Tag Archives: innovation

Constructed, Tested, Adopted

“Easy to answer the negative, more difficult to answer the positive,” I repeated. “In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

“I remember reading something from a long time ago, about a company that had something called skunkworks,” Susan was thinking. “It was still inside the company, not really a secret, but hidden away somewhere.”

Lockheed Martin, America’s first jet fighter,” I explained. “Why do you think it was hidden away, not a secret, but out of sight?”

“They were probably experimenting with things where they did not know the outcome and the probability of failure was high. My guess is that, when there were failures, no one knew about it, so nobody got fired.”

“Exactly, the probability of failure was high, so the skunkworks were separated from operations, there was no real impact, no downside consequences. So, if the probability of failure was high, why did the company tolerate it?”

Now, Susan smiled. “Because the possibility of upside was substantial. And, they had to work all the kinks out of the ideas. There were likely failures along the way, but the company minimized the risk while they were making headway.”

I repeated my question, “In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

What’s Stopping Innovation?

Susan looked down, her face long in frustration.

“You look at creative ideas,” I said. “I look at context. I have to acknowledge your frustration at the lack of progress in your journey of innovation. Let me re-frame my observations with a forward looking question. In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

“I am not sure where you are going with this,” Susan responded.

“Let’s assume your creative ideas have merit. What conditions exist in your company that resist the construction, testing and adoption of new ideas?”

“Now, that’s an easy question to answer,” Susan chuckled through her frustration. “There is a long list –

  • We already tried that before and it didn’t work?
  • It’s too expensive.
  • It will take too long.
  • The last person with an idea like that got fired.
  • We are headed in exactly the opposite direction and we have too much sunk costs to change direction now, even though what we are doing isn’t working.

“Nice list,” I smiled. “It’s always easy to answer the negative, now let’s answer the positive. In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

Possibility for Creativity

“When I look at my company,” Susan said, “many times I see the stifling of creativity and innovation, often in the same sentence extolling the virtues that are being trampled.”

“How so?” I asked.

“We have some initiative suggested by a consultant, process improvement,” she said. “We spend a couple of off-site days banging our collective heads together to come up with ideas to make things more efficient. We chew up a couple pads of flip-chart paper, posted on the wall, everyone high-fiving.”

“And?” I asked, looking for the other shoe to drop.

“And two weeks later, nothing has changed. We are still doing things the same way, suffering the same consequences.”

“Do you personally believe creativity and innovation are important,” I pressed.

“Of course,” Susan replied. “We had some great ideas, it’s just that nothing seems to happen.”

“Sometimes, ideas are not enough, intentions are not enough, even first steps are not enough,” I replied. “Sometimes, it’s the context in which these ideas sit. It is the surrounding conditions that serve to resist new momentum, change. We are seldom wanting for creative and innovative ideas, it is creating the conditions for those ideas to flourish. Sometimes, it is difficult to create the conditions for those ideas to even be possible.”

Why Do We Do That?

“Why do you assemble the pieces of the installation on-site?” I asked.

“Because that’s what we are paid to do,” Roger replied. “The customer purchased this assembly and needs it installed in this location. That’s what we do.”

“But, I am watching this installation and it seems very awkward. That technician is standing on a ladder, in a dark corner of the room, securing two pieces that he cannot see, reaching around another piece that is in the way.”

“I know,” Roger agreed. “But that’s what we do.”

“Roger, you are part of a trade profession. How long has your profession been doing this awkward work in this way?”

Roger chuckled and nodded. “I guess forever. That’s the way it has been done for centuries.”

“Then let me ask again. Why do you assemble the pieces on-site?”

“I will answer you the same way. That’s what we do,” Roger pushed back.

“And that’s what you have always done. Why don’t you assemble the pieces before you get on-site, in a room that is well lit. Instead of climbing on a ladder, you could assemble the pieces on a table where the technician could see the material, and work directly on a connection instead of around something that was in the way?”

Roger looked at me like I was from Mars.

“All I am suggesting,” I continued, “is that you ask a question. Sometimes we do things out of habit. We do something because we know the way to do it. Is it better to know something and describe the way it’s done or ask a question? Why?”