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.