Hooray for Failure – Episode 5 – Ishita Gupta

HFF_EpisodeIn this episode of Hooray for Failure we explore the power of fear and how it drives our behavior away from failure with the delightful Ishita Gupta. Ishita  is founder of Fear.less Magazine and Ishita Gupta Media. Fear.less has been called “Fast Company meets Oprah” by its 15,000+ readers, and is the leading digital magazine featuring best-known names in business on how to live without fear. Ishita worked with America’s #1 Marketer, Seth Godin to build her own business helping entrepreneurs thrive, build confidence and make more sales. We also share the story of Jia Jiang, who decided to find 100 ways to create moments of failure as a way of learning.

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Great post on the power of Priming at FastCompany

Here at Primed Associates we are always looking for others’ takes on the concept of priming. This week we share a great post from the FastCompany site by Martin Lindstrom, who has a new book out, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy

Here is Lindstrom’s opening about the power of priming in order to increase the likelihood of a desired outcome…

Have you ever been primed? I mean has anyone ever deliberately influenced your subconscious mind and altered your perception of reality without your knowing it? Whole Foods Market, and others, are doing it to you right now.

Derren Brown, a British illusionist famous for his mind-reading act, set out to prove just how susceptible we are to the many thousands of signals we’re exposed to each day. Read more here.

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Co-creating innovation—a better participation experience

To further the appreciation of culture among all the people, to increase respect for the creative individual, to widen participation by all the processes and fulfillments of art—this is one of the fascinating challenges of these days.
- John F. Kennedy

Innovation, certainly open innovation, is an invitation to participate in a shared experience of co-creation. It asks everyone involved to come to the table ready to fully engage and give of themselves to the best of their ability. This doesn’t happen of its own accord unless there are some basic elements in place to create an environment in which trust can be generated over time. One of the ways to create the conditions for trust is to orient the environment toward the participants, to make it as accessible and engaging as possible.

The process of creating an engaging environment may begin with relative simplicity, but as anyone who specializes in environmental psychology will tell you, it can become quite complex over time. This interdisciplinary field of psychology focuses on the interplay between humans and their surroundings. In the need for the acceleration of creating an innovation space that supports the formation of trusting working relationships, the primary focus is on one attribute in particular: prospection. As defined by Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness, this is “the act of looking forward in time or considering the future.”

Anticipating is (almost) everything
Prospection is driven most explicitly by our ability to imagine—a critical ingredient in forming innovations—and an environment that invites this positive behavior is one in which innovation may not only take root, but thrive. Like its root word, prospecting, prospection is concerned with anticipation of some type of benefit. In the case of innovation, that benefit is, a novel solution to a compelling need that generates value.

To generate the kind of positive outcomes we seek in our organizations, this process of anticipation needs to be jointly experienced. As a driver of behavior, anticipation increases enthusiasm, often with a corresponding ability to delay gratification that can move like a contagion across a group. Factors that contribute to bias toward anticipation are making thinking visible—the actual in-process outputs of the innovation experience—as well as creating a way to stage the development of ideas over time. Seeing and feeling the results of ethnographic research in terms of videoed interviews, or the volume of Post-It notes concepts generated via brainstorming, or the material outputs from a prototyping exercise can all contribute to the physical reinforcement of a positive outcome.

This kind of anticipation, the focus on prospection, can be self-fulfilling. It generates a momentum that is difficult to create or sustain without the benefit of physical cues in the environment. With them, the pace of innovation may be accelerated.

How else might we better support broader participation in innovation?

Collaborative toolkits
Such happiness as life is capable of comes from the full participation of all our powers in the endeavor to wrest from each changing situation of experience its own full and unique meaning.
- John Dewey

For some organizations, creating comfortable, relatively quiet locations where participants can always meet, with food and beverages available to share and materials to support creative output, yields positive outputs. Why? By establishing differentiated spaces for innovation activities, the behavior that occurred in those spaces is also differentiated. Some organizations pride themselves on the diversity of their physical spaces. Advertising agencies have been known to create unique, client-centric spaces, in which they will focus on the products and services of those clients. Product development consultancies also create divergent work environments as mental and emotional triggers to support the creativity desired for innovation. One such firm in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Inventionland, has created a workspace filled with pirate ships, raceways, and tree houses. This may seem quite trite until you learn that Inventionland is the inspiration for 2,000 to 2,400 brand-new inventions each year licensed and secured by businesses.

The provision of work spaces that support innovation participation is not relegated to the physical world only. Consider the impact that online collaboration tools may have on people who are not geographically co-located. Most social networking sites have support capabilities for group or project organizers—SharePoint has long been used for this purpose, Google Aps like Google Docs is used to do this, too. Even tools like WebEx or Adobe Connect offer ways to use virtual whiteboards. Sometimes it may be as simple as a series of emails to support team members that can make all the difference in fostering participation. The key is to choose those structures and tools that will be most meaningful given the organization culture in place in your enterprise.

With the appropriate environmental conditions in place, fostering innovation participation becomes an easier prospect. Be clear about goals and the tools required to meet them. Be clear about the skills necessary to achieve your goals and the people who can provide them. Create a space to act as a crucible to bring them together and get out of the way. With the stage set, and managed, co-creating innovation will be something to look forward to and the opportunity to delight will present itself.

What environmental conditions and tools do you recommend for fostering innovation participation in your enterprise?

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Is it hot in here? A review of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire by Braden Kelley

For those of you who don’t know Braden Kelley, he is one of several thought-leader, whirling dervishes in the innovation space. Braden is the founder and executive editor of the innovation hub, Blogging Innovation, and most recently is the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire: A Roadmap to a Sustainable Culture of Ingenuity and Purpose. This readily accessible offering is focused on getting the fundamentals of innovation right. It directly addressed key obstacles that cripple innovation in organizations, regardless of their initial innovation successes.

It should be noted that I know Braden and admire his work in innovation. That said, I purchased the book myself (Kindle edition) and have every intention of offering a clear perspective. When I make recommendations I fully understand that my reputation is on the line, too. So, I am pleased to be able to offer a strong endorsement for this book. For anyone interested in innovation in their organization, the ideas presented matter.

One of my favorite features in this obviously well-researched effort is the devotion to case studies. Braden uses the case studies to both highlight best practices and shortcomings in innovation and the wide range makes his thinking relevant to people across all industries and levels in organizations. Interestingly, while many authors have positioned Apple’s journey as one of a paragon of innovation virtue, Braden takes the time to truly unpack and review Apple’s overnight innovation success. His attention to detail means that we begin to understand how hard innovation can be, even for the best, and what we can do to address the blockages to success head on.

Now, for those hoping to find a silver bullet for innovation success, this book is not for you. Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire is focused on providing the reader with practical, incremental steps that can be taken to build innovation effectiveness over time. There are no quick fixes. There are no simple solutions. On offer is solid advice, clearly presented. It is not ground breaking, but to perfectly clear, that’s not what is needed. People need to understand that for innovation to matter in an enterprise and to be sustained over time the basic tenets that Braden identifies and clearly explains need to be in place. Without them the opportunity to fail will present itself quite readily.

The book’s natural progression from vision and strategy through to organization psychology and innovating under crisis conditions makes this a useful guide to keep at hand as you continue on your innovation journey. Braden notes, and I wholeheartedly agree, that there are fundamentals without which you will not be successful. He clearly describes the challenges and offers sensible solutions for addressing them. His approach is to create the culture and systems and processes that will support innovation for the long-term.

Perhaps one of my favorite sections is titled “Saying No in the Right Way.” So many times I have seen the passion of innovators in organizations run aground on the negativity attendant with the strategic (and sometimes, not-so-strategic) decision-making surrounding which opportunities to pursue and which to abandon. Braden addresses the ego inherent in people sharing and evaluating their ideas in a public domain. He also notes that sometimes the smartest people in the room have the least capability to explain or develop their ideas in order to make their invention an innovation reality. The approach he recommends is to foster trust by understanding the skills that people bring to the table before you go down the innovation road as well as set clear expectations for the process of selection. All of which requires preparation.

Ultimately, the investments you make in creating clear communications around your idea evaluation policies and processes, and in maintaining their transparency, will be repaid tenfold. Innovation ideas will continue to flow only as long as there is trust and faith in the healthy operation of the process.

Which is the heart of the matter. If you want to innovate you cannot simply jump in and expect the best outcomes. You need to think and prepare. That does not mean you must prepare to perfection. But you do need to have the elements in place, the basic framework that will support your collaborative efforts, to keep your innovation efforts heading in the right direction. Like a bonfire, innovation burns best and brightest when it has a stable structure to which you can keep adding fuel. If your organization is struggling to get its innovation efforts off the ground, or if you feel it has lost its way, then you should take a look at Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire, it will help your business rebuild its hidden or lost innovation capabilities.

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Grow a Backbone: How culture alignment supports innovation

An organization looking to extend its innovation capability faces the same prospects as a company looking to undergo a major culture transformation. The work requires focus, commitment, and persistence to achieve the desired outcome. Even those firms seeking to boost their innovation capability by acquisition or merger face the same challenges. So many mergers and acquisitions end in less than satisfying outcomes because companies are not paying attention to the details of integration and capability development. Recent research suggests that the failure rate of these actions may be as high as 70 percent.

Rather than succumbing to failure, why not build a supportive infrastructure so that your innovation efforts have a better chance of survival?

The answer does not require an overly complex response; what it does require is a measured, sustained effort that seeks to build behaviors, capabilities, and capacities over time. The greater challenges demand that anyone going down this path be clear about what they are trying to accomplish strategically, and that they have the intestinal fortitude (okay, guts) to commit to act even when it seems progress is slow or moving in reverse.

Three simple concepts can help keep an organization focused on growing its innovation backbone: creating a framework to support the new desired behaviors; establishing a set of few but strictly enforced rules to anchor those behaviors over time; and developing a shared story that gives the organization’s participants something they feel they can belong to and own.

Frames and scaffolding
High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.
- Charles F. Kettering

Frames are often used in construction to provide support for a foundation as it is being poured into place (especially for concrete foundations) or until materials are locked into place (such as brick or stone footings). The framework provides stability while the long-term superstructure is being placed. Without a framework in place, the foundation might shift, possibly creating a fundamental weakness that may not be readily apparent until the structure comes crashing to the ground after use.

Scaffolding, on the other hand, enables you to renovate while still making use of an existing structure. It supports walls and facades during the course of their modification, yet it little interferes with the internal operations of a building. By placing scaffolding at key load-bearing points, and using it to access hard-to-reach places without necessarily applying any load force, major structural transformations can take place. The changes, while commonly understood to be underway given the highly visible nature of scaffolding, are only completely revealed when the scaffolding is removed.

What does this mean for supporting the development of innovation capabilities?

A basic framework for innovation might be the establishment of a common language for handling the actions of creating and implementing innovations. Design thinking, for example, is one such fundamental language and practice, which, when shared across an organization, provides a foundation for other supporting practices to flourish. With a foundation of design thinking in place across an organization, human-centered design and rapid prototyping can follow closely behind.

In the context of using scaffolding to support the renovation of an organization’s innovation practices, consider the decision-making and risk management skill sets. Both of these capabilities do little to impact existing business processes, yet they can vastly improve their efficacy. These both enable the wiser use of resources and the faster commitment to appropriate action. This reduces the cycle time for employing new skills and behaviors that are being applied to innovation efforts.

Another key practice in support of a strong innovation backbone is the creation of a limited set of rules, tightly enforced, that establish clear guidelines but provide maximum responsiveness.

Loose and tight
Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Another set of factors that contribute to an organization sustaining a successful culture of innovation are loose coupling and rule-making. Loose coupling is a term introduced into organization theory that proposes that an organization creates a shorthand or abstract model of the reality in which it finds itself loosely coupled with the hard reality that actually exists. This quality enables an organization to respond flexibly and adaptively to changes in its environment. It fosters an organizational resilience that would not otherwise exist if all decisions and actions were driven only by hard data—which may or may not be readily available.

It is this resilience that is key to an organization’s strength. An ability to quickly and robustly recover from setbacks is the hallmark of a truly vital innovation culture, because these organizations are constantly placing themselves at risk through their willful exploration and implementation of change. With the resilience that loose coupling provides, organizations would fracture at the social level, which would have consequences within business processes and systems.

Another capability that, combined with loose coupling, helps create the necessary structure for effective innovation is the making of simple rules. Fewer rules means more exploration. The rules put in place are tightly managed, and set loose limits (conservation, focus, effort) on the way behaviors are governed. The rules contribute to a collective mindfulness and a focus on outcomes rather than a preoccupation with present needs.

This alignment also provides the basis for the final element in creating an organization’s backbone; the fostering of a shared story about the organization’s purpose that galvanizes participants’ actions.

Part of something greater
Such happiness as life is capable of comes from the full participation of all our powers in the endeavor to wrest from each changing situation of experience its own full and unique meaning.
- John Dewey

Much of the behavior in organizations is driven by affiliation needs. Being a part of something informs the choices we make for ourselves and for the people around us. It drives competition and the desire to improve. By creating a shared story, one that exemplifies the life of the organization and what it values, an organization’s leaders can positively influence the behavior of the participants. A vibrant story creates a crucible in which an organization can extend itself—creating an environment of renewal.

The stronger and more compelling the story, the more engaged an organization’s participants will become. This often causes a positive feedback loop in which the story of the organization becomes regenerative. The participants of the organization “own” the story, it becomes their own, and as they retell it, the story becomes more of a reflection of their commitment to the organization than an advertisement for the organization’s strategic intent.

Each retelling of elements of the organization’s story reinforces itself and reinforces the reasons why each participant commits to be an organization member. And the resulting engagement can be capitalized on by being guided and directed to innovation practices.

In order to create the best circumstances for supporting innovation, an organization’s leaders would be wise to attend to certain basic elements. They should create elemental frameworks that support their innovation intent. They should implement rules that create boundaries for performance without choking creativity out of the enterprise. And they should craft and disseminate a story that unifies the organization’s strategic intent and its operational reality. By addressing these elements, they can create an organization with a backbone that can not only support innovation but hold up the organization on the dynamic edge of change.

How strong is your organization’s backbone? And what will you do to make it stronger?

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Playing with a Full Deck – OnInnovation

Low Tech Tools to Foster High Output Innovation Thinking

One of the questions often asked by those seeking to create a strong innovation culture is, “What are some good tools for engaging people across my organization?” Well the consultant in me would usually hedge his bets and would offer the universal response, “It depends.” But that is as singularly unsatisfying to say as it is to hear, so I mostly take a multiple alternative approach in the hopes of landing close to the targeted need. The first place I usually start is with some of the very lowest of low tech: playing cards, or their trading card equivalent. Why?

For the reason why, see the full post here at the OnInnovation blog – powered by The Henry Ford.

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Innovation Beyond the Average: the challenges of delusions of grandeur and the Dunning-Kruger effect

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.
- Charles Darwin

Innovation is not necessarily a size game. Bigger is not necessarily better. Large organizations keenly focused on innovation benefit from being able to exploit resources, processes, systems, and human intellect in a way that’s beyond the scope of a smaller enterprise or sole entrepreneur. Access to a breadth of elements means the possibility of widely divergent outcomes. Unfortunately, with size comes inertia, and one of its causes is the degree to which stable systems create immovable patterns and a certainty that comes with having “seen it all before.”

This kind of organization knows itself. It has a pool of clients it knows well and for whom it meets well-defined, long-term needs. It has access to resources via supply chains it has developed over time, offering little in the way of surprises. You could call this organization “fat, dumb, and happy.” And you would be right. The truth is that it has created a cultural delusion of grandeur, which makes it struggle to innovate.

Dangerous self-satisfaction
There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Howard Johnson’s, MCI, Enron, Pan American World Airways, Digital Equipment Corporation, Marshall Field’s, and the litany of the half-forgotten could continue. Whether willful victims of their own misbehavior or ignorance of the changing needs of their customers and markets, these former market leaders have died the most tragic of unnecessary deaths. They thought they were at the far right of their market’s respective performance bell curves, living in gloriously smug self-satisfaction, and they were punished for it.

The problem with that kind of delusion is that the most obvious contrary data will be ignored until it is too late. I’ve seen clients, thinking that they were indestructible, behave in ways that were completely contrary to their best interests because they refused to believe their previously unassailable market position was not only in jeopardy, it had evaporated. They stuck to their old product lines, offering the same levels of distracted customer service, while their industry competitors passed them by, embracing innovations at all levels of their organizations.

There are some in venture capital circles who will tell you, “If you are not growing, you are dying.” They refer specifically to revenues more often than not. For the adage to be true, a more expansive view of growth is required. Growth need not only be found in revenues, it may also manifest in broader service sets, expanded ranges of customers, and wider social impact, among other factors. The self-satisfaction that comes from past success gets in the way of this pursuit because it usually means we don’t seek out those innovations we need to survive and thrive.

Applied ignorance
No one is satisfied with his fortune, nor dissatisfied with his intellect.
- Antoinette Deshoulieres

Self-satisfaction is not the only path to innovation entropy. Success also reinforces a mindset of superiority. Each success reinforces a belief across an organization that the collective choices made and actions taken are the result of superior intellect and application. Which is fine, except the psychological tendency is to ascribe all success to our direct efforts, regardless of actual impact. We all think we’re above average and smarter than the next person in the room, or our competitors, or worse yet, our customers. (Good grief.)

There is a great saying in the USA: “Even the blind squirrel will eventually find a nut,” which highlights how arbitrary and capricious success may sometimes be. Especially if we are not vigilantly seeking ways to improve and extend our success through innovation.

Proctor and Gamble, under its previous CEO A.G. Laffley, recognized the flaw in perceiving that all success could be derived from within the company. P&G had, for many years, actively practiced ignoring ideas from outside the company, literally living the phrase “not invented here.” They refused to consider the possibility of good ideas existing elsewhere. Under Laffley they defeated this mindset by embracing the idea of “proudly found elsewhere,” which meant that they were willing to use the best ideas no matter where they came from.

The self-awareness of the limits existing within a company were neatly expressed by a CEO who, when talking to his staff, said, “The smartest people in the world are not working for us.” The implication being that if you want smart, look beyond the limits implied by the company’s legal and operational boundaries and the intellect it contains. To innovate at home, look elsewhere. (Open innovation, anyone?)

Certain incompetence
One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.
- Bertrand Russell

Perhaps the most brutal self-deception that undercuts our ability to innovate both at an individual and collaborative level is represented in the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Justin Kruger and David Dunning proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will see themselves as heroes in their own story. They tend to overestimate their own level of skill while failing to recognize genuine skill in others. When faced with the extremity of their inadequacy, they also fail to recognize it, often explaining it away due to circumstances beyond their control.

There is relief from this delusion. If a person is able to recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, they can be trained to substantially improve, provided they have the will to address their shortcomings. This is hard work. Faced with this level of effort, is it any wonder that most people prefer to not change, instead continuing their certain incompetence by ignoring it altogether? At this point a passing reference to the Peter Principle might be warranted, but a trip down that path will only lead us to despair.

Don’t despair. Andy Grove popularized one approach to the vigilance necessary to maintain a posture of innovation-driven success. His book Only the Paranoid Survive offers a reminder of what it takes to be successful. To overcome self-satisfaction, and the over-estimation of our abilities, keep striving to be better, to improve, to transform. In the application of consistent efforts toward renewal, not only might you beat your averages, but you might find that innovation becomes the foundation for your enduring success.

How do you prevent yourself or your organization from becoming too self-satisfied?

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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.
- Anonymous

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 Folklore & Fairytales – Self deception and the stories we tell

The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best – and therefore never scrutinize or question.
- Stephen Jay Gould

As a process to connect people and transmit ideas within organizations, effective communication is essential for fostering innovation. Aristotle told us, nearly two and a half thousand years ago, that if communication is to change behavior, it must be grounded in the desires and interests of the receivers. Organizational life relies on folklore and myth to create a connection between its members that influences their behavior, including the creation of innovation.

Folklore serves as mental scaffolding to help us gather, sort, organize, and support our thinking about the world around us. From an organizational standpoint, folklore provides what Ronald A. Heifetz termed in Leadership Without Easy Answers a “holding environment.” A holding environment enables a witness to the folk tale to distance her or himself from present reality. It enables the conception of possibility, and is a key ingredient in sense-making. To understand how it can inform, or impede, innovation, it’s necessary to explore folkloric communication and the way it helps define boundaries for action and dialogue in the life of organizations.

A billion little pieces
The universe is made of stories, not atoms.
- Muriel Rukeyser

Storytelling reveals and explores the potential of individuals and the social context in which they find themselves. Stories open the organization to the power and relevance of innovation as the organization members seek to grow and evolve it over time. Folkloric communication helps to define organizational reality, providing deeper levels of meaning. By capturing reflections of the past and displaying them in ways that are engaging to the present, it brings to light the fundamental building blocks of the organization which can then be used for creative ends.

In their reflective work on the possibility of a more holistic model of organizational life, A Simpler Way, Rogers and Wheatley note that “most people have a desire to love their organizations.” This notion drives much of the latent, often unexamined, innovation in organizations. It also means that organizations embrace stories about themselves that may not be factually accurate.

From the big reveal to the big conceal
Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.
- Hannah Arendt

The identity of the organization as it is expressed–its potential–speaks to participants’ own potential. Participants, through folklore and stories, envision places for themselves in the organizational whole. They see ways they might add to, or live out, a part of organizational history. Organizational folktales become ways for building shared coherence, defining the “fundamental integrity about who we are.” The key is shared commitment to the intent behind a story. Regardless of whether it’s a tall tale or true account, if enough people in the organization recognize its validity, it will have enough weight to influence practices.

The boundary-making qualities of folklore show organizational participants how to transgress, to reach beyond them, and build new tales. The dual nature of folklore is its ability to define both the boundaries of organizations and the people within it. Folklore in this manner is fundamental to the culture of an organization through its constant interaction with the organization’s own social dynamics.

Culture is both a product and a process. As a product, it embodies accumulated wisdom from those who came before us. As a process, it is continually renewed and re-created as newcomers learn the old ways and eventually become teachers themselves.

Bolman & Deal (1997, p. 217)

At its root, folklore in organizations is a metaphoric framing device, providing a context in which newcomers to organizations see ways they might engage with the organizational whole and leave their own mark. For this reason, the guardians of organizational folklore have significant power within it. They set the tone by determining when and where folklore may be revealed. They choose the focus of the delivery. Their opinions and attitudes directly color the way in which others may view the organization. Stories are a filter through which others catch glimpses of past organizational life. For any person new to an organization, this may be intimidating or welcoming, depending upon the manner with which the mythology is engaged.

It is vital, however, for people to feel at ease with an organization’s folklore if they are to become an engaged component of the systemic whole and add their own creative spark. Avoiding folktales, or denying their power within the organization, is the denial of an elemental part of how the organization operates. Folktales exist for numerous reasons, and each serves a unique purpose for the organization, be it framing patterns of behavior, orienting newcomers, or galvanizing the weary. For many organizations, however, the concept of a place for myth and folklore is not only foreign to them, it is anathema to their technical and rationalistic worldview. What need do they have for stories when there is a budget to be balanced and a headcount to be reduced?

There are a thousand stories in the naked city
To be a person is to have a story to tell.
- Isak Dinesen

The dark side of organization myths and folklore is that they may be the result of confabulation or impression management. They are tales told with willful, ill intent, and can play havoc with an organization’s success. Sometimes these tales may be used to create distractions, or to hide the true intent of storytellers.

In the case of confabulation, the reporting of events that never happened, it creates confusion and distraction. Rather than reinforcing a deep-seated truth about the organization which all may tap into as a source of inspiration, like the most powerful folktales, it causes chaos and distraction. Think of this factitious behavior as a mild version of Münchausen’s Syndrome, without the tendency to invent illness.

That and four bucks will get you a cup of Starbucks
Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.
- Robert McKee

A more hazardous practice is that of impression management. In both sociology and social psychology, impression management is a goal-directed conscious or unconscious process in which people attempt to influence the perceptions of others about a person, object, or event. Usually this practice is adopted for the improvement of their own standing within a given social context, and is accomplished by regulating and controlling information in social interactions: access to information, the way that information is presented, and the rules by which it might be shared are controlled.

The resulting distractions, as people seek to sort fact from fiction, cause confusion and frustration. One other victim in this process is the truth, without which clear thinking about innovation is sacrificed.

Impression management is usually synonymous with self-presentation, in which a person tries to influence the perception of their image. Impression management also refers to practices in professional communication and public relations, where the term is used to describe the process of forming a company’s or organization’s public image.

An organization that embraces its mythic traditions and openly embraces its folkloric symbols is one that is living with rare vigor. If the folklore and myth resident in an organization are used to galvanize and energize existing members, and create engagement points at which new members can find a way to contribute and belong, the resulting creativity and innovation will be remarkable.

A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.
- Raymond Chandler

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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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