Monday, June 29, 2009

Innovating outside the lines

This is going to be one of those posts where I try to take a trite concept, like coloring inside the lines, and turn it into something more insight. Stick with me, we'll see how it goes.

As long as people have created art, there have been critics. One can imagine the first caveman to sketch a buffalo or mastodon probably had a critic standing just behind him, commenting on his work. I was thinking about this recently after watching a "Monk" episode. Perhaps you've seen Monk on television - played by Tony Shaloub, the detective is obsessive-compulsive, and that's just on his good days. Monk volunteers to watch the kids of his friend and colleague, Captain Stottlemeyer. He takes the kids to their favorite restaurant, a 50s themed diner, where they start coloring the menus. It drives Monk crazy that the kids won't color within the lines.

That got me thinking - everything we do in school and in business encourages people to stay "within the lines". In art we encourage people to "stay within the lines" of conventional art expectations. In science we encourage people to stay within the lines of received wisdom - after all, it was a "known fact" that the sun revolved around the earth for thousands of years. Think we are above that now?

In business we encourage people to "stay within the lines" by carefully defining their job descriptions. People who work outside of their descriptions and responsibilities are quickly reminded of their responsibilities. We encourage people to "stay within the lines" by developing specific evaluation criteria. We communicate effectively what we want from people, and reinforce that by what we provide in the way of compensation and rewards. We encourage people to stay within the lines through the power of formal and informal corporate culture, which is constantly pushing people to remain within the fold, within the expectations of the organization.

Then, we wonder why we can't innovate, why no one will - wait for it - "THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX". Hmmm. Perhaps it's because we've been constantly told that coloring outside the lines, working outside our job grade or job description, questioning the status quo, is wrong. We've become the trained elephant, which only requires a cuff to be placed on its leg to believe it is staked to the ground. If everything in your culture reinforces thinking "inside the box" and coloring "inside the lines" then why is your team surprised to find that innovation can be difficult?

What to do? Well, there are several responses to this, none of them easy. One that is often attempted and never seems to work well is to hire a couple of "left brained" people and scatter them throughout the organization, hoping they'll influence the thinking. Most of these people will be co-opted into the group think very quickly or ejected like a virus as quickly as possible. Another response is to demand innovation and change from a group that has been educated by the firm over time that change is difficult and new ideas are risky. A quick, rapid change in this environment is exceptionally difficult. The third, and most permanent change, is a consistent change from the top down, starting with strategic direction and working its way from the management team and its priorities into business plans and individual evaluations. This change may take two or three years, but the subtle shifts will encourage the entire team to get on board.

Why do we think people can immediately and effectively "think outside the box" when for their entire lives we've reinforced "coloring inside the lines"?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:23 AM


Blogger Don Ford said...

The two guys who created UNIX, Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson, got no raises and bad reviews for several years because their boss didn't think that a small operating system was interesting. This was at Bell Labs a placed dedicated to and renowned for innovation. As you say most groups, even innovative groups, have very real barriers to innovation.

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Anonymous Chris Osborn said...

Excellent thoughts here. I worked for three years at a company that prided itself on its "innovative culture." (Note - NOT a culture of innovation. . . .)

But as a friend & colleague once said, "We ARE the box." It was such a sad - and very true - comment. Organizations get caught up in the race for quarterly profits, results and short term "metrics" that the long view needed for true innovation is simply not possible.

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