Ingredients for an Innovative Culture

Where do good, new ideas come from? And how do we create a culture of innovation in an organization, big or small?

The clearest frame for my answer still comes, five years after I first read it, from Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, which still stands as the clearest articulation I’ve seen to this important question.

The book’s core assertion is that new ideas and breakthrough insights come at the frontier of the adjacent possibile via reassembly and reconfiguration of existing ideas at the edge of what you know: the printing press doesn’t get invented in 1493 without the pre-existence, and reassembly, of movable type, paper-making, and ink (all invented in China from the years 105 A.D. to 1041), together with the existence of woodcut printing presses and paper mills that proliferated in the 14th Century.

The implication is that in order to be a person who creates new ideas, you have to find a way to live and work at boundaries and points of intersection. This allows you to see a lot of different things and positions you to pull together seemingly disparate thoughts, technologies and ideas in new and different ways.

This is why Lin-Manuel Miranda is the only person who could have created the hit musical Hamilton: he not only inhabits the rarely-intersecting worlds of modern musical theater, hip-hop, and urban Latino culture.  He also was the kind of person who’d choose to lug the dry, slow-paced, 900+ page Ron Chernow Hamilton biography on his Caribbean vacation, would start reading it on that vacation, and then, most shockingly, at the end of the first few chapters would think, “I know! I’m going to turn this into a hip-hop album/musical about this unsung immigrant founding father!”

And yet, even if Lin-Manuel can uniquely have this sort of insight, the musical doesn’t happen with him alone. What then needs to happen is for this idea to germinate within a team. Lin pulls in folks like “orchestrator, arranger, musical director, conductor and keyboard player” Alex Lacamoire, and together they prod and reshape each idea, they push boundaries and whittle down the unnecessary bits until, ultimately, what results is a masterpiece.

This is the part of the story that is most relevant and accessible to each of us every day: not just the stroke of insight on the hammock under the sun, but the culture that we can create to support and nurtures good ideas each and every day.

I don’t have a perfect answer to how to create this sort of culture, but, having had the chance to work across a lot of teams in many organizations, I have observed some of the ingredients that are supportive of a culture of innovation, and others that are guaranteed to spoil the broth.

So, without further ado…

The Innovation Ingredient List

(aka how do teams that regularly create and develop new ideas behave?)

Diverse voices.  Everyone on the team regularly speaks up and shares their thoughts in various ways (in person and virtually).

Idea sources are plentiful and diverse. News articles, blogs, thoughts exchanged over dinner, a great conversation that someone writes up and shares with others… In every innovative team I’ve been a part of, while the form and flavor of sharing ideas differs, there’s always a culture of “hey, I just came across this! I think it will be helpful to us. What do you think?”

Get out of the building. Because of the “adjacent” in “adjacent possible,” for innovation and creativity to flourish, ideas need to come from all over the place. Customers, partners, an art installation, a sign on the subway…it doesn’t matter where, it just needs to be broad.

Thought partners. Multiple groupings of folks converse to make each other’s ideas better. This can be in-person, in writing, on a walk, a eureka moment in the middle of the night. The “how” doesn’t matter, but the passing of ideas back and forth does. There’s a sense of ongoing discussion of exploration and curiosity.

It’s personal. The team feels and acts as if the work they are doing is theirs. It reflects who they are. They are on the hook when things go right and wrong.

Ideas flow.  When a new idea enters the flow, it keeps moving. Folks jump in, add to or take away. The pace of all of this is quick. And, like a shark, the conversation around the idea keeps moving quickly to stay alive.

Yes, and… Like in improv, all ideas, even ones that at first blush don’t make much sense, get a “yes, and” response with an eye towards building on them, not tearing them down.

Zoom in, zoom out. At least some of the people around the table are good at digging into the details, and then stepping back to see the whole and putting this whole into focus. This is the bridging work between broad exploration and crystalizing around a few ideas that rise to the top. It literally feels like a camera lens that turns so that everyone involved can say, “Ah, now I see it!” This is a really important ingredient because it allows for lots of idea generation, and some churn, to happen without letting the group get lost or stuck for too long.

It’s Ok to launch, it’s OK to kill. This is a tough one to get right, but too much or too little of either creates either a culture of perfectionism or people getting spread too thin.

You have criteria for success. Related to the above…because you can only kill things if there are criteria in place to judge if they are working.

Solution dissatisfaction. While there’s openness and positivity, there’s also a need not to be easily satisfied with solutions that seem pretty good.  Some of this solution dissatisfaction comes from experience and pattern recognition, which together lead to an informed intuition that says, “we can do better than this, even though this is pretty good.”


Ingredients to avoid (aka things that spoil the broth)

If the above list looks unfamiliar, or hard to pull off right away, one way to approach change is to identify what is gumming up the works, things that you and some brave allies can work to change.

A culture of fear. Usually this is a fear of being wrong, fear of speaking up, fear of contradicting the most important person in the room.

A culture of recrimination. This goes hand-in-hand with a culture of fear. The thing people fear is being punished. There’s usually a bit of shame thrown in.

Things that feel static. This is the opposite of the ‘flow of ideas’ described above: if people throw ideas into the pot (in a meeting, in writing) and all that comes back is silence, or if the pace of dialogue gets too slow, eventually folks will stop sharing their best ideas.

Never pulling the plug on things.  If it’s impossible to stop things, at some point the (lifetime) cost of starting something is too high. Worse, if keeping all of today’s plates spinning is spreading everyone too thin, there’s no space for figuring out how to make things better.

Waiting for / blaming the “people in charge.” This can either take the form of waiting for someone else to tell everyone what to do (to be the source of insight, to walk out on the limb…“we’d do great work if only…”), or of knowing that someone else will criticize, fail to approve or otherwise undermine good work that is created by anyone else. This is the opposite of a culture of ownership.

Criticizing people, not ideas. In teams with a culture of fear, the criticisms are always a little (or a lot) personal. In these cultures, when an idea isn’t a good one, the thing that gets beat up is the person who had it. The two mistakes to avoid are: 1. Communicating “you are stupid” instead of “this idea needs work;” and, as problematic, 2. Hearing any critique of an idea as a personal affront.  This is a very hard balance to get right. The book Creativity, Inc, which describes how movies are developed at Pixar, is a great case study of how to design an organizational culture whose sole purpose is to produce the best ideas by structuring interactions in ways that foster diverse and generative input. One of the bits I like the best is that while script input comes from lots of people, including Pixar’s “stars,” what to do with that input (what to take on and what to ignore) is up to the author: there are no mandatory changes.

Thick skins. This is related to the above. A senior guy I know in the U.S. Army talks about how, before any After Action Review, the Army’s post-engagement process of reviewing what went right and wrong in an engagement, you have to “put on your thick skin.” It is because your best work is personal that it is so hard to be told that something you worked so hard to create could be better. But it’s important.

No, but. Most new ideas are met with some sort of negative language. Listen for the actual words, and if positive (“yes,” “and,” “also”) or negative (“no,” “but,” “maybe,” “however”) language is used more often.

I don’t care what was said, I care who said it. This is an easy one: if the validity of an idea is predominantly the result of who said it, you’re sunk.

To wrap it all up, I’ll defer to John Clease’s wonderful lecture on creativity, in which he describes the qualities of mind that lead to creativity and breakthrough: it’s a playful mind, a mind that explores, a mind that is comfortable with the discomfort of an unresolved question.

The hare brain loves clarity; it wants everything to be expressed in a very simple, straightforward clear way. Tortoise mind doesn’t expect clarity; it doesn’t know where the illumination is going to come from. The language of the unconscious is images. That also means a lot of times when you’re being very creative you can feel very confused. You don’t know where you are or where you’re going. And you can tolerate that and continue to defer the decision. Because you’re taking your time in tortoise mind, if you have a question, you’re much more likely to get interested in the question.

(Hamilton-inspired) Time for Synthesis

I recently became obsessed by the music from the Broadway musical Hamilton (I know, I’m not alone).

I haven’t seen the show yet, but I’m going to next month so I’ve been reading up on it – so far, mostly articles and reviews, not the huge Ron Chernow Hamilton biography, which is next on my list.

In the New Yorker profile of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius songwriter/actor/rapper who wrote the script and music for Hamilton, I came across this excerpt about his process:

Miranda writes many of his lyrics while in motion: walking around Fort Tryon Park, which is near his apartment, or riding the subway downtown from 181st Street…

‘I will write eight or sixteen bars of music I think is exciting, or interesting, or sounds like the pulse of the character I want to be speaking, and then I will go put on my headphones and walk my dog and talk to myself,’ he says.

Sometimes when he is working on a riff he sings into the voice-memo function on one device while listening to the loop on another. The refrain of Aaron Burr’s signature song, ‘Wait for It,’ came to him fully formed one evening on the subway. “I was going to a friend’s birthday party in Dumbo,’ he says. ‘I sang the melody into the iPhone, then I went to the guy’s party for fifteen minutes, and wrote the rest of the song on the train back home.’”

I get a fair number of questions about how to “be innovative,” and mostly I don’t know how to answer them. But I do think it’s pretty clear that, most of the time, creativity and new ideas don’t spring forth when we sit at our desk, clicking between Outlook and Word (never mind Facebook).

In my experience, my own unanswered questions from an intense period of work will churn in the background until a moment of insight comes unexpectedly, even inconveniently, often when I’m on a run or doing something else that’s seemingly not work-related.

While I usually feel foolish stopping a run to tap out something on my iPhone, wondering if I’m missing the point entirely of going for the run, I do increasingly try to capture the thoughts that spring up in these moments by sending myself a quick email as I wipe the sweat out of my eyes, or recording a breathless voice memo if it’s a longer or more complex thought.

One of the risks of day after day of tasks, meetings, to do lists and email is that we need extra space to go from grappling with big, challenging questions to answering them. Equally important is to remember to put down our phones, in the elevator or when walking down the street, to give our brains some down time to process our own thoughts.

We’re all different, but I think it’s important to reflect on when our insights come and to make more space in our weeks for these insights to bubble up.

For me, I typically have insights in one of four types of moments: conversation with a colleague, on runs (but not other kinds of exercise), when I sit down to blog, and when I set aside larger blocks of time to think through a problem (including reading relevant articles on a given topic). Since I have stretches when I fail to set aside those larger blocks of time, I’m working to make sure I always have space for the other three, and that I experiment with using other “found” moments of time (like, say, on the subway) to generate spontaneous moments of synthesis and reflection.

Probably the easiest shift to make is to recognize that little gaps of time – a short walk on the way to work or to lunch, an elevator ride, when we walk the dog or even prepare dinner – aren’t wasted time to be filled with yet another distraction. These are precious moments to let our unconscious mind come up with the answers that our conscious mind can’t quite produce.

New isn’t all new

It’s so easy to be held back by “it’s not new enough.”

As in:

I can’t write this blog post (or this book), someone else has already said this.

I can’t claim that this idea is important, because someone else was doing something that looked a little bit like this before I was.

I can’t share my excitement about how we are tackling this problem, because parts of our approach have been tried before.

“New” doesn’t mean brand new, completely new, all new. That’s not how it works. What makes something new isn’t a set of component parts that has never been seen before. It’s the way you put those parts together in new ways, or the way you apply those parts in new domains.

By way of example, Gutenberg’s printing press, “invented” in 1439, was, technically, nothing new. Movable type had existed in China since 1051. Ink and paper-making had existed for thousands of years. Paper mills became common in Europe in the 1300s as did woodcut printing presses.

But no one had put them together in just the way Gutenberg did, and when he assembled and spread his unique combination of existing parts, he revolutionized the spread of ideas in the Western world and began the democratization of information that is still happening today.

(also: how Star Wars is practically a paint-by-numbers manifestation of the 19 steps of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, on purpose)

Don’t let your fear of “this isn’t all new” keep you from creating new things or from sharing what you feel is important about the new work that you’re doing. And don’t let the voices – both inside and outside your head – of “this has been done before” keep you from doing that next important thing or from sharing what is groundbreaking about the work you are doing.

“New” – here, now, for this thing, in this way – is new enough.

And “new,” ultimately, is about how we understand and frame a problem, and how we think about the ways we can go about solving it. If your “new” changes that, then it’s changed everything.


(for more along these lines, I highly recommend Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson)

When you are stuck

Go slower, to give yourself a breather.

Or go faster, because this will push your focus and intensity.

Just change speeds.

By changing speeds you’ll feel different.  By feeling different you’ll tell yourself a different story.  By telling yourself a different story you’ll discover that it’s the story, not how you feel or what you can actually do, that’s making you feel stuck in the first place.

Just for fun: the Matrix remix

HT to Maria Popova (@brainpicker), mostly off topic though this reinforces Stephen Johnson’s ideas about adjacent possibility as the source of great ideas. Plus I’m a huge fan of The Matrix and will have to watch it again after seeing this.

The video is a scene-by-scene mashup of where things came from in The Matrix. Great fun.

Innovation isn’t really like apple pie

No one dislikes “innovation” as a concept.  It’s like mom and apple pie (in the US at least) – no one will ever, ever stand up and say, “I’d like us to innovate less!!”

No, that would be too obvious.  Instead they say, “Of course we want innovation but let’s….

…make sure we don’t go over anyone’s head.

…ensure we don’t surprise people, or offend anyone.

…get buy in from all potential stakeholders.

…form a working group to think it through a little more.

…dot every i and cross every t.

…not go too fast.

Sorry but it doesn’t work this way.

Not all innovation is about lone wolves in back rooms – in fact the most innovative cultures are highly collaborative.  At the same time, you have to decide what you value, and be willing to make tradeoffs to protect it; add one thing too many to the mix (that extra approval, that check and balance, that unwillingness to step on a few toes) and you extinguish the flame.

Everyone loves the idea of innovation, but most people are unwilling to take their culture to a place where innovation thrives.

That’s why it’s so rare.

The power and limits of controlled experiments

The Freakanomics blog is running a fun contest asking readers to predict whether providing more factual evidence of impact increases or decreases donations.  Dean Karlan, co-author with Jacob Appel of More Than Good Intentions is running an experiment in partnership with Freedom From Hunger.  Dean wants to understand whether sharing, with donors, cold hard facts about the proven effectiveness of a business training program run by Freedom From Hunger increases or decreases donations.

As context, there is a well-documented study conducted by Deborah Small, George Loewenstein, and Paul Slovic that tests how potential donors respond to generalized factual information about hardship versus the story of an individual girl, named Rokia, in Mali.  The punchline is that the story of Rokia elicits about 2x the donations as does a brief with summary factual information about poverty.

Put another way: stories sell, facts don’t.  (remember, we think with our brains, but…)

Dean Karlan’s experiment is designed to test whether “story + facts” is more or less effective than “story.”   To test this, Freedom from Hunger sent out two mailers.  The control mailer just has the story of Rita, and it starts:

Many people would have met Rita and decided she was too poor to repay a loan.  Five hungry children and a small plot of mango trees don’t count as collateral.  But Freedom from Hunger knows that women like Rita are ready to end hunger in their own families and their communities…

The treatment mailer has different copy:

In order to know that our programs work for people like Rita, we look for more than anecdotal evidence.  That is why we have coordinated with independent researchers to conduct scientifically rigorous impact studies of our programs.  In Peru they found that women who were offered our Credit with Education program had 16% higher profits in their businesses than those who were not, and they increased profits in bad months by 27%!  This is particularly important because it means our program helped women generate more stable incomes throughout the year.

These independent researchers used a randomized evaluation, the methodology routinely used in medicine, to measure the impact of our programs on things like business growth, children’s health, investment in education, and women’s empowerment.

The question is: which mailer will have a higher response?

My guess is that the first one wins (even though this mailer is being sent to repeat donors, who have probably heard this story before – and it’s fair to guess that I’m wrong, otherwise why would they have blogged the contest in this way?).

Whether or not I’m right, I’d like to see a better-designed study. It feels misleading to me to describe this as testing “story” versus “story + facts.”  I’d instead say it’s testing “good letter” versus “only OK letter,” and if my take is right, the generalizability of these results will be low indeed.

This is on my mind because last week I had the chance to hear Esther Duflo speak about some of the examples from her book, Poor EconomicsMany of them are highly compelling – particularly those in which the treatment being tested (e.g. de-worming) is clear and readily measurable.

But the risk of the randomized-control trial rage (which is, very appropriately, a hot and exciting topic in our field right now, and Esther and Abhijit have been champions of high-quality, clear thinking) is that we over-extend our definition of “treatment” that can meaningfully be assessed in this way.  For example, one of the examples Esther cited in her talk was about whether poor farmers were willing to pay enough for a weather insurance product to make the product commercially viable.  In this test, farmers were offered a relatively simple and straightforward product that would pay them a certain amount if recorded rainfall at the weather station dropped below a certain level.  The conclusion, as described by Esther in the talk (and stated more strongly than she does in the book), was that farmers wouldn’t pay enough – and I heard her take this to mean that the insurance market for the poor might not be viable without significant subsidy.

Not having dug into the research – but having heard Esther’s description – I was left worried that in this case, like in the Dean Karlan study about the mailer, we run a real risk of overreaching in the conclusions we draw.  It may well be that market-based insurance for the poor doesn’t work; it may be that government needs to provide a subsidy; it may also be that in a market in which there is a limited track record of insurance, little history of or confidence in payouts, no competition and almost no trust, the study showed that willingness to pay was low – which wouldn’t be in the least bit surprising.

What I’m getting at is that sometimes our attitude about figuring out “what works” in poverty alleviation feels like designing studies, in the 1980s or 1990s, on the future of the tablet market based on intensive study of the Apple Newton and early tablet PCs.  Assuming everything is static, there’s no market.  But of course the whole point is NOT to let things be static – to create the development equivalent of the iPhone and the iPad through relentless innovation and a dogged unwillingness to fail.

This is an important point because at some fundamental level we must ask ourselves how much we believe in the power of innovation.  How far do we push, prod and experiment before we conclude that something does, or doesn’t, work?  In the simple example of the Freedom from Hunger mailer, I’m betting that some drastically better copy would have the desired effect (or a bigger desired effect) of using hard data to increase donations.  In the insurance example, I’d be interested in a lot more product development, market testing, and trust-building with smallholder farmers before drawing any broad conclusions.  And so it goes across the board with all the major interventions in the fight on poverty, from microfinance to girls’ education to de-worming to fortifying food to to HIV/AIDS prevention (where, shockingly, male circumcision is proving to be a very effective way to slow the spread of disease).

I don’t want to come out against testing, rigor, and “proof” – not at all.  We need all of these things, and need to have the ability to ask tough questions, to be willing to let things go quickly when they’re not working, and to over-resource things that are working even if they contradict our initial assumptions.  At the same time, our field – and, specifically, the injection of real innovation into our field – is nascent enough that it feels early in most cases to aspire to draw anything but narrow conclusions about what does and doesn’t work; where the poor are and are not willing to pay; and what interventions will have the greatest impact over time.  We’ve seen this play out most recently and most vociferously in the microfinance space – too-broad claims that it changes everything, and then equally broad claims that it does nothing – when surely the right answer is that when done right it can be valuable, when done wrong it can be destructive.   I’m sure we’ll see this same story play out time and time again, across interventions, across sectors, and across geographies.