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Your organization sucks at innovating

innovation

It’s easy to make your organization more innovative if you stop trying to show everyone how innovative you are.

What can you do to add more innovation to your organization? A question, no doubt, asked in every organization. There are simple accessible answers to that question all over the place and countless best-selling books. It’s an easy question to answer but it’s the wrong question.

There are generally two ways to become more innovative.

We can add things to what we’re already doing (innovation by addition) or we can take things away that get in the way of innovation (innovation by subtraction).

We tend to focus on additive innovation because it’s a lot easier than subtractive innovation.

We can add innovation days. Add time for employees to work on whatever they want. Add inspirational quotes to the walls for all employees to read and digest. It is as if we somehow believe reading these clichés and over-generalizations will nudge employees towards becoming the next Einstein.

But we all know this crap doesn’t work. So why do we do it?

Innovation by addition is tangible. All of this crap demonstrates activity. When asked the inevitable question, “What are you doing to improve innovation,” answers are easy and visible. It doesn’t work but it feels like we’re adding value.

Additive innovation quickly turns into activity for its own sake: innovation champions, innovation awards, innovation panels. You get the picture. The workforce, seeing this sop for what it is, disengages and goes back to doing things the same why they always did. (Only now they are even busier because they have to sort through this crap.)

But…here’s another thought.

Most of the businesses I know that truly innovate over long periods of time spend more time inverting the problem. Rather than ask how to promote innovation they ask what destroys innovation? And, remarkably, they stop doing as much of that stuff as they can.

Instead of looking for how to succeed at innovation, look for how to fail at it. It’s a fun exercise until you realize how many of those things you currently do at your company.

Want to kill innovation? Make people attend meetings all day. Send them emails every 30 seconds. Bombard them with too much work. Kill their enthusiasm. Make them write pages of pointless prose to justify something that should be simple. … You get the picture.

Subtractive innovation is not easy. When someone asks what you’re doing to encourage innovation you can’t point to a meeting, champion, or an award. Answering that question with what you stopped doing, or some process you removed because it was no longer adding value requires two skills that are easily dismissed in the sound byte corporate culture: thought and nuance.

The Joy of Finding Things Out

Canadian filmmaker Reid Gower created the Feynman Series, a trilogy of physicist Richard Feynman’s penetrating insight into domains outside of physics. Consider the first, Richard Feynman on Beauty.

Honours, the second part, shows Feynman’s healthy disrespect for authority.

I don’t like honors. I’m appreciated for the work that I did, and for people who appreciate it, and I notice that other physicists use my work. I don’t need anything else. I don’t think there’s any sense to anything else. I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize. I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors. It bothers me, honors. Honors is epilets, honors is uniforms. My poppa brought me up this way. I can’t stand it, it hurts me.

When I was in High School, one of the first honors I got was to be a member of the Arista, which is a group of kids who got good grades. Everybody wanted to be a member of the Arista. I discovered that what they did in their meetings was to sit around to discuss who else was worthy to join this wonderful group that we are. OK So we sat around trying to decide who would get to be allowed into this Arista. This kind of thing bothers me psychologically for one or another reason. I don’t understand myself.

Honors, and from that day to this, always bothered me. I had trouble when I became a member of the National Academy of Science, and I had ultimately to resign. Because there was another organization, most of whose time was spent in choosing who was illustrious enough to be allowed to join us in our organization. Including such questions as: ‘we physicists have to stick together because there’s a very good chemist that they’re trying to get in and we haven’t got enough room…’. What’s the matter with chemists? The whole thing was rotten . Because the purpose was mostly to decide who could have this honor. OK? I don’t like honors.

Filtering Nonsense

meeting2

When I first drafted this post, I tentatively called it how to get fired.

That might not be entirely true but if you follow the advice below, you might quickly find yourself with more time on your hands. Nothing gets you uninvited to meetings quicker than being labelled a troublemaker.

With that warning, try these ideas the next time you are in a meeting.

Ask Why.

Simply ask people to walk you through their thinking. Why do you think that? Walk me through your logic.

We’re simply too busy these days to have as many opinions as we do and asking why quickly sorts out the people who have done the work from the people who haven’t.

In the process you’ll expose some assumptions that should be explicit and visible.

Over the years, I’ve found that simply asking why and listening to the quality of the response is the best bullshit filter. If answers come back in cliches and generalizations, that’s an indication that more thinking is needed.

Define Success.

What does success look like? The second thing is to simply ask people to define success in clear and unambiguous terms before something gets underway.

If you’re taking on a new project or starting a new service, you clearly expect some outcome, right? So it should be somewhat logical that you’ll be able to say we expect X, Y, and Z to happen and if they don’t then this will be considered a failure.

Simply asking, what success looks like in specifics tells you a lot. I think you’d be surprised at the number of people who prefer to throw a dart at the wall and then draw a bullseye around it. Or, then again, maybe you wouldn’t.

Now watch. If X, Y, and Z are reported for a few weeks and then somehow disappear, something is probably amiss. Dig deeper.

Another simple idea is to simply ask people to explain the best case against their own argument.

Of course none of this is going to get you promoted. There are other ways to do that.

Over to you

What are you tips to improve the quality of discussion in meetings and/or filter nonsense?

Jeff Bezos’s Reading List

Bezos

The back of Brad Stone’s excellent new book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, contains a list of a dozen books “widely read by executives and employees that are integral to understanding” Amazon. We can now add Bezos’s reading list to similar ones from Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

The Remains of the day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Jeff Bezos’s favorite novel, about a butler who wistfully recalls his career in service during wartime Great Britain. Bezos has said he learns more from novels than nonfiction.

Sam Walton: Made in America, by Sam Walton

In his autobiography, Walmart’s founder expounds on the principles of discount retailing and discusses his core values of frugality and a bias for action—a willingness to try a lot of things and make many mistakes. Bezos included both in Amazon’s corporate values.

Memos from the Chairman, by Alan Greenberg

A collection of memos to employees by the chairman of the now defunct investment bank Bear Stearns. In his memos, Greenberg is constantly restating the bank’s core values, especially modesty and frugality. His repetition of wisdom from a fictional philosopher presages Amazon’s annual recycling of its original 1997 letter to shareholders.

The Mythical Man-Month, by Frederick P. Brooks Jr.

An influential computer scientist makes the counter-intuitive argument that small groups of engineers are more effective than larger ones at handling complex software projects. The book lays out the theory behind Amazon’s two pizza teams.

Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, by Jim Collins

The famous management book about why certain companies succeed over time. A core ideology guides these firms, and only those employees who embrace the central mission flourish; others are “expunged like a virus” from the companies.

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins

Collins briefed Amazon executives on his seminal management book before its publication. Companies must confront the brutal facts of their business, find out what they are uniquely good at, and master their fly wheel, in which each part of the business reinforces and accelerates the other parts.

Creation: Life and How to make it, By Steve Grand

A video-game designer argues that intelligent systems can be created from the bottom up if one devises a set of primitive building blocks. The book was influential in the creation of Amazon Web Services, or AWS, the service that popularized the notion of the cloud.

The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen

An enormously influential business book whose principles Amazon acted on and that facilitated the creation of the Kindle and AWS. Some companies are reluctant to embrace disruptive technology because it might alienate customers and undermine their core business, but Christensen argues that ignoring potential disruption is even costlier.

The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvements, by Eliyahu Goldratt

An exposition of the science of manufacturing written in the guise of the novel, the book encourages companies to identify the biggest constraints in their operations and then structure their organizations to get the most out of those constraints. The Goal was a bible for Jeff Wilke and the team that fixed Amazon’s fulfillment network.

Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, by James Womanck

The production philosophy pioneered by Toyota calls for a focus on those activities that create value for the customer and the systematic eradication of everything else.

Data-Driven Marketing: The 15 Metrics Everyone in Marketing Should Know, by Mark Jeffery

A guide to using data to measure everything from customer satisfaction to the effectiveness of marketing. Amazon employees must support all assertions with data, and if the data has a weakness, they must point it out or their colleagues will do it for them.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Taleb

The scholar argues that people are wired to see patterns in chaos while remaining blind to unpredictable events, with massive consequences. Experimentation and empiricism trumps the easy and obvious narrative.

Marcus Aurelius on How to Act and Four Habits of Thought to Eliminate

Marcus Aurelius
Some advice from Marcus Aurelius in Meditations:

Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without
forethought, with misgivings.

Don’t gussy up your thoughts.

No surplus words or unnecessary actions.

Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a
Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a soldier and
patiently awaiting his recall from life. Needing no oath or
witness.

Cheerfulness. Without requiring other people’s help. Or
serenity supplied by others.

To stand up straight-not straightened.

Later he adds this bit of timeless wisdom:

Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors.

Four habits of thought to eliminate.

Four habits of thought to watch for, and erase from your mind when you catch them. Tell yourself:

* This thought is unnecessary.
* This one is destructive to the people around you.
* This wouldn’t be what you really think (to say what you don’t think—the definition of absurdity.)

And the fourth reason for self-reproach: that the more divine part of you has been beaten and subdued by the degraded mortal part—the body and its stupid self-indulgence.

The best way to read Meditations is not necessarily from start to finish. Another idea, is pair it with Montaigne’s How to Live and read random pages from one every few days.

Neil Gaiman on The Importance of Reading, Libraries, and Imagination

Neil Gaiman on The Importance of Reading

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.
If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.Albert Einstein

Neil Gaiman, who brought us one of the best commencement speeches ever, chimes in on with a lecture explaining why using our imaginations is an obligation for all citizens.

The correlation between illiteracy and prison growth.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

Literacy is more important now then ever.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

On fiction as a gateway drug.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key.

[W]ords are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. … Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

This reminds me of Keith Oatley, who when explaining the role of fiction in our lives employed the metaphor of a flight simulator. A flight simulator allows pilots-in-training to safely and quickly learn how to deal with all sorts of problems that might happen in the air. Fiction, Oatley argues, “allows us to experience emotions in a safe place, training us to understand ourselves and others.”

How well-meaning adults can kill a love of reading.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant. … Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around.

Science fiction makes its way to China and the importance of imagination.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

On the value of libraries and why anyone who sees them as nothing more than a shelf of books misses the point.

[L]ibraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

On moving from an information scarce society to one overloaded.

Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut.

Books are a gateway to making friends with the eminent dead.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

Our obligation to daydream.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different

(Via @YLevitan)
(Photo via The Guardian)