How To Avoid Innovation Theatre

Consistent investment, dedicated teams, proper evidencing of decisions, alignment with strategy. A simple but critical recipe for innovation in future-ready organisations – Tom Cheesewright

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is“How do you define innovation?”

This week I’ve been asked it several times so here’s a short post to recap my thoughts.

Innovation is executing new ideas to create value. The mistake a lot of people are making at the moment, and hence the overuse of the word, is that they are forgetting two things:

  1. Creativity is not innovation.
  2. Continuous improvement is not innovation.

Creativity is a prerequisite for sure. Innovation, however, is the practical application of creativity.

  • You can bring someone in to give an “inspirational talk” on innovation 
  • You can hold a one-day workshop to get your company to be more creative
  • You can get a cool space with loads of beanbags and motivational posters 
  • You can have a hack day

That’s not innovation. That’s what Steve Blank termed innovation theatre. Just for show, with no real outcome.

Innovation theatre can be of value as it can excite people and show them the possibilities. It’s fun, and fun is important. Let’s not confuse it with innovation though.

pasted image 0Innovation consists of four things:

  • Having an idea that solves a problem
  • Doing something with that idea
  • Proving that it delivers new value for people
  • Translating it into reality and making it part of the everyday

Innovation Slide

To be innovative, we need to be good at both idea generation and idea execution.

A new idea is usually rejected or resisted by the prevailing system. Therefore ideas that are new and that could complicate or even threaten the existing way of working means creating space where we can protect them.

It also needs protection from the organisational desire to complete things quickly. All the talk about agility is somewhat misplaced. If you work in innovation or design you’ll always see a time lag from inception to implementation. Even in the best organisations, it will take months, sometimes years, for new concepts to be assimilated into the everyday culture. Many (most) never make it.

That’s why there are always questions about how innovation teams spend their time and whether it’s worthwhile. When you’re working two years into the future it’s really hard to demonstrate outcomes that fit conventional performance frameworks.

Six ways to avoid innovation theatre

  • Have a consistent way to define and measure innovation, so that it’s unambiguous in your company
  • Look for good problems rather than great ideas
  • Periodically assess the areas of your business so that you know where each stands in terms of innovation capability and capacity
  • Get senior leaders to identify and sponsor specific initiatives designed to address the key problems
  • Assemble smalls teams to work on the challenges. Use disciplined protocols to help these teams succeed.
  • Document, and track progress and share progress internally and externally

To be an innovative organisation you need to be great at defining problems, at generating ideas, at selecting and executing them, and at getting them to spread.

Innovation mostly requires a little curiosity and a lot of persistence.


Thanks to Katie Fletcher for the cool graphic

The Rise Of Business Bullshit – And How We Can Fight It

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this, but we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.” – Harry Frankfurt  On Bullshit

Many people in the social sector will have heard about the 80/20 rule –  that 80% of the demand comes from 20% of users.

It’s one of those things that seems to intuitively make sense. If we can solve the problem of the 20% of people who are sapping all our resources – then the world would be a much better place.

Except of course….it’s bullshit.

Recent work by our own Insight team found the belief that a small group of users were responsible for a disproportionate amount of contact with us simply had no foundation.

So why do these myths – dangerous in that they lend themselves to silver bullet solutions – swirl around the modern workplace?

John V. Petrocelli is the author of a new paper which looks at the Antecedents of Bullshitting and the conditions that need to exist to encourage people to bullshit. 

First of all, bullshitting is not the same as lying, which is a deliberate and premeditated attempt to conceal the facts.

By contrast, bullshitters may or may not know what the truth is. They are simply communicating with little or no regard for evidence, established knowledge, or truth.

Petrocelli ran two experiments that revealed major factors that might cause someone to bullshit:

  • Firstly, people bullshitted most when they felt pressure to provide an opinion and believed their audience didn’t know much about the subject. Even though they may not have the knowledge or experience to have an informed opinion, the social pressure to contribute something kicked in.
  • Secondly, if there is no accountability for bullshit, it’s more likely to happen.  People appear to be more likely to bullshit when it’s perceived as acceptable or relatively easy to do without challenge.

As Petrocelli says – it seems unlikely that people are generally ready to admit to bullshitting, so it’s even more important we understand the psychological processes that both enable people to communicate with little to no concern for evidence as well as the processes that explain why people accept so much bullshit without questioning its validity.

So how can we stem the flow of BS and encourage people to challenge its validity?

Four Tactics That May Reduce Bullshit

Get Better At Problem Definition

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions, not finding the best problems.

So we need to build a culture around asking:

  • Is that really true?
  • Do we honestly know that?
  • Where’s the evidence on that?

Simply calling each other out on potential BS has to become a leadership behaviour.

Hold Fewer Meetings

Bullshitting is hard work. It requires the capacity to continually come up with new, over-packed, ambiguous concepts -so said Andre Spicer

As Spicer points out managers and employees can spend large chunks of their day attending meetings or implementing programmes actually disconnected with the core processes that actually create value.

Pointless meetings are a breeding ground for bullshit – something that’s been known for a long time. In 1944, the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services, created the Simple Sabotage Field Manual that was designed to advise Europeans about effective ways of frustrating and resisting Nazi rule.

It advises people to “talk as frequently as possible and at great length,” “bring up irrelevant issues,” and “hold conferences when there is more urgent work to do.”

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Meetings are often opinion, rather than evidenced based.

Stop Asking Everyone’s Opinion

The modern organisation is obsessive about collaboration and consultation – but encouraging everyone’s opinions on everything invites bullshit.

Social media should have taught us by now that more opinions aren’t necessarily better.  We’re inclined to believe what we see on social media because it comes from people we trust: our friends, our family, and people we have chosen to follow because we like or admire them. However, most of us know deep down that what our families and friends say is hardly ever evidence-based.

The same applies to work. More consultation = more bullshit.

Ban PowerPoint

Presentations at team meetings are the modus operandi of the skilled bullshitter – and used to propagate all sorts of half-baked propositions in a way that few would dare challenge.

Not for nothing does Jeff Bezos ban presentations at Amazon -insisting that Powerpoint-style presentations give permission to gloss over details, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.


There’s one big tactic for battling bullshit that Petrocelli identifies:

Evidence.

Certainly, we’ve become much more focused on being an evidence-based organisation – as Carole Clarke writes – we increasingly need to become more rigorous in how we evaluate the impact of our services so that we can say with a lot more confidence that things work.

We need to bust myths. Slay Zombie Projects.  And wage war on jargon.

An indifference to evidence breeds an indifference to the truth.

Nudging our organisations towards a more evidence-based culture becomes the surest way to stem the flow of bullshit, if not kill it.

The Danger Of Listening To People Who Talk A Lot

Research indicates that even when everyone within a group recognizes who the subject matter expert is, they defer to that member just 62% of the time; when they don’t, they listen to the most extroverted personKhalil Smith

Innovation must be founded on a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve. It takes a lot longer than you think too – the bad news is that all the talk of agility is misplaced.

However, we live in a world that places a higher value on talking and being busy than on thinking. On doing things rather than solving the right problems.

Relatively few businesses place value on purposeful thinking – as ‘thinking about stuff’ doesn’t look like work. Some of my best work over the past few weeks has been thinking – but there’s precious little to show for it right now.

We default to task-oriented leadership and “doing whatever it takes to get the job done.” It’s an autocratic management style from another age that emphasises completing (often needless) tasks to meet (often pointless) organisational goals.

This focus on production leads to ideas and plans which fail to get exposed to the tough love of effective questioning.

It stems from school, where we are assessed and graded on the quality of our answers, not the problems we are contemplating. As we enter the workplace we get rewarded for the solutions that we propose, not the questions that we have asked.

Very few people get promoted for asking difficult questions.  So our organisations become very good at solving problems – even if they happen to be the wrong ones.

If you’re serious about solving the right problems, you need to be very good at hearing a lot of diverse opinions and seeking out some kind of essential truth.

The Dangers of Listening To People Who Talk a Lot

One of the problems we face is that we are drawn to extroverts. Those who talk well and talk lots can command attention in meetings – and they get an unprecedented amount of airtime in modern organisations.

Whilst extroverts put it all out there for the world to see, introverts often keep their best ideas inside. If you’re ignoring them, you’re at risk of missing the problem and the solution.

As Khalil Smith writes – when our brains are left to their own devices, attention is drawn to shortcuts, such as turning focus to the loudest person in the room. And in a group setting “airtime” — the amount of time people spend talking — is a stronger indicator of perceived influence than actual expertise.

What Is An Expert Anyway? 

The other challenge is organisations often have quite a narrow view of expertise. They rely on things like position in the hierarchy, titles and years of service. However – more expansive experience, like time spent with actual customers, tends to get over-looked.

Iceberg2

 

The ‘iceberg of ignorance’, the idea that most problems in organisations are invisible to leaders, and therefore unsolvable, is quite a blunt way of thinking about expertise. However, I’m betting that most people regarded as experts are positioned near the top of the iceberg.

Again – we often miss addressing the right problems as we listen to the ‘expert’ or the highest paid persons opinion. Remember – we are hardwired to defer to authority and seek guidance from the hierarchy.

Tapping Into The Inner World of Introverts 

We have forgotten that solitude and taking time to think have a crucial role in problem-solving.

Between a third and a half of the population of the world define themselves as introverts. They have more activity in the part of the brain involved in internal processing: problem-solving, remembering and planning. Introverts get energy from an “inner world” of thoughts, ideas, reflections and memories.

Think about that. Pretty much half the people you come across today:

  • Don’t thrive on endless meetings
  • Don’t want to solve a problem by talking about it for hours
  • Don’t enjoy brainstorming
  • Don’t want to attend away-days and conferences all the time.

Due to that inner world – introverts are ideally placed to absorb complex information about a problem and combine it into an elegant solution.

In the networked age the surest path to success is no longer just listening to the loud and the powerful, but widening and deepening connections with everyone.


 

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok from Pexels

Failure: We Need To Move From Slow And Stupid To Fast And Intelligent

twitterpeek

In the history of pointless technology, it takes a lot to beat the Twitter Peek.

Aimed at those interested in Twitter, but who didn’t own a smartphone,  it asked customers to spend $100 plus a monthly subscription.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly designed to solve a problem that didn’t really exist.  If you were using Twitter in 2009 you could count yourself as an early adopter – the tech-savvy and digitally engaged folk who probably already owned a smartphone.


Last week we learned a new word from Samuel West, Founder and Curator of the Museum of Failure – Atychiphobia. We were presenting alongside Samuel to discuss why we find it so hard to talk about failure at work.

The Museum of Failure started as a collection of nearly 100 ‘innovative’ products that launched, but in one way or another ended up going horribly wrong.

Rather than condemning the failure – the museum is actually a celebration of creativity. Every item provides unique insight into the risky business of innovation.

It’s easy to laugh at likes of Twitter Peek, or Colgate Lasagne, but if we are honest our own careers will be full of bad ideas and false starts.

credit-dr-samuel-west

Nielsen research suggests that “two out of every three products are destined to fail.” However, this is rarely acknowledged or discussed.  

In the social sector, where projects take years rather than weeks,  and pilots become mainstream services without any evaluation – things are worse.

Nothing publicly fails.

Everything is a success.

Chris Bolton has suggested we need our own Museum – a Museum of Failed Products for the social sector – to share the learning from things that haven’t worked.

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Our Problem With Failing

The truth is that even though the wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible, in most organisations we simply think of failure in the wrong way.

Amy Edmonson has outlined the big difference between knowing that failure is a valuable learning experience and actually making it a core part of your ethos.

As she explains,  every child learns at some point that admitting failure sometimes means taking the blame. Failure then gets inextricably linked with fault – and we learn that it sometimes pays to cover up failure , or even blame it on someone else.

THE SPECTRUM OF FAILURE

There’s a world of difference between deliberately breaking the rules, thinking on your feet in a complex situation and purposeful exploration.

The organisation that implements lots of ideas will most likely have many failures. Innovation only thrives in a forgiving organisation. And if failure is the engine for innovation, our challenge is to make our organisations more forgiving.

Again we come back to culture – and the need for organisations to become places of psychological safety where learning from failure is openly discussed.

When we initially pitched Bromford Lab the number one objective was to create an environment where failure was not just accepted but encouraged. 75% of the things we worked on would fail.

This was not to create a culture that celebrated failure. It was to create a place where people felt it was safe to fail. They wouldn’t get punished for messing up.

Good Failure/Bad Failure

In exploration, Failure is just an alert, warning us about the way work is progressing.

You wouldn’t close down cancer research on the basis of failed trials, you take the learning and use it to continue the research and development process.

At Bromford we are closing down our Starting Well Engineer pilot, but the findings we have are invaluable and will inform the next stage of exploration.  Indeed our Neighbourhood Coaching model was the result of five years of tiny failures.

Where we need to get better is we just aren’t fast enough.  We take too long and we now need to focus on smart failure for a fast-changing world.

Quick, decisive failures:

  • Save you from throwing extra resources at a poor proposition
  • Make it easier to learn – as actions and outcomes are close together in time
  • Mean you can rule out a given course of action and move on and do something else
  • Lessen the pressure to continue with the project regardless because your investment in it is not large

In reality – failure is never one thing. It is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good.

We need to shift our failure from being slow and stupid to fast and intelligent.

We Need To Be Boringly Reliable and Radically Disruptive – At The Same Time

Our organisations are generally bad at innovation. That’s because they are designed that way.

Just as your body is designed to fight a common cold, most of our cultures protect the organisational DNA from any foreign antibodies. Add something new and it can get rejected.

It’s not personal. It’s just an automatic survival mechanism.

Purposeful thinking – especially thinking differently – isn’t always rewarded.  Middle managers blocking innovative ‘ideas’ are simply doing their jobs and protecting operational performance. You don’t mess with success.

As Steve Blank has pointed out – there’s no point trying to act like a startup when you’re no longer a startup. 

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (3)

To truly transform organisations, we must live with two sets of values simultaneously.

We need to be boringly reliable and radically disruptive at the same time.

What often happens is organisations confuse these two things – innovation and business as usual. As Victor W. Hwang has written – the values are opposed. Successful companies often need to exist in both worlds—innovation and production simultaneously – and that’s hard to do.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (4)

At Bromford – we see the connection between these, but also the value in keeping them at arm’s length. We’ve just completed discovery sessions designed and facilitated to support radical ideas around the ‘how might we’ questions that make up our current exploration pipeline.

In many organisations, these promising ideas often fail because they can’t cross the barrier between innovation and production. What we need to do as organisations is to create the conditions for these to co-exist and establish a handover point from innovation to business as usual.

The system we designed is essentially that:

  • A space to translate thinking into practical applications – and to ensure that any ideas that are pursued connect with the organisation’s overall strategy.
  • Bringing people together to conceive, champion, and carefully develop new approaches that have not been tried before.
  • Nurturing bright ideas and ensuring they solve the problems that matter.
  • Acting as a conduit with organisations, individuals and ideas outside Bromford – and as a pressure chamber that allows these external influences into Bromford in a safe and controlled way.
  • Using a mix of methodologies including design thinking and prototyping to help visualise solutions, and not talk ourselves out of change where it appears too difficult or complex

This means casting the net wide and sometimes pursuing dead ends.

Organisations design pipelines of exploration to get narrower and narrower. They want to dismiss ideas quickly that don’t fit the norm. Working in this way means your organisation is being slowly disabled and will become less skilled at handling different, more challenging thinking.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (9)

Over the course of our Discovery Sessions, we welcomed over 45 colleagues into the Lab from very different service areas. All sessions were shared across social media and drew further contribution internally and externally.

This approach to working out loud is deliberate. The history of innovation reveals that great breakthroughs almost always emerge from the coming together of disparate insights.

Most of us have grown up at work with the belief that we shouldn’t share things.

  • Don’t share things as someone will steal your ideas.
  • What if we want to sell this?
  • That’s not been approved — it isn’t ready to share
  • Sharing things will just worry people unnecessarily
  • Don’t tell people — we don’t wash our dirty linen in public

The work you see outside Bromford – is exactly the same as you see inside Bromford.

The truth is most of our current challenges can’t be solved alone. The starting point is to build a network with people that can help us nurture ideas into reality.

Openly sharing work has an additional benefit. It mitigates the fear of change as you are working transparently. It gets colleague buy-in as you actively draw volunteers to take part in tests and further exploration.

It’s this that helps people understand the difference between innovation and business as usual.

In the exploration phase, failure isn’t just tolerated, it’s anticipated.

And if you’ve done your exploration in the right way, and effectively supported the transition into reality – things won’t fail when they matter.

Too often we see people put the emphasis on the creative phase.

You hold meetings in a brainstorming room, you sit on beanbags, you wear De Bono’s thinking hats. You have a lot of post-it notes.  

That’s not innovation.

That’s innovation theatre.

Innovation consists of four things:

  • Having an idea that solves a problem
  • Doing something with that idea (actually making it happen)
  • Proving that it delivers new value for people
  • Translating it into reality and making it part of the everyday

To achieve this we must learn to live simultaneously with the values of innovation and production, knowing when to bring them together, and when to keep them apart.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (5)


Thanks to Katie Fletcher for the images

Ending The Myth Of Collaboration

The best organisational cultures are tolerant of the loner, the thinker. – John Wade

“If I was you,” said a colleague recently “now would be a very good time to involve customers, to get more people involved”.

No, I thought, right now that would be the worst thing we could do.

Collaboration can kill creativity.

Most people in your office have nothing or very little to do with your work, yet collaboration with them – all the time – has become conventional business wisdom.

It’s partly this that has led to us all being meetinged and emailed to death. The mantra of sharing your work and involving everyone in decisions naturally leads to inviting and copying people into things that add no value to them, or you.

If you’re looking to be brave and do something entirely new, involving more people at the wrong time could kill your idea.

Work at MIT found that collaboration—where a bunch of people put their heads together to try to come up with innovative solutions—generally “reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different and potentially superior ones.”

Businesses love the idea of this kind of ‘brainstorming’ as it involves a lot of people, is visible, and is seen as a quick route to solving a problem. There’s precious little evidence though that it produces any results.

meta-analytic review of over 800 teams indicated that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they don’t interact with others.

As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes ‘brainstorming actually harms creative performance, resulting in a collective performance loss that is the very opposite of synergy.’

Solitude: The Benefits of Being Alone

Few businesses place any value on purposeful thinking – as ‘thinking about stuff’ looks too much like loafing about. We are in a world that places a higher value on being busy than on thinking – but genuinely great companies only obsess over productivity – never busyness.

Pauls Slides (1)

Many people are at their most creative during solitary activities like walking, relaxing or bathing, not when stuck in a room with people shouting at them from a whiteboard.

Indeed a study found that “solitude can facilitate creativity–first, by stimulating imaginative involvement in multiple realities and, second, by ‘trying on’ alternative identities, leading, perhaps, to self-transformation.”

Essentially just being around other people can keep creative people from thinking new thoughts.

Solitude is out of fashion – possibly because of its association with the physical and emotional effects of loneliness – but any business that values creativity should be considering how it can get better at keeping people apart.

The Value of Introverts

People who like to spend time alone, or who are less comfortable in group situations, are decidedly at odds with today’s team-based organisational culture.

The danger is that with a focus on all-out collaboration you miss out on the creativity of introverts.

When I started group facilitation I learned two things very quickly:

  1. Introverts have some of the best ideas but often don’t feel very comfortable talking openly about them in a group setting.
  2. Extroverts are only too willing to share their ideas (in fact they rarely shut up about them) but are sometimes reluctant to listen to good ideas proposed by others.

Avoiding Mediocrity by Committee

As Simon Penny and Michelle Butler write knowing when, and when not to, involve customers and colleagues is key.

Once you’ve unearthed radical ideas from people, they need nurturing. They need protecting from group-think meetings and committees who largely express speculated unevidenced opinions based on current preferences from past experiences.

Design thinking has a bias towards action: it resists talking yourself out of trying something radical. Creating prototypes helps you to think about your idea in a concrete manner, and get it to test before it gets dumbed down.

At Bromford Lab, we’ve learned:

Collaboration is useful when you are:

  1. Dealing with complex problems that require multiple ‘expert’ opinions.
  2. Getting buy-in. People are more invested in an idea when they were involved in defining the problem.
  3. Dealing with strategic issues. The more fundamental the issue is to the organisations purpose the more essential collaboration becomes.

Collaboration isn’t useful when:

  1. You need to really think about things. This benefits from solitude and purposeful exploration.
  2. You need to be really radical. Truly disruptive thinking happens in very small deviant groups.
  3. You don’t have time. When you have a burning platform or require an immediate decision you’re better off being autocratic than wasting peoples time through ‘involvement theatre’.

The myth is, you have to collaborate all the time.

Inclusivity has its limits.

More is not always merrier.


Photo by James Pond on Unsplash