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.

The Six Stages of Kevin Kelly

Last week I encouraged readers to buy the End Malaria book.  When 62 great thinkers line up behind a cause and offer to share their ideas with you for free, PLUS you get to make a donation to end malaria…to me that’s a no-brainer.

(one important clarifying point in answer to a question that came from a reader: the book itself is not about malaria, it a series of short essays on living a productive life.)

First, a reflection on my experience buying the book.  To my surprise, it did actually feel, when I curled up with my Kindle, that I’d gotten the book for free and had also made a donation to Malaria No More.  It didn’t feel at all like I’d paid $20 for a book (I hadn’t).  Interesting to think about that buyer experience in terms of participating in something as opposed to just consuming it.

Second, I have both the Kindle edition and the physical copy, and for the first time in a while I think the print is better just because it is so beautiful.  It will make a great gift.

Third, Tom asked for reflections from the book itself, so here goes:

Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine, wrote an essay in the book called What You Don’t Have to Do, which really has amplified my thinking on the same topic.  Here are the stages of professional life, according to Kevin:

Stage 1: Don’t Screw Up.   “When you start your first job, all your attention is focused on not screwing up.”

Stage 2: Learn New Things. “At this stage, working smart means doing more than is required.”

Stage 3: Exploration“Working smart here means trying as many roles as you can in order to discover what you are best at.”

Stage 4: Doing the Right Task. “It takes some experience to realize that a lot of work is better left undone.”

Stage 5: Doing things well and with love. “At this stage, you can begin to do only the jobs that you are good at doing and that need to be done.  And what a joy that is!”

Now here’s where things get interesting, because it doesn’t stop there.  The meat of Kevin’s essay is about getting past this stage, which is asking a lot.  Stage 5 sounds pretty great.  But, Kevin tells us, through real dedication, hard work, and honest reflection, we can go a step further and discover the things that ONLY we can do.  Counter-intuitively, this means taking all things that are worth doing and that you do really well (but that others can also do well) and letting go of them.

As a magazine editor, that meant Kevin giving away all his story ideas to other writers, except the ones that no one would take on.  These felt like duds, but Kevin discovered that some of them would keep coming back to life AND that he couldn’t get others to write them.  So he hung on to them, and eventually he wrote them.  They became his best stories.

That’s the last stage, not just for Kevin but for all of us: finding those things to which you are uniquely suited, and doing only those things.

Think of the discipline that requires.  Think of the faith it takes to let go of all sorts of things you’re good at and that are worth doing – and the fear that if you do that, you’ll be left with nothing (which of course you won’t).  Think of the courage and conviction it takes to realize that when people are telling you something is a bad idea, they may just be indicating that this one, and only this one, is the one that YOU need to make happen.

Kevin’s essay is much better than this blog post, so I hope you have the chance to read it.

One thing, many things


I was recently talking to a banker I know who shared that he occasionally works from home, but it can be frustrating because, due to security concerns, he is not allowed to print any documents when he’s not in the office.

Huh?  Not allowed to PRINT?  This is the more aggressive, more absurd version of companies that screen / limit Web access at work (because, you know, it’s not like people can get online with their smartphones), in the hopes that troves of people won’t fritter away hours on facebook or reading (gasp!) blogs full of idle chatter.

At the other end of the spectrum, all of the most interesting, successful people I know have multi-faceted lives that pull them in all directions.  They run companies and serve on multiple Boards and convene interesting groups of their peers.  They write books or blogs – sometimes directly about what they do and sometimes, apparently, only tangentially related.  They thrive in ambiguous situations that blur the line between work and social and fun.

I know that real constraints exist in the world, that big companies are victim to frivolous lawsuits, that running a 100,000 person company isn’t the same thing as running a 100 person shop.

So fine, let’s operate within these constraints.

But as a boss (or as someone who has a boss), you have a choice to make.  One worldview says it’s your job to control and narrow as much as possible, to monitor and restrict and keep track of shirkers, so that you’re sure that that your staff spends as much time as possible doing “their work” (whatever that means to you).  This is a great approach if you believe that your staff is comprised of glorified, white-collar widget producers, if you believe that you’re putting $X in to pay their salary and that success is getting as many of your employees as possible to produce 1.5X in terms of output.

Man, it’s exhausting just writing that.

Treat people like shirkers and they’ll want to shirk more.  Treat their time like a finite resource that you have to grab as much of as possible and you’ll get the least allowable effort and no inspiration.

What you should really worry about is employees who don’t get great new ideas from the outside; employees who don’t come in rabid and crazy with something they just read on a blog; employees who don’t make random, interesting connections that bring surprising, wonderful people into the fold.

You certainly can’t manufacture creativity and inspiration, but you definitely can wipe it out.

Plus first

In February I blogged about Randy Nelson’s, President of Pixar University, talk about the core skill of innovators being “failure recovery, not error avoidance.”

Before getting to this point, Randy talks about the environment that nurtures creativity at Pixar.  One important element is having a culture where the expectation is that you will “plus” other people’s ideas.  Randy explains this by talking about improvisational theatre, the core principle of which is that you have to accept any idea that’s thrown out by the other actor(s) on stage (you can also hear Emily Levine talk about this at TED) and then build on it.

For example, if you’re an improve actor and you say, “It’s a lovely day today” and the other actor says, “Yes, except for that 20 foot wave that’s crashing to shore,” you have to accept what that actor has said and work with it (so you could say, “Yes, which is why I have this inflatable suit on, just in case.”)

In many professional situations, there’s a real tendency to skip this step and instead jump to the contrary point, the little bit that could be improved, your small suggestion.

All of you smart, critically-minded people out there (you know who you are) ask yourself how often, when asked to give feedback of one sort or another, jump right in to all the little or big changes you think should be made.  This is actually the easy way out: you feel like you’re being helpful, improving the output, and it makes you look smart to boot.  And when you’re talking to someone you like and respect, you assume they know you think they’re smart/capable/etc. and that the thing they’ve just done (the practice presentation, the brainstormed idea) is pretty good.

Try plus-ing first instead.  If something is mostly good, start with that.  And don’t talk in general terms (“It’s really great.”) as this is neither credible nor useful.  Give this part real attention and thought.  Give it as much analysis as you give your (subsequent) critique. Tell the person what’s good.  Be very specific about what you like.

This will accomplish three things: first, it will give the person just as much feedback about what works as about what doesn’t, so she has a chance to amplify and strengthen the best part of what she’s done.  Second, the person will feel good and gain in confidence.

Perhaps most important, it gives you practice at giving positive feedback in an honest, genuine, and specific fashion – which is actually much harder than it looks.

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