Thursday, October 06, 2011

YOUR INNER-HOMER: Homer Simpson vs. The Culture of Innovation

“That’s it! You people have stood in my way long enough. I’m going to clown college.” 
-Homer Simpson

Homer Simpson is a genius of the workplace. The problem for Mr. Burns and his other bosses is that Homer’s a genius at avoiding work. And that’s why he’s so dead-on funny, because inside every one of us is our Inner-Homer, the part of the brain that figures out how to slip responsibility and rationalize doing so. And when it comes to innovation, our Inner-Homer is at its best.


“Son, if you really want something in life you have to work for it. Now quiet! They’re about to announce the lottery numbers.” HS

Executives insist that they want their employees to be more creative and that’s why virtually every list of corporate “values” includes something about the company being a leader through innovation. Then, the same executives who “value” innovation create a culture that makes it almost impossible. When employees come up with suggestions, managers are quick to say something like, “Let’s get our projects caught up, then we can think about it.” And, before the employee can slouch away, the manager adds, “Speaking of projects, where is that report I asked for?”

Here in The Time of No Time there is no “caught up,” meaning that innovation waits upon the time that never comes. Employees soon learn not to bother making suggestions.


“The three little sentences that will get you through life. 1. Cover for me. 2. Oh, good idea, Boss! 3. It was like that when I got here.” HS

“Oh, good idea, Boss!”

Employees figure out that bosses get enthused about their own ideas and that if they just pretend to be likewise enthused, they can quietly kill the ideas later. After all, most ideas require some work and who has time for more work? Instead of disagreeing with an idea, the better bureaucratic avoidance is to act enthusiastic then ease the idea into Never-Never Land of Ideas: this one is called, When-When: The Land of the Wistful Someday. Employees learn not to disagree, just to “caution.” They aren’t being difficult, just helpful. And they come to believe it.

“If something goes wrong at the plant, blame the guy who can’t speak English.” HS 

When it comes to thwarting an idea, the best solution is to blame the system – the skilled bureaucrats are the crypto-bureaucrats, the ones who blame the bureaucracy, cursing the system even as they make use of it. Before long, both employees and managers start to believe they are helpless to do anything new. The culture is one of hard work, and everything but the next deadline gets postponed. Innovation joins the list of The Wistful Someday projects.


“I think Smithers picked me because of my motivational skills. Everyone says they have to work a lot harder when I’m around.” HS 

So how does a company overcome “the tyranny of the urgent” and get employees to commit to innovation? The most familiar option is to make innovation the job of a few employees, putting it into R&D or New Products. The upshot is that you have 1% of employees doing 99% of the innovating. Well, okay… 1% is better than nothing. However, if you spend time studying the origin of innovations, what you find is not the skill of the scientist, but that of the explorer. Most innovation comes down to spotting transferable ideas.


“’To Start Press Any Key.’ Where’s the ANY key?” HS

Once you understand how ideas happen, then you understand the waste of locking creativity into a single department. That’s why we set a goal of creating a Culture of Innovation where…

To get there requires more than a motivational talk. And it certainly requires more than a brainstorming session. There’s a reason that brainstorming sessions rarely produce innovations – they produce hundreds of ideas that are born into the old idea-death culture, so those white boards covered with ideas are merely a frustrating reminder of what you don’t have, like the hungry couple standing outside the restaurant and reading the menu on the door.

At The Innovators’ Lab we believe an innovation effort starts with metrics, and that the metrics have requirements paired with them. The only way to get every employee to think about ideas is to make ideas a job requirement.

Some executives fear this will mean idea chaos. They fear having ideas coming from everywhere, thinking that every employee is being given an invitation to tell the leaders how to go their jobs. No. The idea requirement is built around having all employees thinking about how they can do their jobs better, especially by better serving their customers. (Part of the Culture of Innovation is making sure every employee knows who his or her customer is.)

Then, once you have all employees looking for ideas, the trick is NOT allowing a “creativity bureaucracy” to evolve. Instead, each department is required to experiment with some of the ideas. Once ideas are becoming experiments, the organization’s leaders can steer the innovations toward the bigger goals.

Innovation doesn’t start with brainstorming. It starts with understanding what we call “inno-nomics,” – organizing both the demand and supply of creativity. You start with understanding that innovation only happens when you make it happen -- to achieve The Culture of Innovation means that you go out and build The Culture of Making It Happen.

You can’t just hope that employees can be persuaded to change; every corporate employee soon learns how to rope-a-dope any new management program. No, you have to figure out the change you want and start changing expectations, requirements and rewards. It comes down to this: Less talk about change, more changing.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Innovation - Incubator or Graveyard? By Mike Manes, Square One Consulting


Dale Dauten in his newspaper column got me thinking with this closing statement:

"If you have an idea you want to nurture, don't plant it with the forest of the status quo; place it in a fresh field, away from the old growth. Give it a new group or try it in an experimental store, surrounded by people who want it there, who want it to thrive" and "Which brings us to an IBP (Important Business Principle) with a lovely Zen weightless heft: It's easier to change people than to change people."

Dale is right on both counts. My question is: "Can you and your company culture innovate?" Before you say yes - remember, Casual Friday is not innovation!

Here's the first test:
You find someone intentionally destroying a computer in your office. It costs $600.00. What do you do? Ignore them? Fire them? Have them arrested? Send them to counseling?
I'm guessing you don't ignore them.

gravestone Here's a second test:
You introduce a great idea / innovation at your next management meeting and the first comment to follow is "Great idea but the devil's in the detail." More alarming is that all the heads are bobbing in agreement - "Yea - the devil's in the detail." Guess what - it's time to change the sheets in the bed because you've been sleeping with the status quo (devil) too long. Michelangelo said, "God is in the detail."
The devil's work will be done - innovation killed.
Time and space do not permit a thorough examination of all the reasons (a.k.a. excuses) you still believe you and your company are innovators. I'll just offer the following two explanations of why this ("devil's in the detail") is the reaction. If you agree - do something about it, INNOVATE. If you disagree - quit reading you're not going to change anyway! At least you'll die in the arms of your lover.

Draw your organizational chart - now frame the perimeter. It's a pyramid. You're at the top and your managers / supervisors rest near the pinnacle. The worker bees and the trainees (worker bees in incubation) stand between you and the marketplace - your customers. If you innovate it will require flattening the organization - that's not going to happen since your managers / supervisors have spent years clawing their way to the top and you want to do what - flatten the system? NO WAY!

Now superimpose a bell curve on the pyramid. At the front end are 20% of the folks willing to embrace the new. They are enthusiastic but will burn out quickly without change. On the back end are 20% who are retired in place. You send them a check each week in spite of the fact that they quit working for you years ago. The remaining 60% aren't bad people - they are bad innovators. They kill ideas to protect you from yourself - you mean well but "the devil's in the detail." They've done it before - they'll do it again. It's what's best. See IBP in paragraph # 1!


Comments from Dale...

You smash a computer worth $600 and get fired. Kill an idea worth $6 million and you get thanked for coming to the meeting. That's the power of the status quo - to quote an old song, bureaucracy is the art of "killing softly."

Since I wrote the column Mike quoted above, I've been doing work with companies where we go in and change the culture without changing the people. We've now proven that can get an immediate break-out of ideas and experiments from the same old people in the same old jobs, if they are given new requirements. (By new "requirements," I mean that they are required to get involved in idea generation and in experimentation.)

(If you'd like a copy of a booklet I've written on how you can create a culture of innovation, call the delightful Paula Wigboldy at 480-785-2886, or email Paula and we'll send you one.)

Not every employee is skilled at innovating, of course, but do it right and that's OK - you only need a few. What I love about Mike's piece is his notion of replacing the pyramid with a Bell Curve. You get the "early adopters" to join in and you get ideas flowing. That's the easy part -- any good brainstorming trainer can get you a list of good ideas. The hard part is anticipating the resistance and figuring out how to hammer away at it. ("Hammer" is the right analogy, because you have to chip away at the cement of the old culture.)

Here's the IBP (Important Business Principle): Ideas don't have a "time" that "has come" when they magically overcome obstacles. Ideas are work and take time and almost no one has any of either to spare. So if they are to move forward, they must get pounded or dragged or sneaked into the future. Ideas don't need "a time"; they need hero, one who is willing to make time.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


”He likes his butt scratched. People will come up to him and pet his head. He’ll turn right around and show them his butt.”

-Georgetown University professor Father Christopher Steck describing Jack the Bulldog, the school’s mascot, to “Esquire”

Something about that quote makes me think of a certain category of manager. But first, let’s put management into perspective:

Odds are, you have a mediocre boss, who has a mediocre boss, who has a mediocre boss. There’s no escaping the math – there’s a 90% chance that your managers are not in the top 10% of managers.

Knowing that, perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that the response of the business community to the economic crisis has been so uninspired.

What got me thinking about mediocre management was hearing from Keith McLeod, the Tucson consultant who inspired many of you when I passed along his suggestions on dealing with the economy. (If you missed that column, go to and there, under Columns, you’ll see “Finding Value in Chaos.”)

This time, McLeod reminisced about a second-rate manager: “I was coming up with new ideas and was a threat to my boss. He called me in and said, ‘You aren’t fitting in. If you don’t change within 30 days, you’re gone.’ It was jarring. I thought I was being called in for praise. My reaction was to check with him on everything I did for his input while I searched for a new job. At the end of 30 days he called me in and said, ‘You’ve made a remarkable turnaround.’ I countered with, ‘Well, thank you, Al. I’m giving two weeks notice. I’m moving to Michigan to run a bank.’”

This is relevant because in a time when managers are anticipating the need to lay off employees, many began to second-guess their employees’ work. Should you find your work being questioned, the natural reaction is to avoid management. However, the correct response is just the opposite – to seek out massive amounts of feedback. Doing so, the manager becomes one with your work, including being able to take credit for it and/or you. Meanwhile, find a better manager.

Here are McLeod’s reflections on his escape from mediocrity: “Too often idiot bosses are so focused on themselves they lose valuable employees. (The sad part is some of the employees think something is wrong with them, and never leave and flower elsewhere.) Instead of empowering employees, these bosses are self-focused, and should be shot.”

There is something appealing about the idea of shooting lousy managers – it would open up jobs without increasing unemployment, and I suspect the funeral industry has the highly desirable “multiplier effect,” the economists’ Holy Grail.

But setting that aside, you can now see why I thought of Jack the Bulldog offering his butt for scratching. It’s like that with bad bosses – it’s all about them.

Which takes us back to the bulldog’s caretaker, Christopher Steck, who added: “I once received a thank you note from a student that described me as ‘one of the Georgetown’s biggest celebrities.’ I thought that was a bit over-the-top, but then I realized that the note was addressed to Jack, not me. I feel like I live in the reflected glory of a dog. But sometimes the most important thing you do in life is to help others shine.” And there it is in that last sentence, the attitude common to those managers who made it into the top ten percent.

Thursday, August 04, 2011


To attract, retain, and obtain the most from Awesome Talent, organizations will need to offer an Awesome Place to Work, a place where people not only get paid their due, but also get to initiate and execute Great Things. A place where they can add Awesome Entries to their WOW Project Portfolio and add equity to their Brand Called You.

–Tom Peters

The Age of The Employee is over. Gone. Get used to it.

The New Economy is about a lot of things and “jobs” isn’t one of them. Companies don’t hire employees anymore; they hire time or talent. That means they hire hours or skills. You don’t want to sell your time – too many people will gladly do what you do cheaper. So all that leaves is selling skills, which takes talent.

I was recently listening to an audiobook by Peter Saccio of Dartmouth and from him I learned the origin of the modern use of the word “talent.” It was once just a unit of money, like the peso or the dollar. However, the Parable of the Talents eventually changed that.

You may remember the story from the Book of Matthew: A rich man goes on a journey and entrusts five talents to one servant, two to another and one to a third. When the man returns, he finds that the first servant invested wisely and doubled the money. The second servant did likewise. However, the servant with just one talent buried it for safekeeping and thus returned just the lone talent.

Jesus’s conclusion does not offer any sympathy for the third servant. The first two are praised and given more responsibility, but the third is not just criticized, but the boss instructs the others to “…throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Yikes.

As I say, our use of the word “talent” derives from this parable because it was clear that Jesus was talking not about money, but about making use of one’s gifts. To ignore (bury) your gift (talents) is not some minor offense – it makes you unworthy of being in the company of those who know how to build upon theirs.

If you needed any further encouragement to discover and redouble your talents, there you have it. And, looking a bit further, what does it say about being the boss? The boss in the story doesn’t say to the third man, “Oh well, you did the best you could.” And he doesn’t say, “Let me sign you up for a training course.” No… it’s straight to the gnashing of teeth.

We often hear the expression “God-given talent” and if we think of talents as a gift from God – a literal birth-day gift -- it’s good to remember that when the Big Guy stops by your place to say hello, if he doesn’t see the gift out and being used, He gets testy.


Having started working with companies on creating a Culture of Innovation, I was forced to consider all the other types of cultures. Inspiring by my architect pal, John Ball, I put together a hierarchy of cultures. I wonder, Do you recognize your organization somewhere on the pyramid?

©2011 by Dale Dauten.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

E-Luminations: Farewell from 'The Corporate Curmudgeon'

It's been a while. If you didn't hear, I decided to end my "The Corporate Curmudgeon" column. 20 years. Never missed a week. Yeah, I miss it. I wrote a pair of farewell columns, reprinted here, that will explain my decision. Now, unfettered, I can offer up some original material. The first piece is a definition.

It's below, along with a PDF version, in case you'd like to post it in your workspace or conference room. (Or, if you're feeling mischievous, you might post it on an executive's door.)

dictionary page

©2011 by Dale Dauten.

That definition is the start of a series on innovation. I'm pleased to have started major Culture of Innovation projects for Honeywell and STC, where we are creating places where ideas flow and experiments are a routine part of the workplace. More at under The Innovators' Lab, or click here.


OK, now for those farewell columns...



By Dale Dauten

"Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way."

–E.L. Doctorow

I've written over a thousand of these columns and I'm sorry to tell you that this is the next-to-last one. It's been over twenty years; it's time. This column, "The Corporate Curmudgeon," once appeared in several dozen papers with a combined circulation of tens of millions; now, it's just you and me and my mother... and I've caught Mom skipping. So, time for something new.

Even after twenty years, I don't think I could walk away from The Corporate Curmudgeon if I didn't have another weekly column to write; it's a career advice column, "JT & Dale Talk Jobs," co-authored with J.T. O'Donnell, the brightest and most innovative career coach I could find (and, trust me, I searched). It's fast-paced and practical but still has time for the occasional curmudgeonly aside. I hope it will appear here, in the place of my old column.

Next week I'll say farewell, but for now, as we approach the end of the year, it's a good time to sum up some of what I've learned...

  • Most jobs are boring because they are designed that way. If you're building an organization, you want to create jobs that qualified people can do readily. Then, when you go to hire people, you look for employees who have successfully done that exact job. In other words, you minimize uncertainty, which is same thing as structural boredom.

  • In EVERY company people are going to make fun of the boss; it's just that in the good companies, it happens when the boss is around.

  • The worse the job, the harder it is to leave. A bad job is like a leech on the brain, numbing the soul and sapping self-esteem. A bad job makes you less qualified for a good job and less able to find one.

  • What another way of saying "workaholic"? Employee of the Year.

  • The more time and people devoted to a decision, the more likely it is to be wrong. The more people involved in a decision, the more likely it is to prudent. Prudence kills.

  • Bad jobs carry the seeds of good jobs. It may seem wise to send lousy jobs overseas, but along with those jobs go the knowledge, experience and money which will soon enable foreign companies to offer their own brands. And when they do, the good jobs will grow there.

  • On the high road, too, there are potholes.

  • We don't want to admit to its grim efficiency, but there's a reason why hierarchical, bureaucratic management systems are the basis of virtually all armies, governments, corporations, churches and schools: BUREAUCRACY WORKS! In fact, one reason it works so well is that an elaborate bureaucracy eliminates the need for charisma, reduces the demands upon competence, and replaces individual integrity with systematic regulation. Said another way, bureaucracy is leadership that doesn't reply upon an actual leader; the system is the Churchill.

  • Watching television these days feels like going to a low-rent carnival. Everyone is shouting to you, grabbing at you, grease-smiling and cheese-baiting... and that's just the talk shows. Is there any guest on any late night show who isn't selling something? Anyone who isn't telling stories written by an image team? Now, the people who brought you TV are taking over the Internet. No wonder newspapers, both online and in print, are about to make a comeback.

  • It's easy to believe that we live in a visual world and that words, especially written ones, don't matter. Don't be taken it by that false logic. The truth is that words are picture-making devices, the visual before the visual, and words remain THE important business tool, and THE important career skill.

  • And I have to end with one last insight from Gerald "Genghis" Cone, CEO of Mundane Industries: "The fact is that employees work harder the closer they get to their annual reviews. Why do you think I postpone them at the last minute every year?"

©2011 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.



By Dale Dauten

"If there are twelve clowns in a ring, you can jump in the middle and start reciting Shakespeare, but to the audience, you'll just be the thirteenth clown."

–Adam Walinsky

For the past dozen years or more, I've put a quote at the top of this column and, thinking back, I decided the Walinsky one above was my all-time favorite. Clowns AND Shakespeare; that's my kind of writing.

The reason I was thinking about my all-time favorite was that my time's up, at least for this column. As I mentioned last week, I'm going to be putting more time into "JT & Dale Talk Jobs," a zippy and useful career-advice column that I hope will appear here in place of The Corporate Curmudgeon. (My partner in that column is the charming and wise career coach, J.T. O'Donnell, who you'll love.) If you'll miss the old column - and, boy, I will - there's a collection of some favorites at, where you also can sign up for updates about new material I'll be doing, including a pair of books coming up.

Over the years I've written as the ghost of Vince Lombardi, done Dr. Suess take-offs, including one called "The Clerk With The Smirk," had Siskel & Ebert review your career as a bad movie, and of course offered the opinions of CEO Gerald "Genghis" Cone and HR VP Winslow "Win-Win" Cheeseley, both of whom are colleagues at my mythical employer, Mundane Industries. It's a miracle that any editor of the Business section let me get away with it, so if you're reading this, you know your editors have open minds and don't take themselves too seriously, which means that they deserve your support, by which I mean your subscription.

As I looked back, feeing sentimental, it seemed right to end with an update of my most sentimental column...

I wish for you that you go to work at a place where they're glad to have you, a place where they wonder how to keep up with business, not where to stalk it.

And I wish for you that before too long you get chosen for a big assignment and that you have the privilege of being scared. Someone gives you a promotion or new job and you say to your spouse - the terrifically supportive one that I wish for you - "I don't think I'm ready" and your spouse says, "Well, they picked you, so they think you're ready. And me too, because you're the best."

But I also wish for you that somewhere along the way you get fired. You push an idea too hard, and a VP from L.A. who's jealous of your popularity gets you axed. Then someone you used to work with calls you and offers you an even better job and a year later you run into that VP at a conference and sincerely say, "Thank you."

I wish for you that you get to hire extraordinary people, some of whom are ones that don't look or act the part and your coworkers wonder if you know what you're doing. And those oddball employees understand that you gave them a break and they wonder how they can ever pay you back even as they are doing so. And you hire friends' kids for summer jobs and they when they're asked how you were to work with, they smile and say, "Cool."

I wish for you that when business goes down and the slope slips, you don't. An employee comes to you and says, "These numbers look awful, but we could fudge a little right here on this line and forget to report this account and then they'd look okay." And you give them the tight smile and the hard eye and say, "No, we'll either figure it out or tough it out," and your employee looks at you with relief and admiration and says, "I was hoping that was what you'd say."

I wish that when you start to think about retiring that your coworkers are horrified. And I wish for you that when you're old you have a mild heart attack, where everyone prays for you and comes to visit and they all realize how much they love you. And when, after a long healthy life, you die, I wish that everyone says, "THAT was a life well lived" and then, every so often, when things are tough, they think of you and smile, and try one more thing, and that's the one that works.

©2011 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.