Our inspired ideas never stop growing. The only thing standing in the way is artificial barriers, with the most prevalent one being the “stupid barrier.”
I have seen the “stupid” barrier appear over and over again, whether it is in the boardrooms, the meeting rooms or even the informal brainstorming sessions that are so ubiquitous throughout the corporate world. Nobody wants to look stupid, especially in the eyes of their subordinates, colleagues and superiors. When someone offers an “unconventional idea,” the judging begins immediately. “That will never work,” “We can’t afford that,” “That’s not practical,” “They’ll never go for that,” “What were you thinking!?”
Now let’s just suppose that you were the one that just offered what you thought was a groundbreaking idea. The problem started when as soon as you offered this game-changing thought, it was quickly shot down in flames. How are you feeling right now? How likely are you to offer another idea? How likely are you even to speak up again in this meeting? Now let’s say that there are a few others that just observed your Sopwith Camel of an idea being shot down by the Red Barons in the room (apologies to Peanuts and Snoopy [The World Famous World War I Flying Ace]). How likely is it that these observers will offer any idea that isn’t already conforming to the conventional norms? Will they likely risk being shot down as well? Will they likely look stupid for even offering an idea that is outside the expected thought processes?
Yet at the same time, many companies struggle with generating ideas and innovations in process and/or product. Some of these same companies pay lip-service to the notion of thinking differently and rewarding risk takers but when someone actually takes them up on the offer, the reaction is both swift and adverse.
I recall an internal consulting position I took in the early 2000s with an established third-party logistics company (name withheld to protect the guilty). At my orientation, I was handed a copy of Gary Hamel’s outstanding book, “Leading the Revolution,” (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) and was informed that I would be responsible (with others) for innovating business processes. I celebrated at the notion of experimenting with different ideas and methods in the normally staid logistics arena.
It wasn’t long before I had an opportunity to put that to test. We were asked by a large international paper producer to analyze and suggest ways to improve their supply chain. After the analysis was complete, I was asked to give a client presentation with both the findings and suggestions. The struggle began immediately when putting together the Power Point slides for the presentation and the suggested course of action. I was informed that the slides had to be in a certain format with no omissions and that the suggested course of action had to be what senior management (of the logistics company) had pre-ordained (taking advantage of empty space in their existing warehouse locations), analysis and client needs be damned.
At first, I attempted to persuade and convince my higher-ups that we didn’t need 15 slides on the history of our company and all the services that we offered. I further attempted to use the innovation card to allow for my different slide format than what was in the established slide deck. All of this was unsuccessful. Finally, I stated that since I was the lead person for the project, that I would present the analysis and suggestions in a format of my choosing. If they didn’t like it, they could remove me from the project and then present whatever they wanted. While this bordered on insubordination, I felt that my mission was to lead innovation and that I needed to push resisters to go along.
At the client presentation, I impressed the client executives with not only the bold, clean format of the slides but with the suggested actions as well. My suggestions were the best for the client company, even if it meant that they wouldn’t be using our pre-packaged solutions. The suggestions offered an annual savings of $10 million and the opportunity for us to be the lead consultants in its implementation. At the presentation’s conclusion, I was asked to come back again and give a more detailed implementation presentation.
Sadly, I never had the chance. Upon my return to the office, I was reprimanded for not using the official company slide deck and for not suggesting the pre-ordained (in the box) solution. It made no difference that the presentation was enthusiastically received and that we had the real opportunity for significant consulting revenue. I strayed from the “box” and for that I needed to be flogged. After exhausting my efforts to persuade anyone in senior management, a mutual parting of ways soon followed. I was particularly perturbed about being misled regarding “leading the revolution” and/or innovation initiatives. Are you simply giving lip service to innovative change or do you actively support change initiatives?
The logistics company struggled and stagnated for nearly 10 years afterwards before finally becoming better proponents of change, primarily due to competitive forces. In the interim, few people were willing to actually offer up new ideas. They saw what happened to me (and others who dared to think differently) and were afraid of the consequences of repeating my “audacious” attempt to innovate. How many great and forward thinking initiatives were never realized because of the enforced silence? How would we ever even know?
The lesson: If you intend to be innovative and creative don’t just say that’s what you want. You must be willing to accept that the innovation and creativeness will change established processes and that the ultimate result will be rewarding. You must be willing to encourage and listen for these ideas without adverse reaction and/or consequence. You must be willing to accept limited initiative failures as learning opportunities and continue to encourage experimentation.
Author: Moe Glenner