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The Art of Empathetic Observation


revealI just returned from delivering a talk at the Project Management Institute Spring Symposium in Michigan.  The main message I had for this group was while many organizations have ample skill in solving problems and managing projects effectively, the untapped opportunity comes from doing a better job in selecting the right problem to solve.   Most problems are fuzzy, having many facets to them.  In today’s world where we value speed, efficiency, and cost minimization we can too often rush to solving problems without taking time to amply understand them, and their various root causes.

Sometimes slowing down, being more exploratory, and striving for deeper understanding before launching into problem solving can pay big dividends.

In the Creative Problem Solving Process (See Slowing Down to Move Fast), the first important aspect of understanding the problem better, called “problem formulation” is to collect facts and information, driving us to ask more questions and consider more aspects of the problem.

Some of this comes from doing research on Google, or collecting readily available historical data.  However data alone can often present a fairly limited view of the situation.  So, we always like to challenge organizations to add to their empirical data, intuitive information that comes from consumer observations and interviews.  David Kelly (founder of design firm IDEO) likes to call this process one of “empathetic observation”.

Many technical people immediately presume that we can’t learn from ordinary people who are not experts in the technologies related to our business.  One of the participants in my session this week quoted Henry Ford who once said:  “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”  Yes, it’s true that most people can’t imagine something they have never before seen or experienced.  (If you asked people 15 years ago how they wanted to communicate, it is doubtful they would have described an iPhone 5.)


So if we can’t ask consumers what they want from us, how do we gain the understanding we need to create breakthrough innovations?     The art of empathetic observation is a means to observe and listen to customers as they

–          Make their own purchase decisions

–          Use our products or services

It’s not so much about interrogation, more like looking over their shoulder while trying to imagine what they are thinking and feeling as they do.

I like to think about it as asking open-ended questions that cause them to talk about their lives in as personal a manner as they feel comfortable and then we have to do the “heavy lifting”.  We need to listen for the current and future possible intersection points between their lives and our products/services.   We are “tuning in” to the things that cause our interviewee joy, frustration, fear, or anger – looking for unmet needs that we imagine our organization might be able to do something about.


Imagine the coffee retailer Starbucks, trying to solve the problem: “How Might We Better Grow Our Same-Store Sales?”  As you can imagine growing only by adding more brick and mortar is expensive, so if we could somehow increase traffic in our EXISTING stores, wouldn’t that be far less capital consuming?   We can increase store sales by growing traffic, or by getting people to spend more each time they come by.

So to explore this question we create 2-person interview teams (one to ask questions, and one to write and help observe) and we begin to interview current Starbucks customers asking them questions like:

–          Tell me about a typical week in your life.

–          What are some of the biggest challenges you are experiencing in your life right now?

–          What are the things that you feel you need help with that would make the biggest difference for you?

–          What are the things that currently cause you to visit a Starbucks outlet?

–          When you do stop in, tell us what the experience is like for you.

–          Etc.

Notice that nowhere are we asking the consumer directly what they want Starbucks to create for them.  We are just getting them talking about their lives as we try to understand them better.

Empathy Map_StanfordWhen the interview is completed, our interview teams try to summarize the highlights of their conversation on a simple one-page template called an empathy map (see graphic at the left).    The map is divided into four sections: Quotes and Defining Words (3-5 bullet points of significant things the interviewee said); Actions and Behaviors (what they described that they did or how they behaved in their life), Thoughts and Beliefs (what we sensed they might have been thinking but never articulated to us during the interview); and Feelings and Emotions (what we imagine they might have been feeling when they were describing their life that they did not explicitly share).

Now the first two sections are relatively easy to create as they come from direct quotes we took from the interview.   But it is the last two quadrants that are most interesting since we are asking the interviewers to be amateur psychologists to go beneath the specific words and deeds to the underlying motivations.  This requires our empathy, plus a little instinct and intuition.

To give you a better idea of this concept in practice, here is an empathy map (see below) for one of our Starbucks Case interviewees, we will call “Alice”.   As you read the summary points on this map, you can begin to imagine how the actual interview went.   The interviewers in their summary seem to be “tuning in” to a host of issues related to Alice’s unmet need to meet new and different people in her life who might be a better influence on her.  You can sense that she may be looking for new people who can become personal friends, as well as professional contacts that might help her in her career.

Empaty Map_AliceWhen the interviewers presented their Empathy Map summary, they talked about how the sensed Alice was somewhat shy, and that “breaking the ice” with strangers was one of her challenges.

Now I imagine that two different sets of observers who witnessed the session with Alice might have summarized the interview differently.   That’s because we all observe and listen with different lenses based on our own personal biases and experiences.

But when we collect interview summaries from multiple groups and interviewees, a diverse array of observations start to emerge that can create a rich fodder for subsequent problem definition and idea creation steps in the Creative Problem Solving Process.

In a sense, each of the separate bullet points captured on the empathy map is a new problem to be solved for Alice.   To me this is an interesting example because this leads Starbucks to think not about another variety of beverage product, but to how they might engineer their store environments in new ways to help Alice and the other customers like her.

Effective brands make emotional connections with consumers who use them.  One way we can do this is by being relevant in the world of the people we serve, making a difference that really matters.   The empathy mapping example described here will help you and your colleagues go deeper in your understanding of the problems in front of them as you search for breakthrough innovation possibilities.

Other Resources

Converting Empathetic Observations Into Solutions, by Len Brzozowski,

IDEO and The Art of Innovation: The Role of Listening in Consumer Product Development, from

Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design, by Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey F. Rayport, Harvard Business Review

How to Use an Empathy Map, from Stanford’s d-School

Empathy Map, from Gamestorming: a playbook for innovators, rule-breakers and change makers


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Advancing in the Resurgent Economy

Change the gameI was asked recently to present at the upcoming spring conference of the Project Management Institute, being held in the Detroit area (Novi MI).   Their theme this year, “Advancing in the Resurgent Economy” evokes a call to more innovation and change.

I was asked to speak on the topic of innovation.

So check out the conference, and come hear my talk if you wish.    You can visit the conference website

What: Spring Symposium, PMI Great Lakes Chapter

Time: 0800a to 5:00p

Where: Suburban Collection Showplace, Novi MI


My presentation: Changing the Game: Tools & Mindsets for Building Innovative Problems Solving Teams 

Morning Session #1 |10:00a | Room: Crystal Ballroom

What I will talk about:

Achieving a sustainable competitive advantage is the strategic objective of every organization. Since all companies everywhere in the world have access to the same technology, information, knowledge, and capital, these alone cannot be a source of that competitive advantage. It is through the innovative and creative ways these things can be applied that we can achieve break-through ideas that can change the game in our industry. This is about tapping the creative energies of our workforce. Developing our innovation muscles is vitally important. We will look at the need to be innovative, and the consequences of failing to do so. We will look to the global best practices being used by firms like IDEO, Google, Bell Labs, Pixar and others to see the common threads. The presentation will discuss the formula for developing an innovative team and show some real examples of how these practices are being applied.

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Stuck? Try Using Innovation by Analogy

weightsWhen people are engaged in problem solving, it is not uncommon that they get stuck when searching for solutions.   Or, you may not be stuck per se, but you feel your ideas lack imagination.   When either of these occurs, we can benefit from some external stimulus to help us break through to new creative insights.    One tool that you can use is called Innovation By Analogy.

University of Texas Cognitive psychologist, Dr. Art Markman, is one expert into how people think.  He explains in his book Tools for Innovation: The Science Behind the Practical Methods That Drive New Ideas that very often we have in our minds the information to creatively solve problems, but we often have difficulty accessing it or even recognizing how what we already know can be applied.   Often, innovative solutions are merely the re-application of other solutions in some slightly different way.   The trick is figuring out which pieces of knowledge are relevant to the new problem you are trying to solve.

We think, says Dr. Markman, by looking at a problem in a certain way, and then searching our mental “data banks” as if our brain were like Wikipedia looking for the right entry to read.   Just as in Wikipedia (or using Google, for that matter) the references you uncover are dependent on what “search words or phrases” you decide to type into the search window.   For those of you who have tried Google searches before, you know it is somewhat of an art form.   Deciding on the correct search terms is key.

Imagine this as your problem:

You have just started a weight training program, 4 days per week.  Your spouse bought you a weight set for the holidays, and you have been highly pleased with your progress so far.  You are assigned a new job that will require extensive travel, and you would not like to see your new personal health initiative abandoned.   You can’t depend on the chance that every hotel will have an adequately equipped fitness center.  The idea of lugging your weights with you (in a separate suitcase, perhaps) seems like it will push you past your baggage weight limit with the airline).  So, how might you solve this problem?

There are multiple solution pathways you might go down.  The one(s) you choose depends largely on how you choose to frame the problem statement.

You could think of the problem as “how do I bring my personal weight set with me when I travel?”   Framed in this way, it is a transportation problem.   What is the cheapest means of shipping precious or heavy materials with you when you travel?  You could pay the baggage surcharge and ship them on the airplane.   You could consider other freight forwarding services as well.

If you wanted to get creative, you might ask yourself, “Who else has solved this problem?”  What about musicians who perform in a different city every night?  What about someone with a health condition who needs oxygen or other specialized medical equipment to be nearby?  Investigating these analogous situations (even though they do not have anything to do with your weight shipping problem), may lead you to other possible solutions.   Perhaps the solution is traveling by bus or van (where you can bring more weight).   Maybe there are freight-forwarding services that specialize in quick, personal service.  Maybe you could choose to rent some equipment in your destination city.

Another way to think about your problem might be, “I prefer NOT to lug my weights with me, what can I do when I get to my hotel that allows me to keep up with my exercise regime?”  In this case, you have taken YOUR WEIGHTS out of the equation.     Now this is a problem of substitution – what else might I be able to do while on the road the yields the same benefits as my weight program?  This line of thinking may lead you to improvising exercises with things you will readily find in your hotel room (how about a new use for your night stand?).  Or, you might think about other forms of physical conditioning that build core body strength without depending on weights.   You might ask here, “who else has solved this problem?   Well, your research might lead you to a program developed by the Navy Seals called TRX Training.  It replaces machines and weights using your own body weight to provide the resistance you need for muscle development.  So, you might find some TRX exercises that you could easily adapt to some of the settings you might find in a typical hotel.

Or, how about reframing your problem this way: “I want to have a set of weights that don’t have the weight or the bulk in them while I’m travelling, but can have the weight added at the time I want to use them.”   Notice, that what we’re doing here is to think about the problem more abstractly for a second. We’re not really talking much about the weight as the item to be transported any longer.  Instead, weight is just something to be added when it is going to be used.

Does reframing the question in this way lead you down yet another path?   What other things can you think of that collapse when in storage, but can have something added to it when you want to use it?

How about an air mattress?  In this case the analogy is a bit removed in that the thing you fill an air mattress with has very little weight.  But the idea is the same, filling something in your hotel room, (say with water at 3.785kg per gallon).   Now your analogous thinking has led you to consider what you could bring (e.g. a deflatable pouch that could be filled with water and hung from a bar in some manner.)

So there in a nutshell is the process in innovation by analogy.  Just follow these steps.

1)    REFRAME the problem.  Like we did with our weight problem above.  Re-state it making different assumptions as you go. (taking my weights, substituting something for them, and taking them in a different form than is common) You might want to reframe multiple times to force yourself to consider a richer array of solutions.

2)    ASK “What is it like?”  Use analogies, metaphors and associations to connect other situations to your newly framed problem statements.   As an example, one oil pipeline company concerned with the habitual problem of leaks, considered the process of clotting in the human blood stream as their analogy.  They investigated what chemical additives they could add to the pipeline contents that would exhibit similar clotting behaviors as human blood when exposed to air.)

3)    ASK “Who (or what) else solves this problem?”  Think about other organizations products, groups companies (most likely outside of your industry) who have tackled the aspect of the problem you are now considering.  Think also about examples from nature.  Then study them.   Here is another example:  One health care organization I know was thinking about improving its patient satisfaction scores.  They recognized that one source of patient dissatisfaction came from waiting – which is a common occurrence.  They asked themselves who else has managed to make waiting seem less unsatisfying.  Their thoughts turned to DISNEY.   This led them to consider how they could make their waiting environments more stimulating, educational, and engaging with artful decoration, TV programming, toys for children, etc.

4)    CONSIDER “how might I adapt their solution to my situation?”   This step should be easiest. You need to figure out how the analogous solution could be modified in some manner to work in your specific situation, cultural environment, within your desired budget, and so forth.

So the next time you are stuck, or unimpressed by the inventiveness of the options you are considering, try the technique of Innovation By Analogy.  Who knows where it might lead you?

Other Resources:

Analogy is the Essence of Innovation, by Art Markman, Ph.D., in Psychology Today

How to use analogies for breakthrough innovations, by Dipl. Wi.-Ing. Katharina Schild, Prof. Dr. Cornelius Herstatt, and Dr. Christian Lüthje, Institute of Technology and Innovation Management, Technical University of Hamburg

Analogies Are the Way of Breakthrough Innovation, by Michael S. Slocum, 

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Leading Sustainable Change: Top Down or Bottom-Up?

bottom upI was meeting with a VP in a large, well-regarded, health care organization this past week.  The company has 36 facilities spread over 21 states.  He was in charge of something called patient safety (meaning working to reduce the number of incidents throughout the system where patients could be harmed due to an error or oversight).   This mission has to do with developing and improving quality systems, changing culture, and changing processes.

As seems logical, the company created a system wide committee to study this problem and then develop a national “solution” to it.  They were already anticipating the need for a change acceleration process to overcome expected resistance to change when moving to roll out the “answer”.

Now I am sure that the people on this task force are highly competent, dedicated, and knowledgeable.  Let’s also assume that after they complete their data collection, assessment, and internal discussions, that they would come up with an awesome solution to the problem.   The next question is whether or not they can successfully execute (implement) the solution across the entire network?

I have my doubts.

There is no question that people have been successful with both top-down and bottom-driven strategies for implementing change.   There are certainly pros and cons, but I believe there are some strategies that help sustainability.

The problem.  

Here is a basic problem with the top-down method.   You take a group of smart people who comprise the “task force”.   They spend 2, 4 or 6 months together, researching, collecting data, sharing, discussing, debating, developing, improving, and summarizing a set of ideas.   By the time they are done, they have completed a masterpiece.  They now have a brilliant strategy that was well thought through, and logical.     Every word in their final report has deep meaning to all the task force members who labored so hard to produce it.   It resonates with them, because they shared the context for the exercise, they learned together, they know why they made certain choices, and not others, and why several good ideas were abandoned along the way in favor of others.

When we roll out the solution to the masses, they will often fail to comprehend, believe in, and support the proposed solution to the same degree as those who championed it.   Implementation enthusiasm is lower than desired, and people will “bend” the execution rules in ways that suit them.

You see, the most important benefit of a problem solving (or strategic planning) effort is the process itself.  By working together, the team gradually leaves behind their own individual biases, forming instead a new solution based on their newly formed common understandings and insights.

People support more fully that which they had a hand in shaping.    

One change leadership premise I now hold (though didn’t always practice) is that people will execute with far more passion and commitment ideas when they feel are their own.  In fact, I have observed many cases where even mediocre ideas were successfully executed when the people responsible WANTED to make it work.  Don’t discount passion and will power.   They can often trump intellect.

Re-think what needs central control.

I know it is logical to think there are some large system-wide issues that need to solved on a global basis.   I think it is worth challenging your assumptions about what really needs to be done so in a centralized fashion.   IT and business systems problems may be one example where central decision-making makes sense because the cost of maintaining 36 independent accounting or server systems may be prohibitive.   But what about the topic of patient safety?

Why should we conclude there is only one “right” answer to that problem?   It seems to me our job as executives is to decide whether or not an issue like patient safety is important enough to be on the top of someone’s priority list.   Senior leaders can decide that this matters, and needs to be solved.   But why not allow the people in each location to decide on what is the best way?   You might find that some units were far better, more creative, and more innovative in their solutions.  In fact, one of your local teams might have discovered some ideas that even your blue-ribbon task force would not have thought of.

As people start to attack the problem, why not simply provide a vehicle for success sharing among the units.  This could be done electronically by some internal company blog, a shared electronic “knowledge base” or by some system-wide conference where we bring together people to share their unique solutions, and to recognize the units with the best performance improvements or most innovative solutions.  From there, everyone can learn from each other and bring back new ideas to apply.

Solutions need to be aligned with local cultures.  

Most MBA and executive groups I have taught would agree that culture is a big deal.  In fact, culture drives behavior even more than do directives, policies or procedures.   So for solutions to work, they must be compatible with local behaviors and attitudes.   In one hospital, physicians may have a tradition of being in command of everything, and a top-down autocratic approach may work there.   In a different hospital, there may more of a collaborative tradition, so having nurses and administrative staff involved in different aspects of decision-making may be perfectly natural.   Imposing one solution on the other group would be an up-hill fight.

I learned this lesson in my business trying to harmonize design approaches between R&D centers in Michigan, Germany, and Japan.   I imagined great synergies, a single global design, and lots of efficiency and quality improvements.  The problem was that the cultural differences were too great among the three design teams.  They all had very different definitions about what QUALITY was, and about what constituted an elegant design.   The Japanese, for example valued simple, compact, and inexpensive solutions.   The Germans, on the other hand valued high technology, and robustness.   Getting them to think alike was nigh on impossible.  And, I was wrong for thinking they should.   Their different views were driven by the fact that their local customer bases also shared different philosophies which is what drove the design thinking in our various research centers.  Making them standardize would not have served our customers.

In the end, we did find some value in sharing ideas, but each team knew best their home situation and constraints.  They needed the freedom to adapt ideas to fit their local situation.

And so. . .

It is sometimes nice to be asked to join the global task force to solve the big problem for the organization.  But a strategy of informing and enabling local solutions can sometimes yield the best results.

Other resources:

Driving Top Down Change from the Bottom Up, by Kristen Etheredge and Damon Beyer, AT Kearney.

Combining top-down and bottom-up change management strategies in implementation of ACP: the My Wishes program in South West Sydney, Australia;  by C Shanley1, L Johnston2 and  A Walker, BMJ Supportive and Palliative care.

Advantages and disadvantages of the top-down and bottom-up implementation approaches , IBM white paper.

Implementing Scrum: Top Down and Bottom Up Approach Part 1 and Part 2, by Sean Mchugh, the Agile Zone

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Stop Wasting Your Training Budget

AMSKAccording the ASTD, we spend somewhere north of $150 billion per year training and developing our work force in the United States.  The question is – to what end?   What good is spending all this money if it doesn’t produce tangible outcomes that improve our organization or our business performance?  It’s akin to letting your valuable resources get absorbed into some big black hole from which nothing of value can escape.

Here is an example.  A highly respected global company engaged a group of senior executives in a leadership development program.  They partnered with a leading business school, and these high potential execs were exposed to a wide array of topics, business cases, and workshop sessions.  At the end, the feedback was stellar.  Everyone thought the program was of high quality, was enjoyable and participants were emphatic about the many useful things they learned.

Six months later, that same group was asked to cite tangible examples of how their business performance was “better” as a consequence of what they had learned, and applied from the course.   Not one could come up with anything specific.

Sound familiar?

Most CEO’s I speak to are cynical about whether training and development does anything useful.  The HR community some years ago (probably as a defensive move) started to talk about measuring the ROI on training and development.  (ASTD now even has a handbook on how to measure it – see below).  We can measure the cost alright, but as in the example above, assessing the benefits in a convincing way is not so easy.   So the logical action is to work on reducing the denominator of the ROI equation.  So we try to do the training in fewer days, with more people per session, or use more on-line methods.

Let’s focus instead on the NUMERATOR of the ROI equation.

We all understand the need to manage costs, but let’s put some more thought into how to improve the effectiveness of our training and development investments.  Here are some ideas I think will help.

Stop “check-the-box” training. So often, I see HR or learning professionals develop a thoughtful matrix of “leadership skills” that they feel every manager and employee should have.   By the time you get done with communications, performance appraisal techniques, understanding strengths and personality styles, business acumen topics and so forth; the list ends up being pretty long.   We put together a curriculum and begin signing up people and steering them to different courses based on their job duties.   While the selected topics all seem reasonable (even important), success doesn’t come from measuring the percentage of your workforce who has taken the courses.  Sitting in a class and having your attendance recorded does not necessarily equal learning.  It surely does not equal transformation. We need to demand more of our instructors, and our participants.

Think about BEHAVIOR objectives, rather than on learning objectives.  People in education typically start their course design process by thinking about the learning outcomes we have in mind (a list of things we want participants to know when the course is completed).   Then we decide what content we might deliver and how.  In some cases, we also think about how we would measure whether the participants actually learned what we taught.    I believe this focus is wrong.   Who cares what your people know?   We should care about what they are capable of DOING differently as a consequence of our courses.  If they can’t execute differently as a consequence of the learning, then our work isn’t done.

People don’t generally learn in a classroom.  They learn when the actually struggle to apply it in their own world.  That’s when the nuances, dichotomies and contradictions present themselves that force us to think more deeply.  We might be persuaded during a class to try to act differently in some important way.   We send you off after the workshop, you try to do it, and you run into some difficulty.  If it is too hard or too messy, you are likely to abandon the new methodology, returning instead to what you have done in the past, no matter how imperfect.

Wouldn’t a better approach be to design the course in segments spanning several days or weeks.  Give the participants time in between class sessions to experiment and learn by themselves.    Teach – Apply – Debrief – Coach – Teach More – Reapply.

We tend not to think this way because our list of topics is too long, and our budget is limited.  So we tend to favor breadth instead of deep learning.  This leads me to the next point.

Choose fewer topics, and go deeper.  I have often seen examples where companies will deliver a program spanning 13 or 20 topics over as many sessions, with none being more than a half-day or so.  In this case, we are just skimming the surface.   Imagine trying to teach a topic like strategy or persuasive communications in only three hours.   You can introduce some basic concepts – but they are not likely to sink in.   So think again about what things are really important to teach.  Be disciplined.   Offer the same 13 or 20 sessions, but only cover 2 or 3 topics.  Teach-Apply-Debrief-Coach-Reapply.   Shouldn’t we be aiming at deep understanding and behavior change, not superficial knowledge?

Apply, apply, apply.  Think about a learning process as being about 75% doing, and 25% formal learning.  I suggest to you that our conventional model is the reverse.  To really absorb the content – they need to practice it.   The most useful practice comes when they are doing it on a real work situation (not a theoretical in-class case example).   Here is what I mean.    We can teach the content behind persuasive communications in a half-day. All the right ideas will have been covered.   As an alternative, you could ask participants to prepare a 5-minute persuasive argument before coming into the class.   Have them present it live.  Record it and invite the class members to give each other feedback.  Then, teach some of the course content, and ask them to completely redo their presentations, incorporating what they were just taught.  Ask them to re-present and get the same type of feedback.   Now let’s take this idea one step further.  Only allow people into the class who have an actual persuasive presentation they need to develop for their work.  Maybe some need to design a customer sales presentation, and announcement about a new policy or procedure change, or a proposal for a new R&D project.   In this case everyone in class has a vested interest in learning – because they want their presentations to be awesome.   Allow only people into class who want to be there and who have a business need to fulfill.  This leads me to the next point.

Design training around a live business problem.   Let’s agree that when measuring the ROI from our learning dollars can be based on whether or not we made our business or organization better in some way.  One way to do this is to begin with selecting some important business issue or problem that needs to be solved.   Then choose a team whose assignment is to solve it.  Next, ask what skills, knowledge or insight gaps this team might lack – based on the problem, and then design the curriculum around those.  That is training with a real purpose.

For example, let’s resolve not to teach something like business strategy in strictly an academic setting.   Let’s teach it to a group who NEED to develop a real strategy for their team, department or function.  THEN, lets include some learning blocks on assessing the environment, building a sustainable advantage, planning execution initiatives, determining key success factors and metrics, mission alignment, and progress tracking.   All the while, the team is applying these ideas to their own relevant business situation.  Teach – Apply – Debrief – Coach – Teach – Reapply.

Using this philosophy, measuring the benefits of the learning becomes easier.  Did we solve the business problem?  Did we develop a killer strategy?  Did we develop an effective sales presentation that won some new business?

Other Resources

Learning & Performance Support Best Practices Study: Summary Report, by HSA Learning & Performance Solutions LLC

Stop Wasting Money on Training, by Harold D. Stolovitch & Erica J. Keeps

Are You Wasting Money on Management Training?, by Ron Ashkenas, in Forbes  Magazine

Handbook Of Measuring And Evaluating Training, by Patti Phillips and ASTD

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An Innovation Committee?

There has been a lot written lately about the decline in innovation, or R&D productivity in the US and elsewhere. 

Flattened OutLabor rates (in the US in particular) have flattened out, and are now in decline.  (see as an example, the chart labeled “Flattened out”)  The argument is that we are not bringing out new technologies at a fast enough pace to sustain the growth in wages.  Declining wages reduces consumer spending which accounts for 70%ish of total GDP.   And thus, some economists argue that technological innovation is a key driving force in overall economic vitality and growth.

Often over recent history, evolutions in core technologies (the internal combustion engine, electric power, oil and gas, transportation, cellular communications, computer technology) have propelled economic growth.  In the US for example, when our “innovation engine” was running well, we saw a blistering economic growth rate of about 2.5% per year.  Since the turn of this century, that rate has fallen to about 1%.

While R&D spending hasn’t dried up, some argue that the significance of what is being invented today is less than in the past.  The Economist reported on one study suggesting that R&D workers 60 years ago contributed about 7X more to economic growth as compared with their successors who are in our laboratories and engineering departments today.   I am not sure of all the reasons why, but I have read articles suggesting that our fixation with lowering risk is forcing shorter time horizons and companies to focus on smaller non-game changing projects that have more certain chances for commercial success.

Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley visionary, and founder of PayPal puts it this way, “[we grew up dreaming about] flying cars, instead we got 140 characters [in 73 different type fonts].”

So how do we re-kindle that spark of innovation?

Here is a website that suggests that one effective way to accelerate innovation within your organization is to form your own innovation steering committee.  The idea is to create a band of senior executive leaders to discuss how they could instill innovation across the enterprise.   This may be a good idea . . . creating the so-called “guiding coalition” that drives innovation.

I’m not so sure.

Innovation is not top-down driven.  It must become an embedded element of organizational culture.   The leader’s role is to find ways to encourage a prudent amount of risk taking, where it is ok to stumble along the way – so long as we learn from and improve upon it.

In my MBA class the other night we were talking about how sometimes organizational structures create barriers and we started considering ways of getting around them.  One student talked about her company (in this case a highly regarded organization) which created an Innovation Committee to whom all ideas for new stuff flowed.  She told of an example where she came up with an idea to promote conversion of some forms of information into electronic formats, which she believed would save space, and improve worker productivity.  So, she dutifully filled out the requisite forms and submitted them to the Innovation Committee.   “I received a polite thank you note from them”, she said, “but nothing ever happened.”

How many times do you suppose that outcome needs to happen before employees stop sending information on through channels?   Now in her case, she had the determination not to accept silence as an answer, and pursued her idea anyway, which is awesome.  But what if she wasn’t quite that stubborn?

It felt, listening to her, that the purpose of the Innovation Committee was to “protect” the organization form a potentially “bad” idea rather than encourage more and more ideas from anywhere.

Linus Pauling, Nobel prize-winning biochemist, was once asked how he came up with a good idea.  His response was that “it helps if you start with a lot of them”.   It is a simple idea that divergent thinking generating lots of ideas increases the odds of finding the good one.  It is one key premise behind innovation and creativity.

If you want your organization to be a product development engine, then it helps to start by being an idea engine.  In my mind this isn’t about what you write down on forms for submission to the Innovation Committee. Instead, you want supervisors, managers, and leaders who:

  • Create environments around them where ideas are valued, respected, and appreciated.  We can do this especially by encouraging ideas that contradict our own.  We can do this by sometimes challenging our colleagues saying “I’d like to hear more ideas, the ones we have discussed so far aren’t bold enough”.  We can do this by restraining our teams from diving into solutions before they have thoughtfully explored what the problem really is.
  • Promote “smart” risk taking.  We need to drop our belief that there is only one solution to a problem.  If someone has an idea that seems reasonable, why not let them explore it.  It might surprise you and work!   If not, there is both a learning opportunity for your team and a coaching opportunity for you to gain something from each failure we can apply in the future.
  • Are bridge builders.  We all know that gaining cooperation from other departments (silos) can be a challenge.   When this is too hard, our natural tendency is to focus on solutions that are mostly or totally within our control.   We narrow our focus, when a broad solution might be far better.  We might implement something, but it will be less likely to be game changing.  So, our job as leaders is to form alliances with counterparts in other departments who can help us. We need to be sales persons.  We need to offer to help them (building a sense of obligation that you can use later when you need to ask them for help).  Or, by reframing problems so that the solution benefits both groups, causing resistance to melt away and making the job of your team members easier.

If you decide to have an Innovation Committee, then at least ask them to focus their energies promoting the ideas we have spoken of above.   Get them to promote company-wide competitions for teams that generate the “best” ideas.    The prize might be a tangible budget for implementing them.  Have special prizes for the ones that link together people from multiple departments.  Celebrate and communicate the success stories.   Make it seem valued by the organization to find clever new ways of doing things.  Disseminate the knowledge.  Mayo Clinic’s famous Transform Conference started as an internal best-practice sharing session within the clinic.  It has grown from that to a global program where people come annually to talk and think together about how they can make health care better.  Notice also that the way they named it speaks loudly to what they think the purpose of innovation is.

Make your organization a bubbling caldron of ideas.  When you do, you won’t likely need an Innovation Committee to choose the projects. Your teams will know which ones can best help them.  Let your committee be an enabler, rather than a screener of good ideas.   There is a big difference.


Other Resources:

Innovation Almost Dead. Perhaps Not So In Electricity, by Peter Kelly-Detwiler, Forbes Magazine.

Has the ideas machine broken down?, from the Economist


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Leading vs. Managing: Not Absolutes, but a Continuum

In my recent article “leading with Impact” backing away from the day-to-day, I discuss how difficult it is for many people to make the transition from being a working supervisor of a team to a mid-level manager.  What I am really talking about is the difference between leading and managing.   I hate the idea that we label people as either “leaders” or “managers” (with leaders thought of as being those with higher organizational rank).  I think it is more useful to think less about the nouns, and more about the verbs (manage and lead).   Every supervisor, team leader, department head or executive needs to do some of both. We have the day-to-day challenges that need to be controlled, directed or “managed”.  In addition, we need to think about  establishing priorities, setting a course, providing encouragement and inspiration, developing people and making hard choices, “leading”.

When I speak about the differences between leading and managing, some people have difficulty because they feel it is an either/or proposition.

It is not.  Every team is unique, and has differing levels of demonstrated ability to solve problems and make good decisions.    There are always times when the stakes are so high that any manager needs to roll up their sleeves and wade into the morass.   But when that represents 70 – 85% of what your work week, I would challenge you to step back a bit.

Autocratic vs Delegating ManagerWe need to think about leading and managing as a continuum – as illustrated above.   At the far left there is an autocratic space where the manager dominates decision making.  This is probably appropriate with newly formed teams when you haven’t yet assessed how much latitude to give them.    At the extreme right end of the scale the followers dominate, after having earned your trust, and you are comfortable with their ability to analyze situations and make judgments that are aligned with what you have defined as your main mission and priority.

As your team evolves, your work doesn’t decrease, but it does become different.  You are less needed to manage the tasks and transactional issues faced by your team.   Your energy, instead, is put into developing the relationships within it.   Your focus becomes more about caring for each of your people (coaching, teaching, mentoring, and encouraging each person in the way that they most need at any point in time.)  You become the link between them and the corporation’s grand strategy.   You are the bridge between your team and the other departments within your organization whose help you must enlist to face the challenges in front of you. You run interference, and develop relationships with all other department heads.    Because you are less tied down with the daily tasks and transactions of your department, you should have more time to look outside to see what is happening in the world of your customers, competitors and new technologies.   You probably attend more conferences and travel more than your subordinates and should be able to bring back new ideas, perspectives and ways of thinking that could help your team grow.

Yes,  it is a continuum, and few teams operate at the extreme ends of the spectrum.  They are probably somewhere in between.  But you should be asking yourself not only where on the spectrum you are today, but what are you doing to move your team towards the right?

The hard part is that you need to be willing to let go more than you would like.   You have to trust your team more, even though that can be both risky and scary.   But if you concur that moving your team toward the right side of the grid is beneficial, it may help you to take some inspiration from one of my favorite leadership thinkers, Professor Warren Bennis.

In his foundational book “On Becoming a Leader”, Warren Bennis produced a list of differences between managers and leaders.  Because I dislike those labels, I have edited some of them to be about the verbs:

  • Managing is about administration – having charge of something and directing it, Leading is about innovation – thinking always of the new, better, and improved ways, and influencing events to help the team move ahead with a spirit of excitement
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original – comfortable with who they are, and confident to blaze new trails
  • Managing helps maintain order, the status quo, pressing for efficiency; leading is about developing – people, systems – tools – processes
  • Managing is about stuff, systems and structure; leading is about people
  • Managing relies on control;  leading works through inspiring trust
  • Managing is about the here and now  (a short-range view); leading is about possibilities of what could be (a long-range perspective)
  • Managing is about how and when; leading is about what and why
  • Managing focuses attention on the bottom line; leading requires looking toward the horizon – seeing things before others, and insuring your organization executes course corrections as a result
  • Managing is about eliminating risks – it  imitates; leading accepts prudent levels of risk – it  originates
  • A managing mindset values the status quo; a leading mindset challenges it
  • Managers want to do things right;  leaders care more about doing the right things

So think about it.  Where are you on the spectrum in comparison with where you would like to be?   Now is a good time to begin doing something about it.

Other Resources:

Leading Versus Managing: Eight Key Differences. by  Marie Peeler, Peeler Associates

What’s the difference of management vs leadership?from the Leadership Toolbox

Or watch this 4 min video clip, by Dr. Brian Wong, the Bedside Trust (patient driven leadership in Health Care)

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