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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Dam Busters: The Best Innovation Movie - Ever


60 Feet From The Surface
Where do good ideas come from?  The best answer I’ve found is in Steve Johnson’s book: Where Good Ideas Come From: the natural history of Innovation.  Johnson takes us through a great journey explaining the power and capacity of our brains; how ideas stimulate our brains; and the great “ah-ha” moments of people Darwin and Einstein. 

The book is good stuff, but it’s confined on pages.  If you want to bring idea generation and implementation to life then you have to watch the best innovation movie ever: DamBusters.

Note: I’m not aggrandizing the movie or its veracity (nor do I condone the name of the dog in the film).  It was released in 1955 when much of the story was still classified in the filing cabinets of the British war office.  In fact recent documentaries challenge most of the portrayals in the film except for the courage of the war fighters. 

Having made my disclaimer here is a summary of the film.

Dam Busters is about the scientific and execution innovations needed to support the bombing of dams in the Ruhr valley of Germany in 1943.  The science innovations are attributed to Barnes Wallis who believed that he could invent a bomb to skip across the waters above the dams and then climb down the wall of the dam before exploding.  The execution innovations are attributed to Guy Gibson who was the wing commander of the 19 Lancaster bombers of 617 squadron that flew the mission.

The parts of the film about Wallis are interesting from a “game changer” innovation point of view.  Wallis scopes the problem then sorts through several hypotheses before arriving at the idea of the “bouncing” bomb.  Then we see him deal with the bureaucratic barriers of: orthodoxy and resourcing.  He is constantly saved by experiments that make his idea tangible to decision makers.

Getting the bomb is only half of the problem; the other half is knowing what to do with it.  That is, execution.  This is where Guy Gibson comes to play.  Gibson was only 24 years old (he died in a plane crash a year after the raid) and he had never distinguished himself academically.  His only passion was flying.  He innovates many new training techniques for his crews to perfect low level flying and navigation at night. 

However, flying precision is only part of the solution.  The real question is how to drop a bomb 6000 feet from the target, at a height of exactly 60 feet while flying at 240 miles per hour.  This is 1943.  Neither GPS nor Siri were around to help.  Gibson’s solutions are a schooling in how innovation should take place within organizations.  His answers are practical, elegant, and resourceful.
  • Flying at 60 feet: 
Flying at 240 miles per hour was not a problem.  Flight instruments were precise enough for this.  However, being exactly 60 feet off the surface of the water was a challenge.  Altimeters were not accurate at this height and eye-balling the height was inconsistent.

Gibson and his men worked on this but were frustrated.  Out of exhaustion Gibson decided to take a night off.  He went to a theatre production.  While watching the star performer he realized that she was captured in intersecting spotlights.  Bingo!

Gibson outfitted the Lancasters with lights on the under part of each wing.  When the lights intersected on the water the plane was at 60 feet.
  • Dropping 6000 feet out: 
Speed and height had been solved, but not distance.  Again, the answer was in ingenuity.

While mulling over the distance problem Gibson was playing with a wire coat hanger.  As he spun it around he had an idea.  Could the coat hanger be used as a bombsite? 

Gibson hypothesized that if held the hook at his nose there must be a way to determine distance from the dam.  The answer lay in the towers that were at either end of the dams.  Gibson figured that if the tips of the coat hanger were bent up at the right point then when the tips sited on both towers the plane would be exactly 6000 feet form the target.

The bomber crews didn’t actually use coat hangers.  They developed more sophisticated (but still rudimentary) tools; however, the principle was the same.  The dilemma of 6000 feet was solved.

Although I like the Wallis story, I love the Gibson story – it really illustrates the ideas in Johnson’s book.  I work with companies all the time who want to “innovate.”  They know their future is tied to their capability to innovate; however, they just don’t know how it happens.  They set innovation and commercialization goals; they ask teams to brainstorm and draw on open innovation; and if they do come up with ideas the ideas often languish in the land of dreams.

Clearly Wallis tells us that we need to hypothesize, we need to experiment, and we need to break orthodoxies.  But Gibson gives practical advice for everyone in business.  If we want innovation we need a few other things first, such as:
  • Knowledge:  Innovation isn’t for neophytes.  You need fundamental knowledge, and even mastery in your domain.  Gibson knew how to fly.  His solutions were rooted in his passion.
  • Stimulation:  Innovation isn’t for hermits.  Gibson had ideas.  His ideas were often unworkable, but he kept talking to people.  Stimulation begets more stimulation.  Serendipity comes from disciplined searching.
  • Soak Time:  Innovation isn’t for people on the run.  “Ah-ha” moments come from deep incubation.  Often our brains deliver us answers when we’re not looking - even in a theater.
What does the innovation capability look like in your organization?  Where will good ideas come from?  Are you giving innovation a chance?  If you need some guidance rent the film and learn from Barnes Wallis and Guy Gibson.

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Twelve O''clock High": The Change Management Paradox


The Non-Participator
“Cut out this guidance stuff and just tell me what to do!”  That’s a quote from my son when he was nearing the end of his university education.  Like most young people he was unclear and anxious about his future.  As a good parent I was guiding him.  It wasn’t working; he wanted an answer.  That’s the paradox of parenting – it’s not your life, but you still have a responsibility.  Leading organizational change has a similar paradox.

Participation, involvement, engagement, buy-in, equality; these are all words that underlie organization transformation as we know it in the west.  These words are orthodoxy.  We believe in a democratized change management process.  We make daily decisions and take actions without questioning this belief.

I too am a believer.  I believe that participation increases the chances of success.  Maybe?

Maybe there’s a sequence here, and maybe the sequence goes back to the tireless discussion between management vs. leadership.  Maybe the foundation of transformation is hierarchical control, not egalitarian empowerment?

Let me explain.

Check out your NetFlix or i-Tunes and find the 1949 film Twelve O’clock High starring Gregory Peck.  It's a story about Peck taking over a B-17 squadron during the daytime bombing of Germany in WWII.  Peck is confronted with an undisciplined squadron with a low hit rate and high death rate.  He tries to lead the group but can’t.  He decides to enforce discipline to the extent that the men hate him so much that they all request transfers. 

Of course all turns out well.  The men get the message and Peck relinquishes leadership to the group – and it “saves the day.”  Hollywood drama?  Sure, but it makes a great point.  It reveals the transformation paradox: 


“you can’t lead if you're not in control!”

I relearned this lesson when I recently spent more than two years working in Korea.  The CEO of a $20 billion public company asked our team to build an Innovation capability within the organization to transform it from a market follower to a market leader.  A major issue holding the company back was the Korean culture of deference to hierarchy.  Everyone looked to the boss for ideas.  The deeper you got into the organization the deeper was the belief that “ideas are not my job.”

All of the innovation processes and tools used by our consulting team are based in the principle of participation.  You know the drill: everyone is equal; there are no bad ideas.  

The first six months of the project went well.  There was a lot of knowledge transfer.  Koreans love to learn.  Their Confucius based education system instills a belief in finite knowledge that can be learned and passed along.

Progress stalled as we got into the second six months.  This is where we brought teams together to use their newly acquired innovation skills.  This is where we developed insights from research; crashed insights to find ideas that had never been seen before; and assembled ideas into business opportunities.

Our teams fumbled.  We hit all of the walls: hierarchy within the teams slowed genuine idea generation; the reliance on rote learning inhibited pattern recognition; and even when we got good ideas the dynamic of deference slowed the exploration and synthesis of the ideas. 

Once the teams had reasonable change initiatives we coached them to develop plans to request funding for experiments to de-risk the ideas.  The plans were  to be based in vision, creativity, and energy.  We wanted the teams to sell ideas to their executives, not incremental business improvements.  They found this difficult.  The executive presentations were usually glorified spreadsheets – comfort zones for presenters and receivers of the information.

As we moved past the first year of work we realized that we had to change our approach.  Our biggest shift was to drop the principle of egalitarianism and take up the mantle of authority.  The Korean culture forced the paradox of transformation.

Now that I’ve left Korea I’ve discussed my experience with westerners who have practiced in other cultures like Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, and other countries in the east.  The message is consistent.  Our participative approach to change isn’t an immediate fit in countries with strong traditions of hierarchy and authority.  Empowerment has to be disciplined.  This sounds counter-intuitive, but that’s why it’s a paradox.

Is the west free of the transformation paradox?  I’m not convinced.  According to a recent survey reported in the Economist only 3% of organizations are “self-managed” through a set of core values.  In the remaining 97% there is a predominance of top-down, command and control management that stifles innovation, engagement, and performance.

Are we in the west living a delusion?  Is the principle of participation limiting transformation rather than driving it?  Is the transformation paradox one of the reasons that 70% of change initiatives fail?

These questions are worthy of debate if we are to get better at transforming organizations.  Maybe we’ll find answers to make adjustments, such as:
  1.  Using Authority:  People have been trained to look upward.  This is a powerful lever to start the process.  Employees need to have permission to participate.
  2. Codifying Creativity:  We can’t simply sit around and “ideate” changes.  We need to be specific on: how to generate ideas, recognize patterns, and synthesize information.
  3. Limiting Participation:  Can we really expect to kick start the process by getting “participation from everyone, everywhere?”  In the beginning only involve people who have the talent and passion to participate.
  4. Being Out Front:  The transformation leader has to lead from in front, not behind.  Don’t delegate in the beginning.  Be on stage.  Be visible.  Make the decisions.  Knowledge will transfer in due time.

It’s Twelve O'Clock High in the transformation business.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

1 Tip For Leaders Of Innovation



If you want new ideas you need to think differently.  Try joining the Improv theatre.

I read a lot about the theory and practice of developing leaders.  I'm also a practitioner.  Last year, in conjunction with a client team, I designed and helped deliver a Leadership Development program for 300 vice-presidents at a public company in Korea.  The program was titled Creating Leaders of Innovation

Making the program effective was a difficult challenge.  Korean’s are immersed in education, relationships and their national culture that values hierarchy, respect, and even deference.  These are great personal values for managers but are barriers to creating leaders of innovation.

To develop our managers into leaders we organized the 300 vice presidents into classes of about 15 students.  Each class had seven days of classroom training separated into three workshops over about four months.  We provided four days of instruction around Innovation tools – from idea generation to initiative selection and experimentation to pipeline management. 

The other three days of classroom instruction were devoted to leadership development, but not generically.  The Leadership program was aimed directly at the innovation approach and tools.  We stressed the need for leaders to: listen, summarize, and ask questions.

We also designed homework between each of the three workshops so the students could test their learnings in practical, but non-threatening situations.  Homework was done in teams of classmates.   And then at the end of the workshops each student had to do an “on the ground” project where they did a live innovation project with their real teams.

This mix of adult learning models provided some interesting results.

Our students quickly absorbed the course information, from an academic point of view.  Koreans are reputed to be the highest IQ people in the world.  The live practice was a different story.   They had difficulty transitioning from managers to leaders.  Their instinct was to stay in control.  Their career experience told them it was their job to have the idea; to have the answer.  Soliciting input from others was a show of weakness.

We had taught them what to do and intellectually they understood their lessons; however, we needed a technique to put their learning into practice.  Our most effective tip was to give them:

·      The #1 Rule of Improv: Go with the scenario

Improvisation works because the actors follow this basic rule.  The first actor throws out a ridiculous scenario.  The receiver has to go with it.  They may eventually turn it and reshape it, but they have to start with and absorb what was thrown at them.  If they reject the scenario then the Improv goes into a death spiral. 

My observation is that we haven't learned this Improv lesson in business.  As we go through our day we tend to reject scenarios, not go with them.  I think we learn this early.  Watch children.  Their first expression of independence is “no.”  That stays with them, and us, for life.  By the time we get to business we have learned that identifying the “fatal flaw” has more immediate rewards and less risk than identifying the “outstanding opportunity.”

Try your own mini-research.  Say to someone: “it’s a nice day.”  The odds are that after they acknowledge the statement they will reject the scenario: for example, “yeah, but it’ll rain tomorrow.”  So much for a positive discussion of today’s weather.


Scenario rejection tends to be a survival skill for managers.  Managers want to take control and be in control.  They want to demonstrate their knowledge.  They want to give an answer and direction.  This leads to interchanges such as this:
  • Staff: I have an idea on how to bring together online and off line sales.
  • Manager:  You know, that idea has been around for years.
  • Staff:  Yes, but a lot has changed.
  • Manager:  I was on the task force that studied that idea three years ago.  It doesn’t work within our sales channel strategy.
  • Staff:  We have analyzed some new research and we think …
  • Manager:  Research will never make that idea work.  Our compensation and commission arrangements support two distinct channels.
  • Staff:  Yes, we know but …
  • Manager:  Here’s what I want you to do: go talk with Sally Smith.  She will help you understand our sales strategy so you can help her develop new ideas that are aligned with it.
The staff member could be wrong, but we'll never know.  

The Improv technique changes the dynamic.  Leaders will go with the scenario.  They will listen, probe, and give guidance.  When leaders look for an opportunity, rather than a flaw, the discussion changes.
  • Staff:  I have an idea on how to bring together online and off line sales.
  • Leader:  We've looked at that idea several times.  What has changed?
  • Staff:  Well, we have new research that shows a growing niche in the SMB market.
  • Leader:  So you want to target a slice of SMB?
  • Staff:  Yes, we’ll have to make some pricing changes and redefine our relationship with our retail partners, but it can work
  • Leader:  Sorry, but I’m having trouble with the idea.  How will we ensure that both channels are compensated properly?
  • Staff:  That’s the great part.  We will distribute profits and commissions on a total revenue basis.
  • Leader:  I’m still not with you.  Can you do an experiment to de-risk the decision?
  • Staff:  Sure, but I’ll have to get back to you on that next week
In this case we still don't have an answer but we're still open to one.

The Improv technique dramatically changed how our students used the classroom training.  It gave them something to hold onto as they leapt over the chasm from management to leadership.  It gave them a procedure, a safety net, so they could accept an idea and then let others roll with it to build it into a bigger and better idea.

Improv.  It’s a simple lesson for leaders of innovation, but it works!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Employee Disengagement


Employee engagement is a thing of the past.  It’s time to move on.  

“Why would I commit myself to a company that will ultimately lay me off?”  A young manager asked me this question last month.  I’m still struggling for an answer.

Why do we continue to delude ourselves about Employee Engagement?  We all know the numbers.  We know the trend.  Employees in the western world are disengaging from their companies at an accelerating rate – and this trend is catching on in the rest of the world.  Sure maybe Costco, Zappos, and Southwest Airlines are different, but for how long?

You can choose your study to show disengagement, but here’s a quote from a recent report: “In general (employee engagement) is down by 9% and in cases of some top-performers is down as much as 25%.  Even more worrying, 12% of top-performing employees are considering leaving their organizations and 17% confirm they are ‘uncertain’ about staying.”  These results come in light of the fact that:

  • We all know there is a strong correlation between high employee engagement and strong financial performance, and
  • We have been working on accelerating employee engagement for more than a decade.

So what’s going on here?  Well based on my experience and observations I have come to two main conclusions:

  • We changed the rules of the game, and
  • We’d better find new answers

1.     We Changed the Rules of the Game
The history of employee disengagement is well known so I won’t take up a lot of space here.

Basically the past 25 years have seen a thoughtful tearing down of many of the factors that attach people to their work.  We called the process “breaking the employee entitlement mentality”; however, it can also be a euphemism for “building a performance culture that focused employees on generating profits for the business and value for the shareholders.”

I'm not saying this was a bad thing.  I'm only observing that a consequence has been employee disengagement.  When we removed what we saw as “employee entitlement” we didn’t inject the “performance culture” with new ways to emotionally bind employees to their company.

2.     We’d Better Find New Answers
The last 25 years has seen a plethora of top-down people management solutions to the disengagement issue.

  • We created Values statements that assert employees as our most valuable asset while our actions showed that we valued profits and low cost structures.
  • We talked about talent pools and bench strength while delayering organizations thereby stripping them of institutional knowledge and mentoring capability.
  • We implemented performance pay systems that set individuals against each other.
  • We spoke of business opportunities while severing employees.
  • We sent communication down a pipeline that got so cluttered that it got clogged.
  • We conduted Employee Commitment surveys that resulted in mechanical solutions that only activated the employee immune system.
These initiatives haven’t worked.  We must stop polishing old solutions while hoping for different results.

We created disengagement and our current practices are reinforcing it.  Engagement will never again be anything more than temporary for small sets of employees who drift in and out of self-actualization at work.  However, that doesn’t mean that employees shouldn’t enjoy their work and be productive doing it.

I believe that we need to accept a new reality.  We need to open a discussion with employees to create a new manifesto about life at work.  I don’t have the complete answer but I think some of the elements are:
1.     Honesty:
Let’s just tell it like it is.  We’re in a global economy.  Business needs to survive if it is to provide opportunities to employees.  People understand this and understand that sometimes tough decisions must be made to protect the greater good.
2.     Customers:
Employees don’t work for a company anymore; they work for their customers.  Although employees understand the need for profits and shareholder value that does not motivate them.  Customers do.  Draw the shortest line possible between every employee and the end customer.
3.     Compensation:
Delink appraisals and compensation.  Get rid  of performance pay.  Structure pay against the market and distribute success through a bonus pool.  If someone believes they are underpaid then ask them to “bring an offer.”  It’s a free market.  Openly encourage employees to test the market.
4.     Respect:
The only commitment most companies can make to their employees to day is to severe them with respect.  Severance should not be an event of shame and rejection.  Severance is today’s early retirement.  Let’s treat it that way.

We need to add to this dialogue.  We need to find a replacement for employee engagement.  We need a construct for “employment” that matches the world we work in.