Category Archives: Leadership

Ideas Need a Story to Survive

One of the biggest challenges that good ideas have is making the jump out of the original inventor’s head into the mind of the first person she shares it with. Explaining your idea in all of its richness and glory so that others will understand it is not an easy task, and a lot of good ideas will never successfully make the jump.

The next time you have a good idea that you want to share, try sharing it as a story. In the excellent book, The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, we learn that people are programmed to be suckers for stories. We get sucked into stories of all kinds every day: sitcoms, movies, novels, commercials, even lunchtime gossip about who said what to whom in a meeting that morning.

In his book, Gotschall presents a simple formula for story: Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication. For those of us who watch Mad Men, we know this formula is how Don Draper is always making his pitch for a new ad campaign to a client. But this is not how most of us think about pitching the ideas we have every day to our colleagues at work.

Your story about a character + predicament might be about a customer facing a challenge in their day, a factory facing a bottleneck, a company facing a changing market. They all need an “attempted extrication”, and that is your idea.

A story is not a guarantee that your idea is the right idea, but it will increase the likelihood that others will understand it and accept it well enough get a conversation started. Once that jump has happened, there is no telling what you will make happen.

This post originally appeared on the Synecticsworld website.

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How does your business kill innovation?

If there is one common thread that weaves together my experience in the field of innovation, it is hearing on a weekly basis, how frustrated people are about how their organizations kill innovation.

Innovation murder doesn’t happen on purpose. Typically the perpetrators believe they are helping innovation, not hindering it. They are innocent in spirit, if not in action.

The two most common methods I see are:
1) Starvation, which happens when good ideas are put on hold until the organization is ready for them, (read: never); and
2) Strangulation, which occurs when good ideas are subjected to greater and greater levels of scrutiny that gradually squeezes all of the life out. Strangulation is often referred to by a more friendly name like “Stage Gate” or the “Innovation Funnel”.

No one has to be an innovation murderer, but it often requires an “innovation world” mindset of courage, belief and determination to break the cycle. Those aren’t always the qualities that an organization rewards in the short term, but they are required for those who want to create change.

This post originally appeared on the Synecticsworld website.

 

“If we’d had more time, we could’ve done a better job.”

When a team has not created a solution they are satisfied with, blaming the time constraint they were forced to work within is the easy way out, rather than blaming themselves for not making the most of the time they had together.

More time can make us lazy, less rigorous, less focused.  If our approach to solving a problem equates to stumbling around in the dark until we trip over a solution, then sure, more time is going to be a benefit.  We all have time constraints we work within and in reality it is the lack of a shared problem-solving methodology that makes many meetings look like an NBA game. Not much happens until the last two minutes. Somebody wins. Somebody loses.

Communication is often the same way. Doubling the time a speaker has will result in a doubling of the words used, but it will rarely double the message.  It often reduces the message as it becomes less crisp, less clear.

Let’s be rigorous in our actions and see what happens. Think about what we want to say and what we want to do and create a plan (ahead of time) to get the job done.  To paraphrase Seth Godin, start with the intent to finish.

We might be surprised what we are capable of doing, in a short amount of time!

This post originally appeared on the Synecticsworld website.

Trusting Your Gut As A Critical Ingredient For Creating Innovations

Call it a hunch. An Instinct. Intuition. Following these kinds of “gut feelings” often lie behind the creation of great companies and great products that we love.  Steve Jobs is often held up as a leader who deeply trusted his gut, going so far as to say, “You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

In this short article, The Neuroscience of Trusting Your Gut, the idea of the “hunch” is presented as a somatic marker, or physiological clue of what to do next. The example given in the article is one which most of us are familiar with. We find ourselves in a bad neighborhood, we see a suspicious looking person and our instincts tell us to run instead of spending time collecting other fact-based inputs. We unquestioningly trust our gut in this situation.

In business, however, trusting the gut can often much more difficult. I frequently see clients I work with struggle with the decision of pursuing something they believe to be the right path in their gut vs. what they think they should do. One of my very favorite examples of this was a wonderfully visionary leader who I remember holding (and caressing) a piece of paper that had Option A on it while she made the logical case for choosing Option B. Luckily, I was fresh off of spending a week learning about somatics  at Strozzi Institute, and quickly picked up on this clue. After it was brought to her attention, she acknowledged the conflict she felt and we worked through the concerns she felt about Option A that had unconsciously held her back from choosing it. Ultimately, she followed Option A to great success, partially because it was such a new and exciting path to pick.

It is so easy for us to suppress our gut instincts in favor of logical though in business that sometimes we are not even aware of doing so. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that, unless you are at a certain level (CEO?) in an organization, following your gut alone can be a punishable offense. Without the right supporting data or research, it can be impossible to get funding or investment dollars to explore a new line of business. And while there is good reason for businesses to be so pragmatic, knowing how to conduct research in the pursuit of discovering new products requires very specific expertise. So instead, many tend to err on the side of the safe and predictable. Things that we can easily, and logically, explain having done if we need to. Things that we know how to accomplish, even if they are not very exciting.

In reality, the gut is a repository of experience that we build over time, intertwining our emotions and reason. “You don’t just remember facts, whether the outcome was good or bad, but you remember whether what we felt was good or bad,” says Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California and head of the Brain and Creativity Institute in the attached article. “That tandem of fact and associated emotion is critical: what we construct as wisdom over time is actually the result of cultivating that knowledge of how our emotions behaved and what we learn from them.”

If you are up for a challenge in 2014, I’d suggest trying to listen to your gut more often when pursing new, innovative work. Not to follow it down blind alleys with reckless abandon, but as a helpful check to gauge the wisdom of the decisions you make. If you feel a sense of excitement surrounding an idea that the numbers don’t support, take some time to investigate it more fully to understand what makes it so appealing. Likewise, if you feel disappointment or loss when discarding an option that you were considering, take a moment and look deeper into that feeling. What exactly is it that is hiding inside the idea that you are leaving behind? In either case it’s likely your subconscious was trying its best to give you a clue to your next move.

One of my favorite tricks for checking in with my gut is to flip a coin when making a difficult decision, then check in to see if I feel reaffirmed or disappointed with the result of the coin flip. It is a surprisingly simple and helpful tool.

Function. Balance. Flexibility. – What Business Can Learn From Stanford Football in 2014

Although we Stanford alums had a bit of a setback in the Rose Bowl this year, we still have a football team of which we can be very proud. Part of what I believe makes this team so appealing to Stanford alums is not only that it wins, but also that it wins with an interesting mix of power and intellect. Part of what has made Stanford so successful in recent years is the ability to harness both of these traits in its unique approach to strength and fitness training, as described in The New York Times.

This is a fascinating article in which Shannon Turley, Stanford’s Kissick Family Director of Football Sports Performance, shares his perspective on the kind of training that builds high-performing college football and NFL players. Surprisingly, Turley points to factors such as ankle mobility as a key to success on the field, instead of traditional measures like bench press or 40 yard dash times. And given the very low rate of serious injury on a team that is known as one of the most physical in college football, it would seem like he is on the right track. 

There are a lot of parallels between what Stanford is looking for in its football players and what CEOs are looking for in their employees. In the most recent IBM Global CEO Study, CEOs identified flexibility as one of the core traits that they seek in new employees. As noted in the report, “CEOs are increasingly focused on finding employees with the ability to constantly reinvent themselves. These employees are comfortable with change; they learn as they go, often from others’ experiences.” Although I’ve also heard CEOs and other senior leaders use words such as agile and resilient to describe what they are looking for, I think they are all describing the same thing. They want people who can be successful in any circumstance, and who are able to change direction quickly as the world changes around them.

As more companies look for these kind of employees and skill sets to secure their future, they would be remiss if they did not have a Shannon Turley of their own on staff. While it is easy to agree that having a flexible, resilient workforce is a benefit for an organization, actually building one can be difficult. And, just like a winning football team, a winning organization requires someone who is solely focused on building its “players” to achieve their very best.

Who do you know that is doing a great job at this? Or has made a commitment to do so in 2014?

Creating an Innovative Mindset in I.T.

By Chipp Norcross & Joe Gammal

Recently, we had the unique and special opportunity to present at the CIO Executive Summit in Seattle alongside Kirsten Simonitsch, CIO of Premera Blue Cross.  In Kirsten’s presentation, “Driving Customer Engagement Through Innovation”, she detailed her experience of leading her team to find a deep and meaningful understanding of what people want from health insurance companies, and how they have used that knowledge to invent successful new tools and apps such as Juice and Proof.  More revealing, however, was the candor in which she described the journey she has lead within her 500 person IT organization to create a new, innovative mindset.

She illuminated a common misperception that it requires a particular type of person to be “innovative”, and that they are the people who wear cool clothes, sit around in beanbags and eat Skittles all day.  If that was the case, what could those of us who are non-Skittle-eaters ever hope to achieve?  Were we fated to a life of executing the cool ideas that the Skittle-eaters come up with?  Or was there an opportunity for everyone to become more innovative thinkers, and more successful at creating the breakthroughs they need?

In her story, Kirsten found inspiration in the Synectics model of “Cycling Worlds”.  Within the concept there is an important “Operational World”, in which we execute, focus on P&Ls, and deliver to timelines.  There is also an “Innovation World” in which we create new solutions, think differently, and dream up new ways of doing things.  While we all have the capability to work in both worlds, it’s impossible for us to be in both at the same time.  Our minds don’t allow us to be both speculative and critical at the same moment.  We can, however, go back and forth between these two “worlds” rather quickly, and that was Kirsten’s epiphany.

Cycling Worlds

Kirsten knew she had an organization that excelled at “operational excellence”.  What she wanted was “innovation excellence” as well.  She wanted to create a balance of innovative thinking inside her IT organization, and the discipline to know when and how to use each of these two very different modes of thought.  With so much focus and training put into the “Operational World” in our society, such a change would require a concerted effort with a focus on building new skills and a new, collaborative culture modeled by Kirsten herself.  So that’s exactly what she did.

Over the last two years we have had the pleasure of working with Kirsten and her team to help them build this vision and turn it into a reality.  With almost 400 members of her organization trained in Synectics and a growing cadre of facilitators and trainers within IT, there are truly amazing things happening at Premera.  Not only are exciting new products being developed, but Associate engagement has increased dramatically and a new, collaborative spirit has taken root.  None of this would’ve happened without Kirsten’s courageous leadership and that is why we were so proud to share the stage with her.

Kirsten’s presentation was the highest rated at the conference by the other CIOs in attendance.  It was a pleasure to see that her colleagues thought as highly of what she has accomplished as we do.  As members of Synecticsworld, it’s always rewarding to see a client recognized for the hard work and courageous leadership they have shown, and this conference was the perfect forum for Kirsten to share her story.

This post first appeared on Synecticsworld’s website.

How Ron Johnson Could Have Avoided Catastrophe by Listening to JCPenney’s People

The story of the rapid decline of JCPenney under Ron Johnson’s leadership is one of the most shocking business stories of recent years. Bringing in the genius behind Apple’s retail stores seemed like a no-brainer when he first arrived at JCPenney. He came in with a vision and exciting new ideas about how to turn around the struggling retailer. What I’m not sure that he came in with, was a willingness to listen to the smart people around him that had spent their careers at JCPenney.

There seems to be a bias that leaders bring to turn-around jobs like JCPenney, best summarized as the “Outsiders Know Better” bias. It’s understandable why it happens. JCPenney had been struggling for a long time and something needed to change. It’s easy for a new CEO to assume that the people who were working there were not world-class, so the new CEO brings in a lot of people to surround him that he can trust. He’s worked with them before, they share the same experience, and have the same vision. And that’s exactly what Mr. Johnson did at JCPenney.

The problem is, for as much as JCPenney could learn from Mr. Johnson’s and his experience at Apple, he could have learned just as much about the realities of discount retailing from the people who had spent their careers in JCPenney. Perhaps paying more attention to those realities  would have prevented the rapid decline that the company has experienced. I’m certain that there were widespread concerns within JCPenney about how the end of coupons, a staple of their business,  would cause a dramatic drop in traffic. But it seems like those kinds of concerns, among others, were never dealt with. I think that highlights a key challenge that new leaders face – understanding the difference between 1) managing the risk that they have picked the right strategy, and 2) managing the risk that the organization will successfully execute it. What many leaders don’t realize is that the best way to manage both risks is by listening to the people in the organization they lead and enrolling them in the strategy conversation.

I often use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a reference when talking to leaders about making change happen. All too often, resistance from the organization is seen as a case of people being stuck in their ways and a sign that some people need to be shown the door. Tough questions about the strategy don’t get asked, and possible pitfalls don’t get identified. People keep their heads down and keep their jobs safe. That attitude can create a massive conflict for people. Do I open my mouth and disagree with the strategy? Or do I stay quiet and go home every night worrying about when things are eventually going to fall apart? In either case, I’m operating at a very low level of the hierarchy of needs and I’m probably not very productive.

I believe that ultimately, most people want to believe in the direction their company is headed and do their best to help make it a success. And to do so, they need to be given the opportunity to understand rather than being asked to simply follow.  By allowing their teams to ask questions, leaders can understand what is worrying their people about achieving this new future and learn from it themselves. Not only can a leader gain commitment through this course, but they might unearth some unseen land mines in their strategy in the process which they can work together to solve.

The reason that this back-and-forth doesn’t happen is that many leaders don’t have a good understanding of how to design such a two-way conversation in a positive, constructive way. They are concerned that it will open up more issues than it will resolve. Many worry that this would be seen a sign of weakness instead of a sign of leadership, but it certainly doesn’t need to be when handled correctly.

Would following this kind of approach have resulted in a very-different  JCPenney today? Would a more creative and successful strategy been discovered by taking the best of Apple and the best of JCPenney rather than blowing up the business model altogether? While we will never know for sure, it would have provided a forum for important conversations and possibly identified conflicts between the new strategy and the old JCPenney that needed to be resolved in order to be successful. And as we know real innovation most often happens in resolving conflicts, not by simply applying best-practices learned from another company, even one as successful as Apple.

What have been your experiences with living through changes in company strategy?