How many strategic plans look a little bit different from the year before? 99.9% do.

When I say “a little bit different” I mean tighter strategies with incremental goals and objectives and more of the same activities as the year before. Yes, we’ve all seen this before. What’s ridiculous is that you may begin a strategy session thinking differently, but most everyone defaults to safe because “that’s not what the boss expects” when the time comes to decide on a course of action; a lot of good ideas are not considered because of this.

This situation presents itself in most businesses, but the ones who are able to leap ahead have one thing in common: they are ruled by ideas, not hierarchy.

It isn’t business-as-usual to be ruled by ideas

Over the last few months of 2014 I was involved in facilitating a strategic plan for a government created mechanism in charge of coordinating entrepreneurial activities in the city of Tijuana. They brought me in because they wanted to shake things up!

There were many challenges, but the main thing was to be more ambitious. Unfortunately, it’s one thing to say “let’s rethink our approach” and another to actually go forward with it. Well, that’s exactly what happened after the strategy sessions.

The ideas that were presented in the strategic plan were cookie-cutter versions of what happens in other entrepreneurial ecosystems around the world, in this case they are localized to Tijuana. The sad thing about it is that the people in charge of this government mechanism, the boss, vetted all of the ideas; even though they were the same as the year before.

Why did this happen?

Because the group of people that came up with the strategic plan wanted to shake things up, but only just a little bit. The result was almost the same set of activities as the year before, with incremental goals and objectives.

Not the recipe for shaking things up…

The best idea wins

In innovative organizations, there is a unique understanding that to shake things up one has to STOP doing what leads to more of the same and START doing what will lead to new and different. If you ran a company that helped people find car insurance in Springfield, MO then you should want to have the best idea and know how your perspective customers go about finding it. So, if the decision making process in your business is to go through a suit (business as usual) that values safe bets that lead to more of the same; now you know what will counter that: letting the best idea win.

How do you do that?

Easy, ask yourself some business shaking questions:

  • If we make a list of all the projects we are working on, do any of those have the potential to change our business significantly over the next year?
  • What’s the boldest idea we should work on?

Best and bold are subjective terms, so it is best to first develop a criteria for what you want. The criteria I use to describe innovativeness is: new, surprising and radically useful. Secondly, come up with some ideas that fit the criteria you defined. And finally, define a timeframe to see some prototypes and let people try stuff and don’t judge them if their idea fails.

In some industries though it’s not about innovating new products, but just making existing products better. Companies like Essential Fitness have taken the top wrist wraps and just made a better wrist wrap that customers love. Others have taken supplements and made things like the best test booster and other things. Nothing new, just better.

Employee freedom and responsibility go together

The main point is people need freedom, support and challenge to make innovation happen; not to think twice about expressing themselves freely because they fear getting punished. Put simply, if you are afraid to say what you really think in a meeting, you are not free. You are a corporate slave.

True innovators do away with corporate slavery. True innovators trust people to do the right thing, and that starts with defining culture and then hiring for specific values and behaviors. Hiring is hard, it’s the most important job for any business, and there isn’t a cookie-cutter recipe to follow, but if you focus on hiring for brilliance you can be certain that the best ideas will win; not the loudest voice in the room.

There is a common misconception that all innovation is and should be disruptive; it isn’t. And while I dislike making distinctions between Big Innovation and Small Innovation, the truth is most of what is innovative is of the routine type that just optimizes the current business model. Disruption, on the other hand, is thrown around as if everyone is doing it but the truth is it’s rare.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds released the Linux kernel on the Internet and invited anyone who wanted to download, use and modify it. In an amazingly short amount of time, a community built up around Torvalds’ initial code and their contributions transformed it into an operating system that rivaled those of even corporate giants like Microsoft.

Even now, it seems somewhat of an unlikely story that such a fledgling effort could make such a transformational impact. Yet today, open communities have become so pervasive that the term “proprietary,” to a large extent, just means the stuff we build on top of open source software. And we’re just beginning to scratch the surface.

Today, we’re entering a new era, where open platforms are going beyond just software and starting to take hold in everything from scientific research to manufacturing. In fact, as our ability to connect to information continues to increase exponentially, the solution to many tough problems is becoming more social than technical.

Linux With A Bounty

When Alph Bingham first began his career as a research scientist in the late 70s, he immediately realized it would be much different than graduate school. As a student, he and 20 others were working on the same problems and coming up with varied approaches, but as a professional scientist he was mostly on his own.

By the late 90s, the Internet was becoming a transformative force and Bingham, now a senior executive at Eli Lilly, saw an opportunity to do something new. He envisioned a platform that would work like “Linux with a bounty” by putting problems that his company had been unable to solve on the web and offering rewards to anyone who came up with an answer.

The program, called InnoCentive ,was an immediate success and Eli Lilly spun it out as an independent company. To date, it has solved hundreds of problems so difficult that many considered them to be unsolvable. In fact, one study found that about a third of the problems posted — many of which had been around for years or even decades — are solved.

The key to InnoCentive’s success has to do with an observation Bingham and his team noticed early on. The solutions almost never came from the field in which they arose. So, for example, chemistry problems were rarely solved by chemists. Yet by opening up the problem to others in adjacent fields, such as biologists and physicists, they became more tractable.

Every once in a while someone says or writes something that is worth sharing.

His point is that everyone wants innovation without knowing what it means; which I agree with. Most of the stuff you read, listen and watch is mostly innovation theatre: just a bunch of fluffy activities that have no impact.

People busy just acting the part but not really doing “what it takes”.

For example, nowadays it seems that any company that starts practicing some methodology is automatically considered innovative. Not true. While just about everyone who follows the desing thinking and lean startup template to a T claims to be an innovation expert, to those people I ask the following: where are your battle scars? Tell me your stories?

Innovation is the opposite of what we’re pretending the word means

  • Innovation really happens by people that give so much of a shit they get fired in many places.
  • Change happens because ideas compel odd people to take risks because they believe in it.
  • Innovation is people having massive arguments.
  • It’s pissing off most people. It’s going against policies. It’s being a huge pain but with the most pure of intentions, that will be misunderstood.
  • True innovation will be questioned. “Who are they to care so much?” The remarks will include, “Chill out, this is awkward, you’re irritating everyone.”

Many young people are either turning away from school entirely or choosing institutions that can offer practical, hands-on education. It is becoming a common practice in Europe among Universities of Applied Sciences, whilst in USA a school like Northeastern University has embedded experiential learning as a part of their study program. Any school that offers experiential learning is booming. Average US college student graduates the $28,950 worth of student debt without valuable working experience, therefore opportunity to study and get actual working experience is very attractive. The trend of experiential learning is disrupting education.

It is well known that our physiology can affect our psychology.  If our posture is more positive then our thinking is more positive.  Researchers Slepian and Ambady report an experiment in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.  They had some subjects move their arms in big fluid movements and other subjects moved their arms in short, precise movements.  Then everyone took a creativity test.  The people in the first group with the fluid movements scored 24% higher in their creativity scores.

So before your next idea generation session try this gestures exercise.  Get everyone to stand up and move away from each other.  They then make gestures following your instructions:

  1. “We will be open to ideas.”  Everyone raises their arms and gathers them in as though receiving large bundles.
  2. “We want big ideas.” People stretch out their arms as far as they can.
  3.  “We want many ideas.” People wave their arms around.
  4.  “We want funny ideas.”  Everyone laughs out loud.
  5.  “We want wild ideas.”  People show their wildest expressions.
  6.  ” We will break the rules.”  People mime snapping a long stick.
  7.  ” We will look in different directions.”  Everyone stares at the front of the room, then everyone turns to view the left side, the right side and then the back of the room.
  8.  “Thank you.  Please sit down.”

This little icebreaker should be short, energetic and fun.  It will raise energy levels and affect how people think and behave.  You can refer back to it later as you run the brainstorm sessions.  You can use the gestures as you encourage people to be open to ideas or look in fresh directions.  I am sure that you will get more and better ideas.