A Little Too Literal (or, How to Teach Innovation)

August 10, 2010
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Spoiler alert: It can’t be taught …

What are you, somebody’s lawyer? – Jim Dempsey, ca. 1984

Spoiler alert: It can’t be taught …

What are you, somebody’s lawyer? – Jim Dempsey, ca. 1984

One of the questions I get – and I’m getting this a lot lately – is how to get people to think more analytically, less literally. We need folks to stop focusing on the mechanical task of manipulating reports with Excel just to compute some answers. How about learning to use Excel, Access, and whatever native query / data download tools are available – to pull some data from the system, just to take a look? How about playing with the data, maybe stumbling upon some trends and identifying some real opportunities?

Ah, but that’s not what you asked for … It’s like working with a bunch of lawyers, taking shelter behind literal interpretations, following the letter (rather than the spirit) of the “law”.

I think that people are not always incented to ask questions, but to provide answers. Yes, differentiating between the two is a bit of a gray area, but when I’m “just too busy to think about that”, and I feel I have more work to do then fits the time available, the focus will always be on getting a result. Not necessarily the result or the best result, but just a result. If you ask for a metric, I will give you the metric; I won’t ask the next question.

I’ve asked folks to eliminate steps in a workflow [process]. Their solution was to reduce the number of steps in the workflow by combining multiple tasks into a single step.

Hey, I successfully answered your question – I went from 10 steps to 8.

Unfortunately, you didn’t reduce the actual work being done – and you destroyed my ability to analyze the time sinks in the process, because I’ve lost granularity. (But I eliminated a step, just like you asked…)

How Do You Teach Intellectual Curiosity and Innovation?

Actually, I don’t think you can.

No, I’m not defeatist – I think that there are ways to address this challenge. But to me, traits like innovation, imagination, a sense of adventure, the willingness to try and fail, really can’t be taught.

You don’t have to; it’s already in everyone’s psyche, you just have to tease it out of ‘em. There are the classics (Establish an Environment of Innovation, Give ‘em Permission to Fail, Establish Audacious Goals, etc.) – but you also have to lead by example. Try some little things: rearrange your office, change seats in your standing meetings, buy your team lunch (or beers). And try some big things: learn how to automate Excel or Access (beyond recorded macros), develop some SharePoint sites (and figure out how to hack it with javascript).

But most of all, as you prod, push, pull, and otherwise exhort your team to new ways of thinking – keep an eagle eye out for any little bit of progress in their thinking, a glimmer of off-the-wall innovation – and call it out. We were all kids once, but corporate America kind of beats it out folks. You have to celebrate the little things, as people get their sea legs and the natural impulses take over.

Innovation can’t be taught – you just have to remind folks how fun it can be, how good they can be.

(image from Andy C. / Wikimedia Commons)