighten their grip on the program and to play a more active role in the day-to-day operations of the team.  It is far more difficult as managers to relinquish that control and to trust the teams than it is to micro-manage and “protect” them.

So what then is the role of “management” in driving an innovative culture?  Put simply, management’s role is to make sure that the best team is on the field, that the players are given all the tools they need to succeed, and that the team has a clear goal for which to strive.  From there, the manager should do his/her best to trust the team and then get out of the way.  In some ways, this is counter-intuitive… that this “absence” can be a sign of truly strong leadership as it feels more passive than active.  However, it is critical, particularly in times of crisis, that management relinquish control rather than tighten their grip.  To be clear, this is not an easy task- it takes active discipline, trust, and clearly defined goals and strategies.   It requires managers not to lead the “rebellion” and be a part of the team experience that we all loved as innovators, but rather to enable it and guide it.  Essentially, it takes an attitude of figuring out how best to serve the teams, rather than asking the teams to best serve you.

A friend and colleague compared this conundrum to the character of Lennie from “Of Mice and Men”.  Lennie is developmentally disabled and loves small furry animals so much that he hugs and squeezes them very tightly… unfortunately this pressure, even in an act of love, strangles and kills them.  This too can happen to our programs, to our teams, and thus to our culture if we apply too much pressure and hold on too tightly.  The concept of “Culture” often gets a bad wrap… as being fuzzy and fun rather than functional and fruitful.  To be clear, this focus on culture is not about making the team “happy”, enabling good organizational survey results, or being seen as a popular manager… all of those may be side effects, but they are not the primary driver. No… the true driver is that empowered teams will always deliver better innovation and stronger results. To truly create a successful innovation culture and to lead our teams, we must EMPOWER them.

Key Elements to EMPOWER Innovation

Employ the right people

The only way that this concept of empowerment works is if you have a team that you can trust, that has the skills to do the job, and the willingness to lead and take risks.  Invest heavily in hiring the right people for the right roles… it is better to have no person for a role than the wrong person.

Macro manage, don’t micro-manage

This is not to say to abandon the team and let them go “rogue”.  Get the right team, provide whatever help is needed, align on goals, and then get out of the way.  One of my favorite quotes in this area is from Jim Collins’s “Good to Great”, “The moment you feel the need to tightly manage someone, you’ve made a hiring mistake.  The best people don’t need to be managed- Guided, taught, led- yes, but not tightly managed.”

Protect the team from complexity from above.

One of the most critical and under-rated active roles that you can play as a leader is to shield the team from unnecessary complexity and bureaucracy.  As soon as the team feels responsibility for managing all of the uncertainty around their project, it will taint the innovation against their goal at hand.  Protect the team so that they can focus on delivering Amazing results… once “Amazing” exists, a lot of extraneous complexity becomes simpler.

Ownership delegated to the team below

The team should feel ownership and empowerment to make key decisions and recommendations to drive their programs, and not the need to always go to management for a decision.  It is the leaders role to set the criteria put to push the team to make the recommendations… I often say “It is better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission”.

What, not How

This is one of the simplest, yet most important concepts in empowering teams.  Give the team a big, hairy, audacious goal but don’t prescribe how to get there.  Often, not only will the team find a way to get there on their own, but will come up with a better solution than you could have ever imagined.  “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de St. Exupery

Encourage rebellion, creativity and risk-taking

A team that feels challenged, inspired, and supported to do something out-of-the box, most likely will.  I like the work “rebellion” here… a team with something to prove that has a strong rallying cry is most likely to do something truly new and innovative.  “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Recognize and reward

Put your money where your mouth is.  If you want innovative behaviors from your teams… measure and reward it.  This means finding a way to acknowledge and reward failures, because any truly innovation does not succeed on the first attempt.  While results are clearly important and ultimately are the fruits of a team’s labor, you must reward behaviors along the way to insure that the innovative push and drive persists even through failures.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com