Why I Refuse to Let “BLACK FRIDAY”s Ruin My “THANKSGIVING”s

Thanksgiving vs Black Friday

At long last, it is finally Thanksgiving.  Best.  Holiday.  Ever.  Okay… as a disclaimer, I am very much the stereotypical, “lazy” guy when it comes to this glorious holiday.  I don’t cook.  I don’t clean.  The Grandparents watch the kids.  Thanksgiving to me is about Family, Friends, Food, and Football- and not necessarily in that order.  There are no gifts to buy, no decorations to hang, no reasons to wake up too early or to stay up too late.  To me, Thanksgiving is really just about enjoying my loved ones, taking a slow long weekend, and over-indulging in luxuries like food, sleep, and sports.  I honestly wish that Christmas was more like Thanksgiving… about slowing down and being thankful for all the gifts that God has granted us rather than being frantic trying to survive the insanity of shopping, the torture of travel, and the tsunami of “stuff”.

So… if we believe that Thanksgiving is the “perfect” holiday (and I think I make an overwhelmingly compelling case!), then why do we let it be so easily attacked?  Many of us have been given the gift of a 4-day weekend without the distractions of work, of commercialism, and of crowds… and slowly, but surely we have allowed it to be taken away.  Black. Friday.  It started as a seemingly fun adventure for a select few hyper-shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving, but it quickly evolved more into a cultural expectation rather than a “hobby” for a few.  Sure, it was a slap in the face of the whole concept of Thanksgiving…. one day, be thankful for what you have and the next be willing to trample over others for what you don’t have (or need!)  But at least it stayed contained to the next day… even if before sunrise.  But now… now Black Friday has crept into Thursday.  How did we let this happen?  The Thanksgiving immersion in gratefulness, gluttony, and gaiety has now collided with the insanity of coupons, clutter, and craziness.  Many Thanksgiving dinners will now be disrupted by the pressures of starting Christmas shopping, the frustration of family members who now need to go into work, and the feeling that we should be doing something when we really yearn to be doing nothing.  Thanksgiving is being assaulted and it is dying a painful death.

So I could sit here and complain about the fall of society, the greediness of retailers, and the trading of “Thanks!” & “Giving” for “Mine!” & “Buying”.  I could accept that the Thanksgiving as I grew to love it no longer exists and that I must just embrace that it is now a Tailgating event before the Super Bowl of Shopping.  I could accept it.  But I don’t.  Today I declare that I will hold onto Thanksgiving and protect it for myself and for my family.  No matter how many new ways retailers find to commercialize this holiday- even if they find a way to send elves down my chimney to offer me a great deal on the iPad 12- I am going to maintain this holiday as a 4-Day weekend of Family, Friends, Food, and Football… and be Thankful for it.

So, the obvious question… what does this have to do with Innovation?  Good question.  Honestly… I think this conversation about Thanksgiving and Black Friday represents the very heart and soul of why I started this blog in the first place.  Innovation on PURPOSE.  We must find the projects, principles, and possibilities that are truly important to us and to the world around us and invest our time, our creativity, and our ferocity in bringing them to life.  And we must defend them against the influences outside our control that either intentionally or inadvertently are working to surround and to defeat our missions.

Throughout the course of writing this blog, I have touched on a lot of themes and factors around innovation, and often the discussion has focused on the struggle of doing the “right” thing when there are a multitude of forces working against that very ideal.  It might be trying to inspire and lead an empowered, risk-taking team while swimming against a current of fear and micro-management. Or it could be fighting to invest in generating enough depth of research and insight to make an idea big and breakthrough, while overwhelmed by voices yelling to “move faster”, “play safer”, and “cut corners.”  We might struggle to be agile and creative in our approach, while being slowed down by processes and rules that, although designed to help, actually serve as an anchor to impede our ability to successfully reach a destination.  Or we might yearn to focus our energy on doing one or two truly amazing innovations that might “change the world”, but get bogged down by the constant onslaught of emails, busy work, and excessive meetings.  There will always remain a constant barrage of “Black Friday”s threatening to destroy our “Thanksgivings”.  While we often can’t stop the environment, we can and must choose how we respond.

I struggle a lot with this at work, because I tend to be an “all or nothing” type of person.  If I see something that is broken, I want to fix it, and if I can’t fix it then I can get discouraged and even want to stop fighting.  I need to remember that while I may not be able to change the world, I can change my world.  While I may not be able to stop Walmart from opening during dinner time on Thanksgiving, I can choose to keep my fork and knife in my hands while continuing to enjoy my feast.  As I approach my work and lead my teams, I do need to accept that I cannot change everything around us, but I do not then have a license to stop fighting for change.  I can accept the reality around me, but also still maintain my own reality, and work to protect the sanctity of an innovative culture, process, and organization.  I don’t have to eliminate “Black Friday” from society, but I also do not have to partake myself or with my teams.

So as I prepare to start my Thanksgiving today, I do so on my terms.  I plan to Thank God for all the blessings in my life, enjoy a feast with my family and friends, and watch my Pittsburgh Steelers fight their own evil force- the Baltimore Ravens.  And I will work to maintain this same spirit and focus throughout the entire 4-Day weekend.  And when I go back to the office on Monday, I go with the knowledge that I will be surrounded by “Black Fridays” threatening to trample my “Thanksgiving”… and I will fight to defend it.  So I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving, and also that your Friday not be “Black”.

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

Our Career is a RACE… but Why are we RUNNING?

Run Forrest Run

Running…  I will be honest, I am not a fan.  My wife is an outstanding marathoner (although she considers herself an avid runner who merely dabbles in marathons… which is a remarkably consistent distinction with the remainder of this paragraph), and truly enjoys just “going out for a run”.  Her passion is not driven by winning, succeeding, or a sense of accomplishment- it is truly about a feeling of enjoyment and fulfillment (of course… getting out of the house for awhile, away from me and the kids, probably doesn’t hurt either!).  It is not that she doesn’t want to excel in her races- she does have aspirational goals and has received a lot of accolades- but that is not what drives her.  She really seems to enjoy lacing up the running shoes, getting out and filling her lungs with the brisk winter air, and driving her legs up and down the Cincinnati hills.  Her love for running drives her, and any success that follows is a bonus… and not the other way around.

For me, if there were a four-letter word to describe my emotion toward running for the sake of running, it would not be “love”.  Don’t get me wrong, I do actually quite enjoy a good run at times… but as a means to an ends and not as a joyful event in itself.  If I have a ball and am trying to score, if there is a finish line that I am racing toward, or if there is some wild animal chasing me, then I am “all in” to exert myself fully and completely.  But the thought of lacing up my old running shoes, contracting my lungs with the icy winter wind, and limping up and down steep inclines around the neighborhood feels more like work than it does fun.  If there is an objective or goal to chase, then that is what will drive me… and any “love” or “joy” will be driven by the success at the end far moreso than the act of running in itself.

Our jobs and our careers are also a type of race… often more grueling than a 26.2 mile marathon (for many, this race lasts more than 30 years!).  There is always some sort of goal that we are pursuing, whether it be a project milestone, career advancement, the meeting of someone’s expectations, or even simply a paycheck.  We invest our time, passion, and energy into this race, and we spend more time “running” through our careers than we do with our families, our friends, and our hobbies?  But why?  What is our motivation?  I am not suggesting, by any means, that we should stop running the “rat race” altogether, but as we fly through our jobs and our lives, do we truly understand what is motivating us to keep propelling ourselves forward, fast, and furious?

We may race for months, years, or even decades without taking the time to stop and remember why we started to run in the first place… and whether that same motivation holds true today.  Sadly, it is usually something “bad” that happens, like a “monumental” failure at work, a funeral of a friend, or a trouble at home that stops us in our tracks and forces some introspection.  Most of us have been running for a long time and plan to keep running well into the future, but when push comes to shove, we may not really comprehend why.  And I am not saying that one way is better than the other… whether we run primarily for “the love of running” or for the accolades of the “win” are both fine reasons to stay in the race.  It is, however, important to understand what our true motivation is and to insure that we are making choices accordingly… and not just running blindly.

WHY DO WE RUN?

1) Racing for the Finish Line:  Is there some goal, deadline, or prize that we are chasing that has a defined course, duration, and finish line?  Do we know when to sprint, when to pace ourselves, and when we can accept our “award” and relish the accomplishment?

2) Chasing a Carrot:  Are we chasing a moving target, sprinting toward some “opportunity” not knowing when and if we will actually catch it?  Do we know how long we will need to sprint or what we will do if we get tired of running?  Do we even like “carrots” enough to continue running when the “award” is uncertain?

3) Being Chased by a “Ghost”:  Rather than running toward a goal are we running away from something or someone?  Are we driven by a fear of failure to ourselves, to our missions, or to someone else?  Do someone else’s expectations or our own outdated demands upon ourselves cause us to run from something irrational and unimportant rather than toward something real and fulfilling?

4) Stuck on a Treadmill and afraid to Fall Off:  Have we been running and running, like a hamster in its wheel, while going nowhere?  Are we tired of running but afraid that if we stop that we will fall off and get hurt?  Do we enjoy the exercise of the treadmill but yearn to get outside and into a real race?

5) Everyone Else is Running, and We Don’t Want to be Left Behind:  Are we surrounded by motivated runners and afraid of “losing”?  Does everyone else seem to have a finish line that they are chasing, so we feel like we must chase it too?  Are we searching for internal fulfillment or for external validation from benchmarking versus others?

6) No Freaking Idea… Just Started Running and Never Stopped:  Like the iconic image of Forrest Gump, running from coast-to-coast… have we been running for so long that we have forgotten where we are going or why we started in the first place?  Has running just become “normal” with the assumption that life / results / next steps will just happen naturally along the way?

7) The Building is On Fire:  Is there a sense of danger and panic all around us so we feel the need to run just to survive?  Is there a culture of fear and urgency that results in frantic activity?  Is there a perception that if we are not running then we must not sufficiently appreciate the “crisis” that we are in?

8) Need the “Runner’s High”:  I have talked previously about the “Adrenaline Addiction“… are we hooked on the excitement and exhiliration that comes from a good, hard run?  Does the fix we get from running keep us going quickly, whether or not we truly need to be moving so fast?

9) Knowledge/Belief of Having the “Talent” to be the Fastest Runner and Want (NEED) Everyone Else to Know it Too:  Are we trying to win the race because we want to or rather because we feel like we can or should?  Are we trying to live up to either self-inflicted or externally-accepted expectations, and competing so that we have “proof” that we are the best?  Are we prioritizing validation from the outside over self-assurance from the inside?

10) Simply Love to Run:  Are we running because we undoubtedly, undeniably, and uncontrollably enjoy it?  Are we immune to the expectations of others, the addiction of accomplishment, and the seduction of success, and solely doing what we love, because we love to do it.  Does the work itself provide enough joy in itself that we don’t need a finish line, a pat on the back, or a medal?  Do we run because we want to and not because we have to?

Running through our career is inevitable and can be a very healthy activity.  It is important to maintain an optimal balance of fulfillment in the moment as well as satisfaction in chasing a goal… and that balance will be different for each one of us.  Even individually, the scales may sway dramatically over the course of a career.  If our primary goal in the moment is to get promoted, then we should likely be willing to trade off some “fun” and choose to work a more grueling schedule.  If our top driver is in “enjoying a run for the sake of running”, then we can likely choose not to “play the game” and to do less activities out of a sense of obligation and more out of a sense of passion.  The important part is not to have a certain “correct” motivation, but rather to stop running long enough to understand what our true, personal objective is, to make choices and commitments to support that objective, and to then chart a course to restart the race.  We are going to run in our careers, but we shouldn’t run blindly or we will end up tired, unfulfilled, and far away from our true “finish line”.  Life is a race, and before we sprint out of the gates we need to understand why we are running.

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

RAIDERS OF THE LOST “R”… Putting the “R” back in “R&D”

Indiana Jones

Indiana Jones has to be one of the greatest movie heroes of all time- on one hand, a “nerdy” college professor, but on the other… a swashbuckling, archaeologist adventurer!  Of the four Indiana Jones films, the third one is by far my favorite- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (after suffering through the 4th film, #3 really should have been his last crusade, but that is another story).  In this film, not only does Harrison Ford reprise his role as the adventurous professor, but Sean Connery also joins the cast as his less daring, but more studious, father.  Han Solo and James Bond in a movie together… what more could you ask for?  In this film, the heroes are literally on the quest for the Holy Grail, and the path is predictably treacherous.  Not only is the grail hidden in a secret and mysterious location, but the location itself is guarded by a series of lethal traps and obstacles.  Many had tried to reach the grail, but none had succeeded… nor had they lived to tell their stories.

When Indiana Jones and his father ultimately find the hidden location of the Grail, they learn that there are four deadly challenges standing in the way of their completing the epic quest.  And while the Joneses possess as much courage, creativity, and resources as anyone, these are not the assets that ultimately allow them to achieve that which so many previously had failed.  No… it was not the “adventurer” persona that primarily saved them, but rather that of the “nerdy professor”.  The fundamental reason that no one else had been able to “keep up with the Joneses” was the quality and the quantity of the RESEARCH that they had done.  Particularly the elder Jones had studied the grail for years, which gave them the competitive advantage that they needed to acquire the treasure that they sought.

Clearly, Indiana Jones needed his courage and creativity to step forward and to attempt to conquer the deadly challenges, but he did not need to step forward blindly.  Because of the years of study, driven by his father’s intellect, passion, and thoroughness, Indiana Jones possessed all of the tools he needed to successfully navigate the treacherous obstacles.

1)      Knowledge:  The thorough understanding of the Grail through years of studying, researching, and experiencing allowed Jones to step knowingly through the first challenge without (literally) losing his head.

2)      Data:  The accumulation of data, through experimentation and the testing of hypotheses allowed Indiana to successfully take the right path through a complicated maze where one false step would have been fatal.

3)      Wisdom:  Faced with a seemingly insurmountable chasm, Jones’s wisdom gained from the research allowed him to take the correct “leap of faith” and to cross a boundary that no one else had been able to cross.

4)      Insight:  To ultimately get the Holy Grail, Indiana Jones had to choose the correct cup from a selection of dozens of choices.  The right choice would result in a successful completion of his quest, and the wrong one would lead to an excruciating demise.  Jones had no knowledge or data to tell him which cup to choose, but through all of his research he had gained insight into what the answer should be, and this insight allowed him to “Choose wisely” and to successfully complete his quest.

Sure… he had his legendary fedora hat, whip, and quick wit, but the true factor which allowed Indiana Jones to succeed was the quality of his research moreso than his courage and agility.  Before barreling madly into their “Last Crusade”, the Joneses invested the time, energy, and focus to fully appreciate the challenge in front of them.  The R&D role should be very much like the job of Indiana Jones… on the quest for some “magical” object, product, or idea.   In today’s highly competitive business world, everyone is on a quest for a “Holy Grail”, and is in a fervent race to find it first.  Organizations put their best teams against the challenge, and are investing immense time and energy into rapidly turning an idea into an execution.  This quest requires a culture of risk-taking, fearlessness, and urgency, and a team willing to march forward with the aventurer’s spirit.  However, in our hurry to start the “development” and to jump headfirst into the adventure, we must not skip the “research” that will ultimately drive success.  The “need for speed” is often leading even the best teams into pouring all of their energy into the execution of the adventure, rather than on charting the course and acquiring knowledge and insight to guide the design.  Essentially, we need to first play the part of the studious and nerdy professor so as to enable the fearless, swashbuckling adventurer.

This is not to say that we should would abandon our adventures and bury ourselves in our labs and our textbooks… but rather that we should invest fully in the “R” before running full speed into the “D”.

Why the investment in the “R” is not only important, but is critical:

Ideas are easy, Insights are hard.  We all have no shortage of ideas… our cubicles are overflowing with clever, interesting, and inspiring ideas that have the potential to win with consumers, to drive the business, and even to change the world.  So if that is true, then why aren’t we winning?  In our excitement to bring a new idea to life, we often allow impatience or pressure to force us to jumping straight to the execution.  We focus on quick solutions that only touch the tip of the iceberg, but do not fully appreciate or realize the depth of the opportunity that lies beneath the surface.  Even if we spend time talking with consumers, studying research data, and evaluating trends, our analysis often remains at the surface and does not fully delve into the depths of the concepts and the true motivations of our consumers.  Henry Ford’s quote is still my favorite here, “If I had asked consumers what they wanted, they would have said “faster horses””.  We all know that our consumers want to “get from point A to point B faster”, but are we working to “make their horses run faster” or are we working on an automobile?

Better is boring, Amazing is awesome.  None of us want “B’s” on our report cards, and we all want “A’s” to hang on our refrigerators.  Yet we often find ourselves settling for programs that are better but boring rather than amazing and awesome.  We often fail to allow ourselves the time and research to determine the truly awe-inspiring solution to a problem because we fear the time, money, and resources to bring it to life.  So then we instead start with something actionable and try to creatively and agilely transform, through sheer will, this simpler, and executable solution into something that might ultimately win in the minds and hearts of our consumers.  It is far harder to take something actionable and make it amazing than than to take something amazing and make it actionable … and we must allow ourselves the discipline to at least define what the “Holy Grail” might be before constraining ourselves with current realities.

Don’t just execute with excellence… execute something excellent with excellence.  Obviously, executional excellence is critical and we must insure that what we cook up in the labs can accurately, efficiently, and consistently be delivered into the hands of our consumers.  We don’t sell ideas, we sell executions… therefore, we must put the rigor and dedication into getting it right.  That said, we need to insure that the prioritization of being “on time” and “accurate” does not override the focus on being “insightful”, “delightful”, and a “Wow”.   Particularly in Research & Development, while we obviously want to execute our programs, we must first insure that we research and design the “right” programs, and must be vigilant in insuring that before we start executing something with excellence, that that something is excellent itself.

Again, the point here is not that we should all tone down our “adventurous” and aggressive approach, and instead bury ourselves in our books and in our labs.  It’s quite the contrary in fact.  Our R&D and overall Innovation approach should be a fast & furious ride as we engage in the difficult and perilous quest for the “Holy Grail”.  However, in the quest for the Grail, we must remember that no matter how much we want it or how hard we work, we must first develop the Knowlede, Data, Wisdom, and Insights to guide us on our quests.  There will be many obstacles and pitfalls along the way, as well as the temptation to settle for the easier and faster path.  Are we allowing ourselves the true upfront investment in truly researching the path to be taken so as to avoid the treacherous pitfalls before us, or are we impatiently multi-tasking our way into a booby trap that will keep us from ever completing our quest?  We have the boldness to take on the adventure, but do we have the patience to do the homework?  To truly unleash the spirit of Indiana Jones and to find our Holy Grail, we must make sure that we insist on putting the “R” back in R&D.

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

What is your FIELD OF DREAMS?

Field of Dreams

I’m 36 years old, I love my family, I love baseball and I’m about to become a farmer. But until I heard the voice, I’d never done a crazy thing in my whole life“.  -Ray Kinsella from Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams is not only my favorite sports flick, it is one of my all-time favorite movies of any kind.  Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) was an ordinary man who chose to give up his “corporate” job and steady income to become a farmer… and moved with his family to a farm in Iowa.  There, he taught himself how to raise crops and to survive off the land, counting on the fruits of his labor to support his family.  Financially, they were struggling, but were content and confident in their new life.

Everything changed for Ray one day when he was out in the cornfield and heard the epic seven words that echoed around him, “If you build it… he will come.”  Ray was not sure whether this voice came from God, from his own mind, or from somewhere else, but the message was clear… “If you build ithe will come.”  What “it” meant or who “he” was were unclear, and Ray had no way of knowing what he should do, much less if he should do anything at all.  Was this a calling from a higher power or had he simply been out in the hot sun too long?

Ray chose to follow the advice of the voice, and each time he took a step forward he was given a another clue, whether by another “voice from above”, a dream, or another person that helped him to understand the calling that he had received.  Over the course of the film, Ray traveled an amazing journey which resulted in his plowing over much of his corn crop to build a baseball field, his driving across the country to help (and to be helped by) a variety of interesting characters, and ultimately his witnessing of the newly constructed baseball diamond transforming into a  “magical” and “heavenly” place.  Soon, Ray was amazed as the ghosts of old ballplayers, like Shoeless Joe Jackson, came out of the cornfield and played ball on his newly constructed diamond.  In the end, the “spirit” of Ray’s father, whom had died years previously after a falling out with his son, emerged from the cornfield and reunited with Ray… allowing them to reconcile and for Ray to find the peace for which he had yearned.  (And if that is not enough… strangers from all over the country were then drawn to see Ray’s field and even paid him to watch the magical baseball games… solving his financial worries as well!).   Ray built “it”, and “he” came… and then everything else then fell into place.

I am sure that my handful of paragraphs don’t do this epic movie justice, but hopefully you get the idea.  Ray Kinsella was an ordinary guy who followed a calling from above, took a series of leaps of faith, and ultimately fulfilled his destiny.  On one hand, I greatly admire Ray for his boldness in taking one seemingly crazy risk after another to follow the “voice”, not knowing how everything would turn out.  On the other hand, I think he had it easy… he heard a booming voice from above that told him what to do.  Sure, it was a vague and confusing voice, but a voice nonetheless with some guidance on what mission he was meant to undertake.  I have often wished that I would hear that voice… some booming command that would knock me off of my path and take me on a magical journey to fulfill my own destiny and to make the impact that I’m meant to make in this world.  If not a voice, maybe some stone tablets can drop from the sky with my future clearly carved out.  Really… I am not picky.

But life seldom provides booming voices from above, or clear instructions etched in stone… the path we are meant to take is more subtle and often far less obvious.  But the signs are there… internally, we know the adventures that draw us in, the activities that delight us, and the accomplishments that make us proud.  Some of us may be living that life now, with a career and a mission that satisfies all of those criteria and allows us to serve the world and to find peace and actualization.  Others of us are not.  If the signs are all there, what is keeping us from taking the leap?

Internal Barriers to Heeding the “Voice” and Finding Our “Field of Dreams”:

  • Fear of Failure?
  • Living up to Someone Else’s Expectations?
  • Ego?
  • Laziness?
  • Feeling That There is Time for That Later?
  • Fear That Others Won’t Follow?
  • Difficulty for a “Control Freak” to Give Up Control?
  • Fear of Not Making Enough Money?
  • Concern That a Change Now Renders Past Choices Meaningless?
  • Addictions and Temptations to Take the Wrong, and Easier Path?

Whatever the barrier, we will continue to feel a sense of nagging and even yearning to discover the right path, and to find what adventure we are called to take.  And beyond the internal signs, there will be external signs as well… we just need to listen.  A chance meeting with an old friend with some advice at just the right time.  An article or advertisement that resonates strongly every time we read it.  An activity that makes the world slow down, our minds feel clear, and our hearts feel joy.  Whatever the medium, God’s “Voice” is reaching out to help us find the path that we yearn to walk.  We need to listen, act, and repeat.  It may not be one big, booming step, but instead a series of small ones… regardless if we continue to heed the voice then I do believe that we ultimately will find our own personal “Field of Dreams”.  And then, everything else will take care of itself.

As to me… well, “I am 36 years old, I love my family, and I am listening for the voice that will lead me on the crazy journey to fulfill my destiny.”  My career has thus far led me along a fascinating path in which I have been able to learn from and partner with brilliant and inspiring people, to travel the world and see first-hand the stark contrast of abundant wealth with that of extreme poverty, and to better grow and understand my own unique skills, interests, and passions.  I have no doubt that right now I am exactly where I am supposed to be, and that the sum of my experiences will serve as the foundation for the next phase of the journey.  And, as I stand here now in my “cornfield”, I am listening for that “voice” that will guide me forward to where my destiny ultimately awaits.  Whether this will require a big dramatic step or a series of small ones remains to be seen, but it is time to listen, act, and repeat.  This blog, “Innovation on Purpose”, that I have been writing over the past several months is an example of trusting the “voice”, following my love for writing and teaching, and taking one small step to see where it all leads.  While I may have not yet plowed over a cornfield, I have at least planted a seed.

Listen for the voice, continue to build, and see what comes… and have faith that you ultimately will find your own “Field of Dreams”.

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I wanted to thank all of you for your support, advice, and encouragement over the past several months as I have started the journey into writing that is this blog.  It truly has been an unexpected and rewarding experience as I have re-engaged with old friends, built new relationships, and made connections with individuals from over 75 countries (some of which I had never heard of!).  It has been a true blessing and I am honored that so many of you have taken the time to read some of my thoughts and ideas.  This blog was a first step, and I believe a book will be the second.  We shall see where the journey leads…

Thanks again!

Is your Innovation Reward System Miserables?

Miserables Reward Structure

In the course of writing blog entries over the past several months, I’ve pulled inspiration from Walt Disney, Superheroes, Star Wars, and American Football.  Now, in an effort to show that I have a little more depth, I will pull from the 19th century classic Victor Hugo novel, Les Miserables.  OK… to be fair, I have never actually read the 959 page behemoth of a novel, BUT I have seen the musical several times as well as a couple of movie adaptions.  Les Miz is one of my all time favorite tales- set during the time of the French Revolution, this story is not so much one of good versus evil but rather of principles versus rules or condemnation versus forgiveness.

For those that don’t know the story, here is my condensed summary (959 pages in 2 paragraphs!) of the primary two characters…

Jean Valjean is the story’s protagonist… a man who is principle-based, but not necessarily rule-based. His back story is that as a young man, he stole a loaf of bread to feed his ill and starving sister… and then spent 19 years in prison paying for that crime. Upon leaving prison, he is scorned and abused as an ex-con and again turns to an act of crime.  He steals some silver from a bishop who, instead of turning Valjean into the police, gives the silver to Valjean making Valjean promise that he will use it to turn his life around and to become an honest man. Valjean does as he promises… however, in order to do so he has to break a lot of “rules” including breaking his parole and assuming a new identity.  Valjean flees, becomes a model citizen and business owner, and spends several years helping dozens of people to make a living and to lead a better life. Later, he intervenes and frees and cares for a sick and troubled woman who been driven to and convicted of prostitution, caring for her until the day of her death. He then flees from law enforcement to save and protect this woman’s young daughter and risks everything to give her a better life. In the end, he dies a hero, sacrificing himself to save the lives of many around him.

Javert, on the other hand, is the antagonist of this epic tale and spends his life in pursuit of Valjean. He is a strict enforcer of the law, and believes that each and every rule should be followed and not questioned… no matter the circumstances. Thus, he believes that those who break the laws should be punished and given no mercy.  He is indifferent to the fact that Valjean has turned his life around and is now doing far more good for the world than he had ever done harm.  He pursues Valjean doggedly throughout the story with his life’s purpose to make sure that this rule-breaker gets what he deserved.

Watching the story, it is clear that Valjean is the hero and that Javert is the villian.  Despite the fact that Valjean has made several mistakes and broken may laws throughout his life, he chooses to overcome his past and to sacrifice himself for the greater good.  He adds a lot of value to the world around him throughout the course of his life, and was “Amazing”, but certainly not “Perfect”.  Javert on the other hand, saw the world entirely in black & white.  He was the enforcer of the rules, and always did what he felt that he was supposed to do.  He valued order and consistency, and believed that mistakes were not to be forgiven… they were to be punished.  His mission is eliminating “errors” around him… in the actions, behaviors, and judgment of others.  Javert spends his life as the enforcer of “Perfect” rather than “Amazing”.  The roles of hero and villain are very clear in watching this tale unfold… the audience wants to see Valjean succeed and to see Javert fail.  And, in the end, the audience gets what it wants.

While these roles of hero and villain are clear in their exaggerated personas as outlined above, in the real world it gets a little messier.  Particularly, thinking about a workplace environment the distinction between the principle-based, “amazing” rule breaker and the detail-oriented, “perfect” rule enforcer is not nearly as clear cut.  For the sake of example, imagine these two (less exaggerated) characters in your office:

  • Valjean is smart, gutsy, and action-oriented.  He is unafraid to take risks and is more than comfortable to break a few rules to deliver results.  He supports his people and will throw himself in front of a bus for them.  Over the course of his career, he has delivered some “homerun” initiatives, but has also had his share of Strike Outs.  While he is seen as inconsistent, his talent and potential are massive so he is frequently entrusted with the toughest challenges.  His total value to the organization over the duration of his career is unparalleled, but he has had a few tough years when his risk-taking did not pan out.  He is frequently praised for being creative, bold, and action-oriented, but admonished for failing to follow rules and procedures in which he did not find value.
  • Javert on the other hand is as hard working as they come.  Always the first one in the office and the last one to leave, he does everything by the book… and demands that those around him do so as well.  His people are generally intimidated by him, but as long as they stay mistake-free and on task, he will support them.  Javert is the model of consistency, and has never had a bad year… although he has never had an amazing one either.  His consistency and work ethic have led to above-average results over the course of his career, although he has never had a “home run”.  He is rewarded for his consistency, his lack of errors, and his efficiency, but criticized for his inability to take risks, inspire others, and think out of the box.

Given these two distinctly different and unique individuals, which is more likely to find success in your organization?  Valjean has the higher upside potential and in the end will likely deliver more business potential… but he comes at a much higher risk.  Javert on the other hand is never going to deliver a blockbuster breakthrough innovation… but he is as reliable as they come.

The truth is that both individuals are needed for the long-term success of an Innovative organization, and thus both must be rewarded.  This is a classic case of needing a system that is “Fair, but Not Equal”.  Consider the following scenarios:

  • If your organization disproportionately rewards for risk-taking and home run hitting, then executional rigor and consistency will suffer.
  • If however, your organization focuses more on flawless execution (and thus punishes for mistakes), then the innovative capability to deliver big and breakthrough initiatives will diminish.
  • If you solely evaluate individuals on a year-by-year performance evaluation, and do not consider the big picture then you will likely disproportionally reward “one-hit wonders” and unfairly punish the risk-takers whose work either did not pan out or at least did not pan out yet.
  • If you only look at long-term results and the “big picture” then you may under-value the solid, consistent performer who delivers perfect, if not amazing work day in and day out.

The trick, then, is to have different and unique roles as well as rules for both the Valjeans and Javerts of your organization.  If you place both men into a situation where out-of-the box thinking and risk taking is both required and rewarded, then Valjean will look like a star and Javert will struggle.  On the other hand, in a position in which strict attention to details, deadlines, and delivery is needed, then Javert will excel and Valjean will struggle.  And not only will work performance suffer, but culturally there will be issues as well as these two conflicting styles can become very adversarial and even exaggerate their behaviors.   Said differently, when it comes to performance reviews and reward structures, there can not be a one-size-fits-all approach… both sets of skills and approaches are needed and assignments and evaluations must be tailored accordingly.  This can come to life via differing evaluation criteria and performance review processes.  Again, one skill set is not necessarily greater than the other, but they are distinctly different so it is important to reward and recognize employees in a way that is “fair but not equal”

Within an organization, the culture and performance are largely driven by the reward structure- Like it or not, in the “big picture”, we are what we measure.  Individuals largely want to be successful, and will either tailor their behaviors to achieve rewards, leave the organization to find someplace where their skills are more appreciated, or become unhappy and potentially destructive when they perceive their unique talents are being disproportionately disregarded.  Therefore, if you want to have a balance of risk-taking and rule-following (which is critical for the success of an innovative environment), then it is important to get the right people into the right roles and to reward them accordingly.  Otherwise, the individuals, the culture, and the results will be Miserables.