Hooray for Failure – Episode 4 – Renee Hopkins

HFF_EpisodeIn this episode we explore failure as a learning laboratory. Renee Hopkins spends some time chatting with us about the failure of print journalism (and her super power for escaping it), the challenges of  helping innovation thought leaders to innovate (and her work with Innochat), and the lack of room for failure in the “perfect enterprise”. We also have a great conversation about the semantic minefield that is innovation. And a snapshot of a spectacular failure on the part of the UN in Bangladesh in the 1950’s-60’s during which they went from failure to failure.

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Risk is critical for change but the spectrum of acceptable risk is personal—#BIF9

Stacy-PearsallThe range of risk explored, for the sake of self-discovery and innovation was quite extraordinary at BIF-9. It was humbling to see the extent to which people placed themselves, and their sense of self, at risk in the pursuit of revealing new truths.

Combat photographer, Stacy Pearsall opened with a story about joining the military and the elite combat photography troop and through her work received a traumatic brain injury in Iraq. The acceptance of death as a possibility was necessary to do her job and led to her project documenting, “America’s unsung heroes.”

Pearsall described her camera as one of the most powerful weapons possible. That said, after her traumatic brain injury, she discovered that there was a gap in what it meant to be a veteran and how veterans are perceived. She began to photograph veterans to be able to help broaden the definition of what it means to be a veteran and what their needs are in society today. The Veterans Portrait Project was created and she is self-funding the effort.

She wants no other veteran to experience what she experienced in her journey to recovery.

Through her Charleston Center for Photography, Pearsall teaches disabled veterans by giving them the tools they need to feel better about themselves. She finds inspiration in others and the ability to help and exhorted us to do something today—and together.

The concept of a bias for action was very much in play over the two days. Scott Heimendinger, started out as a passionate food blogger and fell into the traps of scrambling for SEO and page views, etc. It wasn’t great, but as Scott noted, doing work is good.

Doing work is important, even if you are not sure what you are doing.

In 2009 if you wanted to cook sous vide at home it cost $1200 to buy a lab device. It shouldn’t have cost that much. Make magazine published his slow food DIY project and he unlocked the Maker merit badge as a result. Heimendinger found the “right pond” to swim in through a process of taking more and more small risks on over time.

As someone who is very risk averse, I have come a long way.

Over time he created a molecular gastronomy cooking club and is establishing Culinary Jam Sessions. Jet City Gastro Physics, just filed its first patent on the way to making better French fries. Along the way he took a Modernist Cuisine course and snagged an internship during which he met Nathan Myhrvold former Microsoft CTO and molecular gastronomist, who created a guide. Now, after directly telling Myhrvold that he should hire him, Heimendinger is working there are as Director of Applied Research and recently had an amazing launch on Kickstarter for his $199 sous vide cooker.

For more on this topic listen to my post session interview with Scott.

Primed-in-5-logoPrimed in 5 with Scott Heimendinger

His efforts were rewarded by taking a series of risks that were manageable over time. All it took was bold passion and being unafraid to be passionate.




That kind of dedication and passion is something that Angela Maiers sought to tap into during her story. For Maiers, the act of contribution changes us. She sees that the moment we realize we have what someone else needs, in that moment our humanity is cemented.

To frame her story she noted that somewhere between preschool and grad school we have learned to hide our genius. And we need to change that. Then she launched into sharing the tale of a great project she conducted with some high school seniors on the last day of school before Summer. Maiers actively asked them to tap into their own genius, to risk a little by committing to something bigger than them selves. What occurred was nothing less than astounding. The students stayed for two days even though school was well and truly out for the year!

Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just changing the world.

The students felt that they were needed and were going to do something about it. Fifteen social enterprises launched and they all believed in themselves and in each other. By taking a risk they became invested in their own genius. And some of the participants joined Angela on stage at BIF-9 to share their own takeaways from the event and share their own stories, “These two days were really important to me…” which was great to see. Another risk taken…

FutureProjectIf Angela Maiers exemplified the process of leading others to recognize and take ownership of their own genius, Andrew Mangino illustrated the results of that journey of discovery from the student’s perspective. Arising from his work as a student journalist Mangino shared his path to eventually founding The Future Project,




High schools aren’t living up to what we all know they can be. Too many students drop out. Even more are disengaged daily. And the current thinking–to blame more teachers, impose more rules, and inject more money–just isn’t working.

At The Future Project, we see the problem simply: Our students aren’t pursuing their dreams. We’re out to turn high schools into Future Schools, where students develop the skills to do just that.

Here are the nine lessons he learned on the way:

  1. When we discover a passion, we discover we can do anything.
  2. Young people learn most when they are changing the world
  3. Schools are not really broken. They are working just as they were designed to work. And so they must be re-invented. [The performance system. Duh]
  4. A nation build on infinite possibility doesn’t feel like it.
  5. The most unjust gap in modern America is the inspiration gap. (seen as a luxury)
  6. The most solvable gap in modern America is the inspiration gap.*
    *But it is going to take a movement to do it.
  7. We don’t have to wait for permission to start.
  8. Nothing happens without a great team.
  9. It’s time for a new kind of leader in America—someone who stands for you.

The Future Project asked, what if there were dream directors? Now they have 16 dream directors across 4 cities in schools. Standing up for the infinite possibility of young people exemplified by Marielle, a student who stood up and began to transform her own school,

I have been a dreamer on stand-by for a long time. And that ends today.

Another way of looking at risk was presented by JoAnn Stonier, Chief Privacy Officer with MasterCard Worldwide. For Stonier, risk is not an immovable concept—it is highly fluid. One of the great challenges she sees for us as we innovate in an age of big data is that the risks to our privacy are not fully known and are not being considered widely enough to influence public policy and private behavior.

“The right to be let alone” arising out of the Gilded Age, is the early precursor to the right to privacy and at the time it was needed to create a retreat from the world due to the encroachments of the Industrial Age. That right to holding private some aspects of our identity and the data that is the manifestation of it is even more important now. Last year Stonier had spent the Summer months addressing the encroachment into private data by the NSA.

We are having these conversations because of the nature of the changes in our society today. Law lags innovation—they are never the solution.

If we look to law we are going to be waiting a very long time for a corresponding support. We need to be wrestling with what is at risk now. Privacy matters and it needs to be a part of the conversation for all who are innovating so that we can ensure that our own risk tolerance can be managed.

Perhaps Steve Blank captured the reframing of business risk best. As the author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany and The Startup Owner’s Manual, Blank has been uncovering the ways in which those who take risks to begin new enterprises go about their work. He noted that Joseph Campbell identified the hero myth in multiple cultures as essentially the same story. Campbell recognized the pattern in the data.

Blank did 8 start-ups in 21 years. At no time was he looking for patterns, as he had his head down the entire time. Yet he did identify patterns.

After retirement Blankbegan sitting on boards and had one a series of private investments over the course of time he began to write his memoirs. While writing he identified a pattern emerging that no-one else had ever called out.

For the last century everyone had been striving for success is by treating start-ups as smaller versions of larger enterprises.

He offered a countervailing view. He noted that no business plan survives first contact with customers and that the only people who use 5 year plans are VC’s (venture capitalists) and Soviet-era countries.

The best start-ups went from failure to failure learning as rapidly as they could. Blank observed the “pivot”—times during which companies changed strategy by changing the people (firing the VP of Sales) and recognized that there needed to be a different way of handling the failure as a result of risk taking.

What we should have been doing instead of firing the person we should have been changing the plan.

On their first day, Blank said, every start-up is a faith-based enterprise based on guesses and no processes to test those guesses. There is no way you are smarter than the collective intelligence of your customers, so experiment with them. Make the risk to the enterprise manageable by learning as fast as you possibly can.

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Everything is an opportunity to experiment, learn and grow—#BIF9

2013-09-18 17.07.07One of the true pleasures of BIF-9 was seeing the range of experimentation on display. Straight out of the gate we were dazzled by the wise beyond his years, Easton LaChapelle. This young man, with the earnestness of someone out to change the world took us through the development of his robotic prosthetic are and bio-feedback remote-manipulation glove (designed using an old Nintendo PowerGlove no less!). What was most remarkable about LaChapelle’s projects was how quickly he was iterating them, how much knowledge he had to acquire to make them work, and how much he is driving cost out of the equation.

This is someone for whom the pursuit of knowledge is not only valuable act in itself, this is the engine that fuels his ability to innovate.

LaChapelle’s most compelling tale arose out of a time when he was at a science fair and met a girl with a prosthetic whose single servo, single sensor, arm cost $80,000. He responded with a completely 3D printed prosthetic arm that can be produced in a week for $400, is approximately 10 lbs today (planned to be 4-5 lbs), and can be controlled using your brain. The resulting arm shook the hand of the President.

Underachiever. [Not]

Also demonstrating the power of experimentation was the the delightful Ping Fu, CEO of Geomagic. She started Geomagic as a result of the work of Chuck Hull who created the world’s largest 3D printing company. Ping Fu is creating a platform for connecting the real world with the virtual world. She demonstrated her enthusiasm for pushing he envelop of 3D printing by dressing in fashion accessories produced by 3D printing, including rocking some fantastic and other-worldly hot pink platform shoes.

2013-09-18 14.56.39She was not the only person to bring props. Dava Newman, Professor of Aeronautics, Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT, also brought props—spacesuits, but these were not your father’s spacesuits. As an engineering professor she studies motion on earth and in space. She brought three spacesuit versions to illustrate the evolution of extravehicular space wear and to discuss the experiments conducted to produce them. Building a suit that doesn’t require the astronaut to overcome the pressure of the suit is the chief concern now that environmental considerations are fully understood. Today she and her team are considering electro-spun designer materials. Spraying asymmetry into the functional membranes layer-by-layer gives them more of the multi-directional movement they are seeking

BIF-9 was not only about experimenting in physical space, it also revealed the opportunities for learning through experimentation between physical and mental spaces

Through the work of his performance art collective, Big Nazo, Erminio Pinque demonstrated the power of changing up reality. He presented mask work and street theatre and delved into the chaos that occurs on a controlled level through that ground-level interaction.

What I’m doing is absurd on a number of levels. There was no business plan. Instead I moved forward with intensity and love of transforming spaces and moments.

The delight in seeing the Big Nazo characters next to children become children was contagious in the room. Seeing the world differently in order to shift the context launched us into whole other directions.

Paul LeBlanc, the President of Southern New Hampshire University, shared his university’s major initiative—College for America that is disaggregating the tertiary education experience. By unbundling college education, College for America is making higher education accessible to a much broader range of student participants.

The USA is behind much of EU and Canada, as LeBlanc clearly identified. He also emphatically made the case that education remains the difference-maker for intergenerational mobility. LeBlanc shared the story of Zac Sherman working making Slim Jims on the midnight shift who earned his Associates Degree for $1250 in 100 days. An exceptional example certainly but one that illustrated the power of will when the economic imbalance is addressed.

Education and a degree changes the trajectory of people’s lives.

In order to recapture that mobility something needs to change: we need to be clear about what needs fixing; we need to consider the power of disaggregation; and, we need to be clearer about how technology can be deployed.

With his pop-up Jazz trio who had not played together before hitting the stage, Carl Störmer, shared the incredibly personal story of his wife’s stroke and the power of giving over to the inspiration of improvisation. He noted that small groups mean solos for everyone – moments to shine, take individual risks—the same can be said in organization life.

Here is a little of the improvised music that Carl shared (forgive the recording, it was captured on a whim and at a distance)

Carl Störmer Jazz Trio 1

Carl Störmer Jazz Trio 2

Create a network and share. Being personal without being private. They built a network of people who could provide just-in-time support. By sharing, people know when and how to help you give you the things you really need.

Control is for beginners – Carl Stormer’s wife

Let go of the notion of where we want to go. And be open to what is going on. True of jazz and true of life. Be open to the implicit and opening order of things.

Mary Flanagan added to the mix by exploring the role of games and game play in helping people understand their world and improve it. She is exploring how people might be moved to be come an effective force for change and presented a game she worked on engage people in considering vaccination—POX.

New technology is boundless but our greatest achievements lie not so much in our breakthroughs but in how these breakthroughs are used to better the world around us.

Her card game, Buffalo, was a fantastic low-tech demonstration of how a game might address stereotypes in sciences.  It directly tackled, Social Identity Complexity. The purpose of the game was to open receptivity to learning about complex social identities. Flanagan believes we can change, even without the desire to want to change. This game helps people recognize their own prejudices based on availability bias. In recognizing that we can begin to change it.

The most surprising storyteller who revealed the power of experimentation as a learning opportunity was the Chief Marketing Officer of The Coca-Cola Company, David Butler. Butler showed how even the largest of enterprises can learn how to experiment and capitalize on their size as a platform for innovation.

Start-ups know how to start but not how to scale. Big companies know how to scale but not how to start.

Butler illustrated the differences between start-ups and larger enterprises…

Start-ups know how to start:

  • Developing assets
  • Rapid learning
  • Exploration
  • Pivoting
  • Lean

Enterprises know how to scale:

  • Leveraging assets
  • Network effects
  • Execution
  • Planning
  • Big


To demonstrate how serious Coke is about tackling the start-up mindset, Butler shared the wealth of experiments that they have launched or are about to:

Coke is the first non-tech company that has joined the Start-up Weekend events and sponsoring 10 Maker-focused weekends. They are sponsoring the first start-up weekend in Myanmar. They have created a co-working space inside Coke and are hosting a series of in house unconferences. On top of that they are hosting their first failure conference and first Hackathons inside Coke.

If a company like Coke, founded in 1886, has developed this mindful approach to experimentation and learning, there is no excuse for any other large enterprise not to reinvent itself.

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Innovation Schadenfreude: creating value from the misery of others

The unspoken goal of innovation is to delight. In their delight, the user or recipient of the innovation validates the efforts made on their behalf to dispel their problem. For an innovator the joy comes from recognizing pain, suffering, heartache, or confusion and then conceiving of and designing something that takes that misery away.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then necessity can be one mean mommy, because innovation requires a challenge to address, and by its very nature, innovation has misery at its root.

To feel envy is human, to savor schadenfreude is devilish.

–       Arthur Schopenhauer

Recently there was a slideshow post at the Huffington Post about the top consumer complaints to the FTC (the Federal Trade Commission, a United States regulatory body ). Over the course of 2010, the FTC received a total of 1,339,265 complaints filed. That’s a whole lot of unhappiness. When I first read this list, given my background in customer service and technical support environments, I was not surprised. It included such complaints as credit card charges, prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries, and identity theft (No. 1 by an 8 percent margin).

As I considered the list, I began to think of this as a great opportunity for innovation. Any one of these areas could be a huge goldmine for the willing innovator.


Something grim this ways comes

It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things.

–       Theodore Roosevelt

What about the industries with the highest number of customer complaints? Well, let’s go to the data. At the top of the list are cellular telephone vendors, equipment manufacturers, and network providers. Given the ubiquity of these highly complex devices, seeing this industry at the top of the list is not surprising. What is more interesting is the fact that banks are near the top of this industry survey, too—ahead of collection agencies and used car dealers. The increasing complexity of available services for consumer banking combined with a less-than-transparent approach to fee implementation might make this an area ripe for transformation.

But the most compelling data from an innovation opportunity perspective is not which industries reside at the top of the list.  The greatest opportunities lie in those industries with the widest margin between customer complaints and the percentage of complaints that are resolved. That is the place of greatest pain. That is also the place where there might be rich human experience that could feed innovative solutions.

The banks’ attempts to resolve the customer issues see them at the peak. By addressing 100 percent of the complaints within 30 days, they’re not leaving much room for customer attrition. While the cellular phone companies have the most complaints, they are also doing a fairly decent job of addressing customers’ needs in a timely fashion. It’s those companies who deliver large physical products (cars, used cars, furniture) who seem to be failing to resolve customer issues quickly enough. Based on my customer service experience, I see a significant opportunity in this space to convert customers through service and support innovation.

Make the pain go away. Make a customer for life.

The enduring unhappiness of the unfulfilled need

What people need and what they want may be very different.

–       Elbert Hubbard

Clayton Christensen described the inherent need behind any successful innovation was a particular “job-to-be-done” by a customer. Here is an article in MIT Sloan Management magazine that highlights the theory behind the approach. The job-to-be-done theory holds that products and services are most successful when they connect a circumstance with a job that customers need to get done. By identifying those jobs people really care about and developing products and services that make it easier to achieve these jobs, companies can identify new markets that they were previously unaware of or that could not be uncovered by traditional market segmentation. The key ”a-ha” is that jobs-to-be-done are actually an indicator of customer pain and frustration.

When you look at the number of complaints in the segments above, you can choose to see a whole world of hurt. An innovator will see something different: They choose to see a realm of possibility.

Complaints arise from an unmet need, which often may be simply resolved, except the customer doesn’t know how to access the solution. Sometimes those needs may be quite complex, revealing a gap in functionality or utility that should be closed. Regardless, each and every complaint represents a unique opportunity to fulfill a job-to-be-done. If these needs remain unfulfilled, not only is the innovation opportunity lost, but the unhappiness will extend to the vendor of the product or service as they lose a customer.

In this light an unfulfilled need is a contagion spreading from customer to customer, and from customer to vendor, the result being a flight to the next possible alternative.


WTF? vs. “Can you hear me now?”

Art is not only about angst.

–       John Corigliano

Those enterprises that seek to exploit the deficiencies in their market segment often make significant strides against their competitors. Take Verizon Wireless. (Full disclosure: the parent company, Verizon, is a client.) One of the greatest complaints about mobile or cellular telephones is the poor service reception and the inability to hear calls. J.D. Power and Associates conducts a semiannual study measuring wireless call quality based on seven problem areas that impact overall carrier performance: dropped calls; static/interference; failed call connection on the first try; voice distortion; echoes; no immediate voicemail notification; and no immediate text message notification. Verizon Wireless saw that improvements in these seven areas would yield a significant return on investment, and so they began innovating to directly address these issues.

The result? Verizon Wireless began leading the way in call quality improvement, which gave rise to their decade-long advertising campaign with the enduring tag line, “Can you hear me now?” (The campaign was only retired in September 2010.) Perhaps a more compelling reason than age for the end of the campaign is that shifts in wireless phone usage, including smartphone and texting use, as well as an increase in the percentage of wireless calls being made and received inside buildings, has led to a halt in overall call quality improvement. This already has Verizon Wireless’s eye focused on a new complaint: the limitations of mobile bandwidth. Can you say, “Hello, 4G!”?

Whatever complaints your customers have, don’t disregard them. Take them for the gift they truly are. Because there’s opportunity in their misery, provided you choose to do something about it, and soon.

This post was originally featured here:

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Innochat Transcript – 13 August – The Effects of Booms and Busts on Innovation

David W. Locke stepped in this week with a great framing post and moderation of the topic: The Effects of Booms and Busts on Innovation. Many thanks to David for his efforts!

A vibrant discussion was had and the perils of commoditization came to light as a pattern that drives down innovation performance due to resultant cost pressures and resource constraints. It was also interesting to see discussion on how companies focused on responding to market cycles need to pay attention to their own product lifecycle management, too.

David Locke’s tweet: “Fast followers don’t innovate. They just drag your price down.” certainly points toward the competitive environment in a post-boom world. Survival outweighs all other factors. Perhaps the most telling tweet he offered was his assessment on the current state of the economy: “It’s not just biz not usual, there is no biz, and will not be any biz for a very long time. Boom ate future.”


#innochat – transcript August 13 2010

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Innovation & the Status Quo: The perils of groupthink, stereotyping and system justification

Everything is in a state of flux, including the status quo.
Robert Byrne

Effective innovation demands embracing change. Unless you are completely dissatisfied with what you have now, the idea of forsaking some of your present discomfort for the pain of full-blown change not only seems unlikely, it is downright foolish. This is the conundrum faced by those tasked with improving their organization’s innovation culture. (“Wet noodle at the ready? Push! Push, I say!”)

Regardless of whether we choose to embrace it or not, change happens. The rules of participation are frighteningly simple—lead, follow, or get out of the way (with a hat tip to General Patton.) But here’s the issue: what we say we want to do (innovate) is not necessarily what we end up doing (clinging to our known circumstances), because so much in our individual psychology is reinforced when we gather with others in groups. We fall prey to our inability to avoid groupthink, we rely on stereotypes, and we cling to our current circumstances by embracing system justification.

Mine! Mine! Mine!
If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.
Winston Churchill

As much as Churchill’s quote above rankles me, I cannot deny it. The young easily seek out and embrace the new, because they have a bias towards discovery. They are “wired” to look for ways they can differentiate themselves from their elders, and even classify themselves as distinct and separate from their peers based on their passing passions.

The young, and perhaps the young-at-heart, are predisposed to innovation. They possess things fleetingly—not with less longing or even covetousness, but simply with the notion that something newer and brighter and shinier will arrive soon. For them, the novelty of the new outweighs the inconvenience of making a change, because it is relatively easy to move on to the next new thing if you haven’t lived with the old thing for very long. (This may be one of the primary reasons why consumerism has gained such a toe-hold among burgeoning middle-class youth worldwide.)

Those older and, if we are casting about for additional generalizations, wiser do seem to slide into conservative patterns. The pace at which they exchange the old for the new slows down. Fads pass by at an alarming rate. Innovations in technology and customs become more elusive. Why? Primarily the status quo, like some extraordinary gravitational object at the center of our lives, begins to take hold and lock things into our personal orbits. This causes habits to form around the objects and ideas that comfort us, including existing products and services. And we hold on to them dearly, as though they were the true bedrock of our existence.

In light of this, is it any wonder that innovations struggle to come to life in organizations where management systems and processes are usually governed by those in place the longest?

The problem with habit-forming
The riskiest thing we can do is just maintain the status quo.
Bob Iger

We have a cognitive bias for the status quo. People tend not to change an established pattern of behavior unless they have a direct and compelling incentive. Status quo bias is a reliance on the status quo in the absence of supporting evidence in its favor, or even in the case of evidence for not supporting its sustenance. Arguing to preserve the status quo is usually happens when people oppose a large, often radical change. Status quo bias accepts the present situation without the benefit of any inquiry or conversation about its merits.

Hard at work supporting the status quo is system justification. System justification is a theory within social psychology that holds that people not only want to see themselves and their own groups favorably, but they also want to look favorably on the overarching social order (the system they are justifying). A consequence of this behavior is that existing social, economic, and political arrangements across organizations (small or large) are often preferred, and any alternatives to the status quo, if conceived of, are maligned or avoided. System justification works to make the present circumstances unassailable.

The status quo, like a pack-a-day smoking habit, is a hard habit to break.

When faced with a bias-led desire to retain the status quo, newly conceived innovations may face the psychological equivalent of the immoveable object. Breaking through that requires putting the status quo front and center. It means not accepting it at face value, but rather examining it to reveal its deficiencies and incapacities in a public manner. Only by opening up the status quo to analysis can we make room for new thinking and behavior that attends innovation.

But that is only the beginning.

Yes, we’re all individuals
Take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.
Erica Jong

Along with the impossibility of shedding an unexamined status quo, we are also faced with unexplored attitudes that provide support to the status quo by reinforcing our thinking about people in our organizations. This stagnant thinking is the result of stereotyping. Stereotypes are insidious, standardized and simplified concepts of classes or groups of people based on some prior assumptions. They are often learned by observing others, and may be highly contagious, and possibly one of the most harmful forms of groupthink pervading social structures.

As much as we might believe we are unique and truly individualistic in our world views it is remarkable how much stereotyping is at play in the life of our organizations. Our familiarity with negative stereotypes in terms of gender roles or race may lead us to believe we are beyond that, but in organizations, stereotyping is rife. Consider the ways in which we stereotype engineers, or accountants, or human resource professionals; how often do we fall prey to the casual shorthand of referring to all members of a business function in the same general terms? By doing so, we prevent our ability to see circumstances clearly, seeing behavior and explaining it away, rather than observing without judgment in order to form true insights.

The peril of stereotypes, especially when buttressed by the warm embrace of the status quo, is that they leave little room for the novel. They dismiss or disregard differences at the expense of perceived uniformity, and cut off yet another path to creativity and innovation.

Look anew with fresh eyes
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.
Abraham Lincoln

If ever there was a time that we needed to innovate, it is today. The status quo is not an acceptable alternative. A stereotypical view of the people around us will give us no source of joy, either. We must break our habits and see the world around us with fresh eyes. That might even mean taking a close look at where we stand (or sit) in the world, too.

By moving our position, and choosing to question what we think we know, we can begin to create room for more innovative solutions to the pressing demands of the present. To keep doing what we are doing seems not only foolish, it may be downright dangerous.

What can you see anew?

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Innovation Herds: Me-too-ism & the dumbness of crowds

Great minds think alike, but fools seldom differ.
English Proverb

In honor of the recent football (okay, soccer) World Cup—and congratulations to South Africa for pulling off a sterling tournament (Bafana Bafana!) and the Spaniards for their first tournament victory—it seems appropriate to consider the impact of the herd on innovation practices. Not just any herd, though; this is the herd that forms when two opposing packs of 5-year-olds play the glorious game: the herd of Pee Wee Soccer.

Sound and motion with little to show for it
For those of you who don’t have children or have not seen children this age playing soccer, you have missed what certainly is an experience. The rules of soccer seem immaterial. Yes, there is a ball in play. Yes, there are referees and linespeople. Yes, there are goals at each end of the usually shortened field and two equal-numbered teams of players. The basic framework is the same, but the way the game is played is quite…different.

The pervading game objective practiced by both teams is to quite literally “crowd the ball”: where the ball goes, that’s where all players attempt to go, except for those few who become distracted by a parent or sibling on the sideline, or by the color of the sky, or by something bright and shiny, or need to re-enact football hooliganism an so on. You get the picture. What forms is a tight pack around the ball, hiding it from the spectator’s view, and which moves as a herd up and down the field. Occasionally the ball will “escape,” only to be recaptured by one of the team members who, in their inability to run and dribble the ball simultaneously, will stall until the rest of the members from both teams re-form the herd.

No one here but us sheeple
The greatest difficulty is that men do not think enough of themselves, do not consider what it is that they are sacrificing when they follow in a herd, or when they cater for their establishment.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

What of this herd? And what does it have to say about the impact of the herd mentality on innovation? A short explanation can be found here.

Given our complex worlds with their voluminous sensory inputs, we are wired to adopt a series of mental shortcuts (termed heuristics) that enable us to process only the amount of data necessary, in as short a time as possible, to meet our immediate needs. Think of heuristics as experience-based models that help in problem-solving and discovery. They drive much of our daily behavior without us even recognizing it. The reason they are effective is that they relieve us from treating every circumstance as critically important, offering relief from having to think too hard. Is it really necessary to calculate the optimum parking space at the mall, taking into consideration timing, prevailing weather, shopping patterns, etc.? No? Right—open space, here I come!

By employing heuristics, we create a series of short cuts that enable us to focus on more complex issues, more holistically and systemically, as the need arises. Heuristics, however, reinforce situational thinking and action. In recent studies conducted at the University of Leeds in Great Britain, researchers discovered that it takes a minority of just 5 percent to influence a crowd’s direction—and that the other 95 percent follow without realizing it. If we hearken back to the heady days of the dot-com book in the early 2000s, we can see this pattern in the practices of developers, who threw together “me-too” websites; institutional investors, who threw money at anything with a website; and stock market investors, who piled their money into every “sure thing” they heard about from their hairdresser, dog walker, or cab driver. And that herd behavior ended well, didn’t it?

Wise crowds and the benefit of discomfort
The dissenter is every human being at those moments of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself.
Archibald MacLeish

Unless we take steps to separate ourselves from the crowd and seek to break our ingrained patterns of thinking, we will continue to be drawn to the herd. In James Surowiecki’s bestseller The Wisdom of the Crowds, he noted that there are highly functional types of groups that possess not a herd mentality, but an inherent wisdom. From his perspective, if four basic conditions are met, a crowd’s “collective intelligence” will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts. Surowiecki says that wisdom will prevail even if members of the crowd don’t know all the facts or choose, individually, to act irrationally. “Wise crowds” need 1) diversity of opinion; 2) independence of members from one another; 3) decentralization; and 4) a good method for aggregating opinions. In short, effective groups need guidelines (like heuristics), but ones that are focused on differentiation and not similarity. “Me-too” has to be retired so that “What if” might prevail.

Unfortunately, when wisdom meets the herd, the prevailing outcome is the dumbness of the crowds.

To reach beyond the herd, organizations must embrace difference and the discomfort that comes from not adopting the first, or easiest, answer to a presenting challenge. Clay Shirky, a professor in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, described in his book Here Comes Everybody the benefits of groups breaking out of the herd mentality and moving toward “collaborative production”:

Collaborative production, where people have to coordinate with one another to get anything done, is considerably harder than simple sharing, but the results can be more profound. New tools allow large groups to collaborate, by taking advantage of nonfinancial motivations and by allowing for wildly differing levels of coordination.
Shirky, pp. 109

Over time, even the Pee Wee Soccer team learns how to play the game. Each player discovers his or her own strengths, and a good coach will recognize those differences and create something greater than a mob out of them. Their efforts become grounded in collaborative production. In our organizations, innovation processes that support our thinking and don’t provide ready answers give us the opportunity to develop solutions that reach beyond the herd. We can choose to stretch past the simple and explore the complex so that our solutions are new and not “me-too.”

We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people. Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.
General George S. Patton

Being in a herd is actually a matter of choice, one that must be made consciously in order for a range of alternatives to be revealed. In a competitive marketplace, would you rather be in the herd, where the view rarely changes, or out front? I thought so.

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Innovation in the Rear View Mirror – The challenge of revisionist history and hindsight bias

I always avoid prophesying beforehand, because it is a much better policy to prophesy after the event has already taken place.
Winston Churchill

Raise your hands if you have ever met someone who has a tendency to relive their glory days. You know, that one person in a group who fondly remembers better times, or who always finds the present lacking because “the last time this same thing happened, there was a much better result”? We are not talking about the story teller, who fires up those around them with their passionate recounting of a victory or a discovery, nor even someone who occasionally reminisces. We’re talking about the person with a pathological need to live in the past, who might be physically in the present but whose mind is a year or ten in the past. Strangely enough, they keep visiting the present, trying to capture us and cart us back there with them.

We’re going to do what we’ve always done (and wonder why we always get what we’ve always got)
May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been, the foresight to know where you are going, and the insight to know when you have gone too far.
Irish Saying

As we noted in a previous post, storytelling has a vital role in a healthy and vibrant organization. This type of storyteller is not the same. The resident revisionist historian simply cannot let go of the past. With perfect hindsight they see how things were so much better before, and that when change occurred, it put us on the road to ruin. The revisionist doesn’t seek to use their past experience to inform their present-day actions. They would rather live in the past. Over and over and over again.

What students in the United States knew of George Washington’s youth was that he apparently chopped down a cherry tree on the family property. Unfortunately, this is a blatant piece of revisionist history. An archaeological dig at the Washington family home found no such cherry trees. In fact, additional research uncovered that the original biographer of Washington, Mason Locke Weems, fabricated the story in order to make the general, first president, founding father, and all-round statesman “more honest”! Strange to think that aggressively pruning a prunus avium and not lying about it would be considered a honest act.

This fabrication and the apocryphal story built upon it lend little to Washington’s character, and revisionist history lends little to the life of an organization. Sorting the truth from fact can be a running battle that can exhaust an organization, leaving fewer resources for creative endeavors, and drain the will of the organization.

A friend of mine, Sam, used to tag people as “radiators” and “drains.” Which I believe he picked up elsewhere (perhaps here?) Now, I’m not one for labels. They’re inflexible and terribly difficult to remove once in place. But his notion that people either radiate energy to those around them or they drain it from them — like so many dim-witted psychic vampires — rings appallingly true.

How do you think this plays in an organization attempting to embrace and extend its ability to innovate? Not well at all.

Looking forward but only seeing the rear view mirror
In today’s complex and fast-moving world, what we need even more than foresight or hindsight is insight.

Another powerful, distorting perspective present in the psychology of organizations is hindsight bias. This is the inclination to see past events as being more predictable than they in fact were before they took place. Hindsight bias has been observed experimentally in a variety of settings, often where defined levels of expertise are expected, including politics, sports, games, and medicine. In psychological experiments of hindsight bias, subjects tend to remember their predictions of future events as having been stronger than they actually were, in those cases where those predictions turn out to be correct. This inaccurate assessment of reality after it has occurred is also referred to as “creeping determinism.”

How does hindsight bias impact an organization’s ability to innovate?

By disguising past performance, hindsight bias makes it difficult to determine how original actions may have resulted in a specific outcome. The memory of events may become so distorted that it bears little resemblance to the reality of what occurred; that makes any potential lesson learned not only poor but potentially hazardous.

Learn from your mistakes – don’t relive them
Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20 – 20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go.
Robert M. Pirsig

Frank and honest sharing of information is for a wider benefit. It creates a mental space for new ideas to crop up or flood in. This differentiates it from the dynamic surrounding those who are “revisionistas” and “hindsighteers.” (There should be a club for this which involves hats with rearview mirrors attached, I’m sure.) In this dynamic, any benefit, if it can be called that, is derived primarily for themselves. Their approaches leave little room for learning, positive affirmation of true success, or the opportunity for discovering a more holistic solution to the pressing challenges being addressed.

Mistakes and missteps for anyone interested in innovation are a gift. They help define more clearly “where you ought to go.” In being honest about our challenges and the qualities of our successes, and not disguising them or explaining them away through false tales, we will build towards innovations that are truly extraordinary.

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Innovation & Authority – Why accepting authority may mean dumbing down

Think for yourself and question authority.
Timothy Leary

When introducing innovation into existing, stable organizations and systems, you must navigate around authority. Like the tip of an iceberg, the influence of authority across an organization may be quite visible, but that only accounts for a small percentage of the influence it has on the successful introduction of an innovation. The types of authority involved are not only the explicit authority that comes with subject-matter expertise, role definition, and position within a hierarchy, but also the perception of authority, real or imagined. That influence lies hidden from view but is no less profound, especially when you run into it.

Rather than dwell on the explicit authority, we’ll explore three different aspects of perceived authority: directed deference, projection bias, and asymmetric insight. Each bias offers a different slant on the challenge of authority to the viability of innovation. Once again, forewarned is forearmed.

I don’t know much, but I know I love you
Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.
Albert Einstein

There is an ongoing infatuation with the idea of the heroic leader in organizations that belies the true extent of their power and capability. Setting aside his tin ear and habit of only opening his mouth to exchange feet, Tony Hayward, the ever-hapless and likely short-term CEO of BP, is a case in point. While serving as a focal point for the ire of a nation looking on in horror at the disaster playing out in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of BP’s oil spill, Mr. Hayward can personally do little more than remain the public face of his company. Our expectations of him as a leader have not been met. For some reason, we actually expected him to correct the damage his company has wrought. A similar pattern exists in the way people appear to perceive President Obama. In both cases, the circumstances these leaders find themselves in overrun the public’s perception of their responsiveness and capabilities.

Each leader has been measured and found wanting. But the reverse is true, too.

We love the myth of the heroic CEO. The man or woman who, through their personal excellence, intestinal fortitude (aka, guts), and general capacity for delivering results saves the ailing enterprise is a tale we love to hear. Much of the reporting of a company’s success refers to the role of a heroic CEO. This too is a false perspective. We ascribe collective success to individuals, especially in circumstances where we have little understanding of the context in which success was achieved.

This mindset is termed directed deference, and it represents the tendency to value an ambiguous stimulus (e.g., a company’s financial performance) according to the opinion of someone who is seen as an authority on the topic. For those who seek to innovate, it means that what is and is not possible may be impacted by our perspective of those who lead us. If we fail to question our perspectives, we may kill an innovation before giving it an opportunity to grow into something meaningful.

I’m feeling you
All authority belongs to the people.
Thomas Jefferson

Another aspect of the way our perspective on leadership can influence innovation choices is found in projection bias, the tendency to unconsciously assume that others (or one’s future selves) share one’s current emotional states, thoughts, and values. The weight of our own perspective means we may color our choices based on personal experience rather than the facts on the ground.

The impact of projection bias on innovation is one of homogeneity. The inclination to look across the organization and see only ourselves, or slight variations of ourselves, limits what we can conceive. Our leaders, and their motivations, look like our own (or what they would be if we were in the same position). This means that our attempts at innovation may suffer from small ambitions and a limited will to see them to success. Or we may misread what the organization can tolerate and over-commit resources to fruitless endeavors.

Knowledge and understanding are essential to avoid the pitfalls inherent in this slanted perspective.

I know you are, but what am I?

Rather than having a twisted perspective of a leader’s motivations and attributes, what if we think we know others better than they know us? A reversal of the directed deference perceptional bias is the illusion of asymmetric insight, which occurs when people perceive their knowledge of their peers to surpass their peers’ knowledge of them. Instead of seeing an authority figure external to us, we find one in ourselves. Falling into asymmetric insight bias means we believe our keen powers of insight and remarkable personal ability to assess the mannerisms and patterns of behavior in others enables us to stay one step ahead of the experience curve. At an extreme, we consider ourselves flawless prediction engines.

The only problem with this is that in the absence of data, our predictions are not rooted in any basis of reason, and our successes come from pure luck rather than wisdom.

From an innovation perspective, we are mentally running through the childhood taunt, “I know you are, but what am I?” a never-ending response to all perceived or actual slights or criticisms. Whether ignoring the evidence of a particular situation or ascribing our innovation success to our ability to second-guess others’ motivations, we are playing a foolish game.

How do we address these biases? How do we contend, in the absence of any meaningful information, with the over-reliance on position or status as a signifier for comprehension, wisdom, or insight? The answer comes through observation and engagement. By taking the time to assess the ways in which our innovation efforts are perceived and understood, we can gain more data that will inform our decision-making and design practices. But unless we seek to close the gaps in our ignorance with data gathered through inquiry instead of our own biases, our innovation efforts will struggle to be realized.

Anyone who in discussion relies upon authority uses, not his understanding, but rather his memory.
Leonardo da Vinci

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Innovation & Memory – Recollection plays havoc with our innovation efforts

The true art of memory is the art of attention.
Samuel Johnson

The news is shocking, but true. Memories are fictitious! And it seems the more we call on them the more likely they are to bend and shift over time. Most of us have snapshot memories – those memories formed by extraordinary events. For some it might be their wedding day, or birth of a child, or a hole-in-one while playing golf. Unfortunately, for most of us, the most commonly shared snapshot memories are usually formed by catastrophe and disasters widely reported in the media. As clear and detailed as these memories seem to us, as we reflect on them and share them with others psychologists find they are surprisingly inaccurate. Our inaccurate recall influences how we respond when facing similar circumstances; which means our memories can be quite detrimental to our ability to effectively innovate.

Hand me my rose-colored glasses
Memory is deceptive because it is colored by today’s events.
Albert Einstein

When bringing new products to market the stories of success told within an organization often fail to capture the impediments to success along the way. Our tendency is to believe that the decision making processes in organizations are robust and analytical enough to prevent biases. We gather data from a variety of sources and build our product portfolios based on “the facts”. However, even if someone has sought and assessed the alternatives for investment in a neutral manner, they may still remember data selectively to reinforce their expectations. This effect is called selective recall, confirmatory memory or access-biased memory.

There are conflicting psychological theories about selective recall. Schema theory predicts that information matching prior expectations will be more easily stored and recalled. Some alternative approaches say that surprising information stands out more and so is more memorable. Predictions from both these theories have been confirmed in different experimental contexts, with no theory winning outright. What is more interesting is the influence our remembering of past success holds over our current choices.

In remembering our previous successes Karim Nader, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, has established a theory stating that the very act of remembering can change our memories. This theory runs counter to the established perspective that once a memory is formed it remains largely intact. Even more challenging is his statement that our most vivid memories are actually prone to the most change over time. He believes that it may be impossible for humans or any other animal to bring a memory to mind without altering it in some way. Like an old magnetic audio tape (remember those?!), the more times it is replayed the more degraded the sound becomes, our recollections are “rewritten” back to memory in a different part of the brain and somewhat altered by the way our recollection was triggered.

When we remember the successful delivery of a new product or service to market, we may be miss-remembering the circumstances around that release. Our memories, influencing our present choices about innovation opportunities selected for funding and development, may actually be leading us astray. How we fondly remember our past success may reinforce our positive attention towards products or services we think are similar our past successes. This blinds us to present risks and may jeopardize our intended outcomes.

Refusing to make the mistakes of the past
Many a man fails as an original thinker simply because his memory is too good.
Frederick Nietzsche

This unwittingly biased view of the world cuts both ways. Where our remembered successes might trigger us to attempt to repeat them, by neglecting the hazards we had to overcome, our remembered failures might steer us away from what might conceivably be future successes. Hindsight bias comes into play and each recall of our failed efforts not only reinforces their impact, and our desire to avoid repeating them, it serves as the basis for predicting future failure. In addition, when we set aside our memories as they are re-written back into our synapses the new research suggested that they are changed. That change is often an amplification of the extent of the remembered failed attempt.

The pattern of confirmation bias is our tendency to prefer information that confirms our preconceived notions of how circumstances might play out, regardless of whether they are true. It may sometimes be used to encapsulate the following three cognitive biases by which people can reinforce their existing attitudes toward their innovation efforts: by selectively collecting new evidence that highlights or exaggerates the risk involved with a new endeavor, by interpreting evidence in a way that is biased towards finding hazards in the attempt, or by selectively recalling information from memory about our past failures and applying that to the present situation.

Where sometimes our memories influence us to see the world as full of possibilities, they can also hinder our ability to take the appropriate risks that are necessary for all innovation. Our fear failure, influenced by our remembered failure can prove just as detrimental to our mistaken memories of success.

Memories are additional data – treat them as such
We cannot change our memories, but we can change their meaning and the power they have over us.
David Seamands

If the process of creating memories and remembering is so fallible, how can we minimize its impact?

One method is to be clear about the data being used to influence decision making. Make your thinking visible so that inherent biases may be called to account. When conducting an assessment of alternatives, be sure to seek counsel that is external to the decision making team especially if that team is long-term and has a wealth of shared experience. To avoid the undue influence of memory biases seek people who have different perspectives and experience. That experience will be rooted in different memories and may help mitigate over-reliance on our personal and collected recollection of what we think may have occurred.

Another method for combating our fallible memories is to directly address the amount of risk involved in the innovations we choose to pursue; our memories provide context for the risks we perceive in the present. We can address that risk by using short interval delivery strategies. This approach creates milestones that are much closer together (rather than months, usually weeks, or even days in high risk scenarios) and the scope of work being completed is usually more contained. This enables us to keep our focus on the present performance of our innovation efforts

As a practice in innovation, rather than relying on our memories to influence our choices, perhaps it is best to focus on making new memories. What do you think? How do your memories influence how you innovate?

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