You Do Not Need Permission to Innovate

Bootleggers K turnI read a great blog post written by Brooke Allen describing how a chance encounter decades ago with an ex-Prohibition-era bootlegger provided a key life lesson that served him well throughout his business career.

The ex-bootlegger – Brooke Allen called him “Jeb” – began by chatting about such tricks of the bootlegging trade as the “bootlegger’s K-turn,” a driving tactic used to escape hot pursuit by police by quickly reversing direction.

When FDR brought an end to Prohibition, Jeb needed to find new work. He finally found a mundane job working as a factory drill press operator. To deal with the monotony, he would think about how he could improve the drill press.

Finally, Jeb mustered up the courage to ask the factory owner if he could share his ideas:

After a few years he screwed up the courage to ask the owner, “May I ask a question?”

The owner laughed, “You don’t need permission to ask a question.”

… It turned out Jeb’s idea made the drill-press much more efficient. Jeb was about to go back to work when the owner said, “Why don’t I put you on another machine and let’s see what you come up with.”

In short order he’d invented all kinds of better ways of making things and soon he was even inventing whole new things to make. The owner gave him piles of money and Jeb was very happy.

“I never asked for permission to be a bootlegger because I knew it was the wrong thing to do,” Jeb told Allen. “But, I didn’t become [an inventor] until I learned that I don’t need permission to do the right thing.

Brooke Allen took away that key life lesson: You do not need permission to do the right thing. Knowing this simple fact is essential for any true innovation to take place. Innovation, by definition, is an act of “intelligent disobedience.” It is unafraid to question the status quo; it unashamedly asks, “What if…?”

I’d also add a big thumbs-up for the factory owner who had the sense to not only listen to Jeb’s idea, but to also encourage Jeb to discover new ideas and share the financial rewards with him. The owner demonstrated business sense that is lacking in too many corporate “leaders” today.

An empty suit of a “leader” probably would have just used Jeb’s first idea to make or save money without so much as a thank you (just like this example); or simply marched Jeb back to his drill press saying something like, “We don’t pay you to think!”

A bad boss can indeed go a long way to discourage innovation; however, that doesn’t change the fact that you don’t need permission to innovate. Lousy leaders who think nothing upsets the status quo without their blessing are kidding themselves. Under their noses, innovations are taking place in the form of secret skunkworks projects, workarounds and hacks that enable workers to sidestep red tape and self-important gatekeepers while also keeping their personal sanity!

Gatekeepers and Workarounds

Now imagine how well such a company could perform if innovation wasn’t driven underground by its own “leaders.”

Bottom line, you do not need permission to freely assess the way things are and envision the way things could be. Recognizing this universal truth might be the bootlegger K-turn you need to make a clean getaway from a “potted plant” organization and towards organizations and true leaders that actively encourage and reward innovation.

If you liked this post, you may also like:
“I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please” – An Innovation Message from Monty Python
The Impact of Imagination Level on Product Marketers and Managers
Product Managers and Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”?

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Five Years On: Innovation as a Driver of Good Business and Social Good

I recently revisited this article, among the first I wrote for this blog back in early 2009. America and the world was still reeling from an unconscionably cratered economy; and yet, there was substantial optimism that the global economy – as well as global society and well-being at large – would recover and become stronger. That optimism has since been proven to have been on the mark.

Now more than ever five years later, the advancement of global business and global civilization are increasingly viewed as intertwined and no longer commonly regarded as mutually exclusive. With that in mind, it is even more gratifying to look back at this write-up (which I have since refreshed and updated just a bit) on Bentley University’s 2009 Leadership Forum: The Business of Healing Our World – a special event to promote and encourage business initiatives and innovation, to quote Gloria Larson, Bentley University president, “that are both good for business and the broader social good.”

Read the complete article.

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Why the Question “Is Your Product a Vitamin or a Painkiller?” is a False Choice

I recently read an article posing the well-known sales question, Is Your Product a Vitamin or a Painkiller? by George Deeb. It’s a good reminder that it’s better to be selling a “painkiller” technology product that relieves acutely-felt, pervasive business problems, rather than a “vitamin” product that offers some lesser, more specialized value.

I agree with Deeb that it’s much harder to build a large, scalable business around vitamin products than painkiller products, but a product-as-painkiller is not the ultimate or best product offering either.

In other words, the question “Is your product a vitamin or a painkiller?” is a false choice – and businesses that rely on painkiller product revenue are at more risk than they might realize.

The issues of trying to sell a vitamin product are described quite well in Deeb’s article. But painkiller products have their own issues. For example, one of the most frequent and frustrating “competitors” to a painkiller product sale is “none of the above”. Much to many a sales manager’s chagrin, prospects often decide that while the business pain is real, alleviating it simply isn’t worth the effort, like Norm in this classic scene from Cheers:

Meanwhile, new enabling technologies march on: painkiller products that once required a huge capex for on-premise enterprise software, servers and services (CRM, marketing automation, legacy BI) are now offered inexpensively on a SaaS basis (SFDC, Marketo, GoodData) with more to come. More and more painkiller products are becoming available at lower “vitamin-level” cost and simplicity!

Another issue I have with painkiller products is they implicitly assume a business status quo. Consider Polaroid in the mid 90’s. Like so many other large companies, Polaroid jumped in with both feet into ERP, the ultimate painkiller technology of its time. Polaroid even won major awards for its SAP implementation. While Polaroid’s ERP no doubt lightened many operational pains by optimizing inventory, purchasing, quality control and such, meanwhile the company was failing miserably with new products and all but ignoring the deterioration of its instant photography market to digital cameras.

I recall reading a Polaroid executive praising the company’s new operational efficiency of its instant photography “core business.” Not long after, in 2001, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy, with most of that “core business” long gone.

Clearly, while reducing business “pain” is important, such efforts are no substitute for the ultimate purpose of a business, as memorably described by Peter Drucker:

There is only one valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer… Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two – and only two – basic functions: marketing and innovation.

And for decades, business technology has focused on operational efficiencies instead of serving as new platforms for innovation. Again, quoting Peter Drucker:

For top management, information technology has been a producer of data [for operational tasks]… Business success is based on something totally different: the creation of value and wealth.

This requires risk-taking decisions… on business strategy, on abandoning the old and innovating the new… the balance between the short term and the long term… These decisions are the true top management tasks.

The technology products that will reap the greatest financial rewards will be those that address those “true top management tasks”: innovation that creates new business value and wealth; such as

  • Advanced analytic platforms that reveal all-new insights into markets, products, customers and competitors
  • Gamefication platforms that motivate employees, customers and partners to want to take actions that mutually benefit the organization, themselves and other stakeholders
  • Customer/prospect engagement technologies that personalize and optimize every experience with your organization, whether online or in-person, across all channels (particularly mobile)

Artwork by: BTimony (click to see original)These and other new technologies designed to enable innovation make up a third category of products that go far beyond painkiller or vitamin products.

So what should we call this third product category? Maybe… “steroids”? Nah, don’t think so…

Perhaps “miracle drug”? No…

What about… “Popeye’s Spinach”?!

What do you think?

“I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please” – An Innovation Message from Monty Python

A while back, Jeff Hayden wrote a clever article for Inc.: The Monty Python Guide to Running a Business, spinning business lessons from classic sketches by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the iconic British comedy team.

Not among Jeff Hayden’s top ten “business advice by Monty Python” selections was my #1 choice: The Argument Clinic, one of Monty Python’s most popular comedy sketches ever. I believe this skit also does a great job portraying the ideal business environment… for killing innovation and creativity, that is! Have a look:

Monty Python’s Michael Palin actually pays for the ‘privilege’ of having an argument in this sketch. Meanwhile, too many real-world businesses with poor company cultures are basically paying their managers to routinely engage in arguments (turf battles, verbal sparring, flame mail wars, etc.) with others in the company!

Such misguided organizations will also have plenty of de facto Verbal Abuse departments (“Stupid git!”) to go along with the endless arguments – all of which are sure to give workers plenty of headaches (though hopefully not from a literal wooden mallet to the head).

Simply put, constant arguing is the opposite of collaborating.

As noted in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, Sony lost the personal music market to Apple and iTunes because its divisions were too busy constantly arguing with each other. Sony could never “get its hardware and software and content divisions to row in unison.”

[A music executive told Isaacson he] “had spent two years working with Sony, and it hadn’t gone anywhere… Steve would fire people if the divisions didn’t work together, but Sony’s divisions were at war with one another.”

Indeed, Sony provided a clear counterexample to Apple. It had a consumer electronics division that made sleek products and a music division with beloved artists (including Bob Dylan). But because each division tried to protect its own interests, the company as a whole never got its act together to produce an end-to-end service (emphasis added).

Arguments can also be induced when workers feel compelled to look over their shoulders instead of working and collaborating openly with others. For one very big example, it is hard to imagine why Marissa Mayer would have enacted the long-discredited HR practice of “stack ranking” (aka “rank and yank”) at Yahoo, given the well-documented havoc it had already wreaked at Microsoft.

Back in 2012, I was stunned to read that Microsoft, led by then-CEO Steve Ballmer, had for years been using stack ranking, which “forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor,” as explained by Kurt Eichenwald in his landmark article, Microsoft’s Lost Decade. Back then, stack ranking “crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate.”

About the same time Yahoo was ramping up its stack ranking agenda (which has so far resulted in two wrongful termination lawsuits), Microsoft finally eliminated it shortly after Ballmer’s departure – a decision that didn’t come a moment too soon:

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed – every one – cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees.

“If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies” (emphasis added).

Time spent by workers, managers, departments, business divisions, etc. on internal arguments and other infighting is time not spent fighting competitors outside the company. Time wasted developing “innovations” in self-preservation, co-worker character assassination and other manipulative office politics is time not spent innovating new products, marketing messages and other creative solutions. The business costs and negative personal consequences of such dysfunctional behavior are massive.

Hmm, I think this article has gotten a bit too serious. Let’s close, then, with one more Monty Python“business lesson,” this time regarding customer service gone very wrong!

The “Door of Success” Opens Both Outward and Inward

I came across a success quote on Twitter invoking a door metaphor that I couldn’t, um, “unlock” the point of.

Fellow Bentley University alum and sales operations blogger Marci Reynolds re-tweeted the quote in question:

I like quotes but I just didn’t get this one: Why would the “door(way) to success” swing only outward and not inward? Does it matter? As long as it opens, right?

Is the point of the quote that being extroverted that is, outwardly focused – is essential to succeed? I hope not, because, as author and TED 2012 speaker Susan Cain compellingly argues, that’s simply not true.

I urge you to listen to Susan Cain’s entire TED talk, but the gist of her presentation is that too often our schools and workplaces are seemingly structured based on the assumption that the best students and workers are extroverts – outgoing types who are in their element working in teams and being “productive.” Unfortunately, few breakthroughs in technology, research or other areas of endeavor have been created by committee.

Our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces, are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation…Even in subjects like math and creative writing, which you think would depend on solo flights of thought, kids are now expected to act as committee members…

And when it comes to leadership, introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions, even though introverts tend to be very careful, much less likely to take outsized risks — which is something we might all favor nowadays…(I)nteresting research by Adam Grant at the Wharton School has found that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do, because when they are managing proactive employees, they’re much more likely to let those employees run with their ideas…

And groups famously follow the opinions of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room, even though there’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.

Susan Cain’s points are well supported by scads of research; Jim Collins’ Good to Great insights into the personality traits of the top “level 5” leaders immediately come to mind: level 5 leaders are often unassuming, self-effacing and display introverted tendencies – the opposite of what Collins calls the “corrosive celebrity CEO.” Yes, introverts can make excellent leaders. It is a serious mistake for extroverts to believe that introverts merely work in a vacuum without input from others.

Susan Cain also goes out of her way to make clear that she does not disparage extroverted people in any way (she mentions that she’s married to an extrovert). Doing so would be plain dumb. Rather, Susan Cain’s key point is that it’s critical for institutions to set up both extraverts and introverts for success by equipping them with the differing environments they need for success.

By helping to ensure the organization’s “door of success” does indeed open both outward and inward, the organization’s will significantly expand its potential for extraordinary “Good to Great” levels of success. Organizations that don’t get this will find its collective door of success frustratingly difficult to open indeed…

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Innovative Companies Don’t Have Employee “Sediment”

I really liked this tweet by Sandy Kemsley that noting someone’s Twitter gaffe clearly intended to comment on the need to monitor employee sentiment.

Just as ‘many a truth is said in jest,’ many a truth can also be said by mistake as well: companies should monitor – and avoid – employee “sediment.” Doing so will help ensure an environment of innovation and free-flow of new ideas.

Somehow ’employee sediment‘ triggered a memory (from ‘sediment’ to ‘dirt’ … ‘soil’ … ‘plants’) of an article I read about “potted plant syndrome” in the workplace:

There was a boss who complained that everyone around him was a “potted plant.” He couldn’t understand why his managers wouldn’t take charge of an idea or come up with solutions. In his management meetings, if a manager suggested how to handle a problem or come up with solution, he would tell them how they could do it better or differently. Or, he would argue that they were wrong.

He didn’t realize he was killing commitment and innovation.

The boss was a one-person idea prevention department. His staff was tired of standing out with an idea only to get it shot down, so they stopped offering them. The oblivious boss had sown a staff of “potted plants.”

Company-Potted-Plant-Staff-Meeting

And now a quick true story of employee ‘sediment’…

A business professional (we’ll call him “Rick”) met with a company leader to discuss how he wanted a certain SaaS tool to work. Rick listened and asked questions, teasing out from the leader the specific desired outcomes and results he was looking for. In the course of the conversation, the leader drew his thoughts and answers to the questions on a whiteboard.

The next day, Rick presented the plan describing how the actual production implementation would work, delivering the end results the leader had described. Rick’s plan included a time-saving idea involving a simple update to certain existing data that would provide the desired end results much more quickly with fewer workflow steps. Even better, Rick also noted a flaw in one of the leader’s primary assumptions as to how the solution should work; however, Rick’s proposed data update would resolve that issue as well.

Instead of being pleased, the “leader” was angry!  “I told you exactly what I wanted!” he sputtered. “What is this?!”

leader-air-quotesAnd only then did Rick realize the unfortunate reality that the “leader” never wanted Rick to propose an innovative solution; no, the “leader” wanted Rick to merely replicate his desires, wishes and assumptions, exactly as instructed on his whiteboard… flawed assumptions be damned.

Did this “leader” want fries with that?!

Keeping his incredulousness – and that snarky fries remark – to himself, Rick simply obliged and completed the project to the “leader’s” exact – and faulty – specifications. Sure enough, the system processes the “leader” had mandated proved to be so needlessly complicated, the end users rarely followed them.

Not long afterwards, Rick, not terribly interested in becoming a “potted plant,” chose to move on… to much greener pastures.

If a company doesn’t want “potted plants” for employees, they should stop burying their ideas.

Monitor employee sediment, indeed.

If you liked this article, you may also like:

The “Door of Success” Opens Both Outward and Inward

“I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please” – An Innovation Message from Monty Python

The Impact of Imagination Level on Product Marketers and Managers

Product Managers and Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”?

Source: The Fighter official movie website

Or: When Leadership Squanders its Innovative Workers

The Fighter (2010) is an exceptional movie based on the true story of Micky Ward, a professional boxer from Lowell, Mass.

Set in the early 1990’s, the film introduces Micky Ward (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg) as an aging boxer whose champion potential is slipping away as trusted family members fail to look out for his best interests.  Between his drug-addicted brother Dicky (Christian Bale) missing training sessions and his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) mismanaging his matches, Micky Ward suffers a series of stinging defeats and considers ending his boxing career.

The Fighter led me to wonder how many people are out there today with similarly high potential being similarly squandered. Does this suggestion ring true to you?

I am certain the vast majority of people (certainly not just product marketers and product managers) have felt the same gnawing cognitive dissonance during their careers that Micky Ward felt: an awareness that one’s work and skills were somehow being stifled, but knowing neither why nor what to do about it.

I believe the root cause behind the vast majority of struggling products (and, therefore, struggling businesses) is people not living up to their potential due to a non-supportive organizational environment. Like Micky Ward’s frustrations early on in The Fighter, the core issue is a pervasive inability of people, starting with the management team, to work with one another effectively and treat each other properly.

There are many types of managerial dysfunctions that contribute to a non-supportive environment that adversely impacts people, which cannot help but adversely impact products. Here are a few that might ring true to you (though I hope not!) …

Leadership that is disengaged from the company’s original innovation and brand equity. Beware of management who was not around and/or not emotionally invested in the company’s original innovations that earned its success and brand equity in the first place. There are many particularly bad examples out there, such as “professional” management teams as described in this past blog post.

Starbucks is a recent high-profile example of “post-founder” management that missed the mark badly.  After original visionary CEO and chairman Howard Schultz’ retirement from Starbucks, the company pursued an unfortunate strategy of over-expansion while becoming less like the original Starbucks and more like Dunkin’ Donuts.  Thankfully, Starbucks is also a success story in recapturing that innovation, eliminating previous ‘management by the numbers’ and rescuing its brand following the return of Howard Schultz to the company.

In an organization with a management team that just doesn’t “get” it, innovators are much more likely to be “reined in” than celebrated.

Leadership that punishes unsuccessful innovation.

If you say, ‘I want people to take risks,’ and then fire the guy if the outcome fails, it becomes clear how your organization really feels about risk.

– Anthony F. Smith, Consultant and author of the book ESPN the Company: The Story and Lessons Behind the Most Fanatical Brand in Sports.

There’s a great old movie sight gag featuring an overworked bus boy at an understaffed diner. Hurrying with two full armloads of stacked dishes, he slips and drops one armload of dishes that fall shattering to the floor. The slave-driver boss roars, “You idiot! You’re fired!”

The bus boy looks his boss in the eye, shrugs his shoulders, lets the other armload of dishes fall crashing to the floor as well, and walks out.

The lesson is clear: a company culture that punishes workers for honest mistakes, and even worse, for taking a risk and trying out a new idea that doesn’t work out, deserves the plentiful fallout it creates. Nothing stifles innovation (or, for that matter, careers, information sharing, customer service, etc.) like a ham-handed “slap on the wrist” from an authoritarian boss.

Leadership that fails to reward or even recognize successful innovation. Failing to appreciate or acknowledge innovation success might even be worse than scolding unsuccessful efforts. I recall some years ago reading some of the 1985 book Intrapreneuring: Why You Don’t Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur by Gifford Pinchot. The book described an ingenious manager who single-handedly created a new multimillion dollar stream of revenue for his employer. The manager discovered an innovative breakthrough that transformed tons of scrap material previously hauled away as waste into a vital component of a new product.

Great job, right? Tell that to the manager’s employer, whose collective response was little more than an indifferent shrug. Incredibly, the manager was not rewarded in any way for his multimillion dollar innovation (!!) – an injustice that Gifford Pinchot seemed to gloss over and almost excuse:

[The manager] doesn’t seem bitter that he barely received a thank you for creating a new business…He is from that loyal generation who is thankful for a job, and my questions about recognition and rewards made him uncomfortable.

This feeble conclusion to a dismal story debunks the book’s premise; after all, an entrepreneur in charge of his or her own company actually reaps the rewards of his or her innovation, rather than having them gobbled up without even a “thank you” by an indifferent executive team!

In addition to conveying the cynical notion that the manager “should just be thankful he has a job,” the company made a very loud and clear statement about how little it valued innovation and those who engage in it.  I’m sure  that message was received loud and clear, and remembered, by others across that organization.

Leadership that is preoccupied with “problem solving,” not innovating. Referring to the previous sad example, problem solving would have amounted to simply finding a new vendor willing to dispose of ‘all this worthless material waste’ for a few bucks less than the current cost. Innovating is what that manager actually did, turning that scrap material into revenue-generating gold.

An organization unduly focused on linear “problem solving” will readily recognize the former and often underappreciate the latter (even if the innovative efforts prove successful!), perhaps even going so far as to label those innovative efforts as indicative of “not taking direction.”

I discussed this malady in a recent article exploring the Hierarchy of Imagination, in which I suggested that many boss-subordinate conflicts stem from incompatible levels of imagination, such as a highly “creative” person reporting to a “left brain”-focused, “problem solver” boss – more likely to be focused on “the numbers” while paying lip service at best to innovation.

James Kilts, the last CEO of Gillette, comes to mind, no doubt to the chagrin of the city of Boston, once the global headquarters of The Gillette Company. Instead of innovating to grow the top line and revitalize the company, Kilts declared that past double-digit revenue growth was a thing of the past. He instead focused squarely on “the numbers” – massive cost-cutting and fixating on shareholders as the only company stakeholders. With a bloated compensation package larded with stock options, Kilts predictably sold out Gillette to Proctor & Gamble in 2005 and pocketed $165 million. A Boston institution, with untapped potential to rediscover its innovative roots, was instead gone.

In a book he authored, Kilts proudly described one of his greatest achievements at Gillette: Kilts successfully… [drum roll?] mandated a dramatic reduction in the company’s product SKU count!

Wait, what? This is an example of a keystone “achievement” by the CEO of a global company?! Cue up the sarcastic slow clapping. Paradoxically, Kilts’ book was entitled Doing the Right Thing.

Instead of tinkering over such administrative “problem solving,” I hope your company’s senior executive leaders really are “doing the right thing” – that is, the work they are supposed to do: Increasing the top line by setting the vision, agenda and right environment for creating innovative new products.