Archive for January, 2009

I want to submit that attitude may currently be the main barrier to innovation. Plenty of inside or outside innovation might be unleashed by a simple “Yes!” that would allow an initiative to proceed.

Did you ever enthusiastically approach your superior(s) with what you thought was a brilliant solution to a major problem the organization was experiencing? Were you flatly turned down even when you already had an action plan that could have made it happen if only s/he had said ‘yes’? Why are people not saying ‘yes’ more often? A few years back, I got a vivid illustration of the likely reason which I would like to share.

I had just moved to the South East from New England. I found Southerners to be extremely friendly, but I soon discovered that occasionally I had a very hard time understanding some of their heavy local accent (and some of them had trouble understanding me). One day I was working in my new office after hours. The lady who was cleaning my office came in, introduced herself, and started chatting with me. At some point I could tell by the tone of her voice that she asked a question and was expecting an answer from me, but I could not understand what she was saying. This was something that had never happened to me before: even if occasionally I would not understand an isolated word, I could always get the gist of the sentence. This time, I had no idea of what she had just asked me! We went through a couple of rounds at my polite request to please repeat the question, only to realize that she was just replicating the sounds, only louder each time. I finally understood that there was no point in continuing the exercise. I quickly reasoned: “the answer to this question might be quite elaborate, but I assume any answer could be summarized by: ‘yes’ or “no”, a ‘maybe’ might work…” Faced with the need to take a clear cut decision, I reasoned further: “if I say ‘yes’ I will likely need to do something as a result, and I am not sure what that is. Let’s try instead…” I turned to her and gave full attention to her last attempt at shouting the question at me, then firmly replied: “NO!” I was not sure how appropriate my answer was for her question, but what came next was astonishing: she looked me in the eye and replied “Agh, OK then!” then turned around, and off she went. While I had just deflected an uncomfortable situation, I was left baffled, still wondering to this day what her question was!!!

The episode itself became, however, very illuminating later when it dawned on me that a similar scenario was likely responsible to the many “NOs” that I had received myself throughout the years when presenting my higher-ups with a challenging idea or one that was simply very novel. Their gut response (and easiest) answer was “No!” Maybe I had not been able to convey my ideas well enough, or they were unable to understand the value of my proposals; in any case, the immediate negative answer insured that they did not have to do a follow-up, eliminating any potential commitment. There is always risk related to supporting or even allowing a new initiative to proceed. The risk is very easily eliminated by simply quashing it at first sight, and the cost of turning down such initiatives is usually very hard to identify, while a high-profile failure is hard to miss.

Many corporations punish the failures that are inevitably related to risk taking, but how many out there actually keep track of what could have been? At performance review time, is anybody keeping track of how many potential innovations have been annihilated by any specific manager/leader?

Obama recently demonstrated the mass appeal and the ultimate power of the operative word “YES” (we can). It will be interesting to see if the “yes” and “can do” attitude will spread to also penetrate and inspire the corporate world. I believe it would be the single most important step toward unleashing the innovation US desperately needs…

Addendum: See an independent video illustrating this barrier to innovation that was posted meanwhile on YouTube….

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Looking for what I was going to wear today, it finally dawned on me that my color choices for garments have been quite predictable for a while. My closet is full of black and white: some garments are white, many are black, but most of them are black AND white, with no grey per se. This provided an unexpected and unconventional confirmation that I am irresistibly attracted to the power of combining contrasting colors: preserving their individual nature, side by side, each enhancing the other’s unique beauty…. head-on collision of black and white, rather than subtle dispersion of white and black particles resulting in shades of grey. Vive la difference!

Nature presents plenty of examples of breathtaking new beauty created through the joining of independent and contrasting entities: mountain meeting sea, tall cliffs towering above sandy desert, sun rays breaking though shaded woods… A smaller miracle, yet ever mesmerizing to me, is the dance of light sparkles on the water’s surface, everyone of them riding on the crest of a wave: the result of sun, wind, and water, all preserving their own nature, yet joining together to create an amazing new effect.   This meaningful realization came while I was rowing my boat early in the morning, an activity meant to fully engage and enhance my physical abilities, but which turned out to be my most effective time for creative professional thinking – another testament to the power of jointly celebrating opposites. There are no sparkles without ruffles!

When it comes to new ideas, I believe the most innovative will be the result of creative tensions. A way to create such tension is to bring to the table people who hold different or even completely opposite points of view. In our quest for “civility,” we strive for consensus way too often. We usually get only one side of the story every time we choose to get our information from a particular journal, magazine, radio or TV channel. The side might be clear, yet many times it is skillfully disguised as the unbiased view. By a priori choosing sides it is easy to make our mind up about everything before we have a chance to examine all angles. There is another way. Just as I love my black and white, not separated or blended together, but together side by side, I personally rejoice and find it refreshing that even after all these years of watching the McLaughlin Group, they still openly battle on every subject. What a wonderful opportunity to hear both sides at the same time! Of course, this type of information gathering requires the spectator to diligently exercise listening (really “hearing” the other side!) and judgment skills to sort it all out (the “truth”?) and to make up his/her own mind.

Will Obama succeed in the similar challenge which his new team is likely to present him with? Many of us have noticed with satisfaction the surprisingly wide – and bona fide – diversity of his new team.  Besides what meets the eye, the visual indications of different race, gender, age, or ethnicity, lays the deeper, and I believe more meaningful, the diversity of thought of his team (see a slide show of Obama’s team on FT.com)

Obama has picked not only people who hold vastly different points of view, including some people with whom he has openly disagreed or competed with previously, but also the kind of people who are not shy in expressing their opinions. It is interesting to watch the dynamics of his public interactions with Hillary evolve in the picture gallery below (selected from the AP 2008 pictures) to the current “shoulder-to-shoulder” stance… Obama’s willingness to get a diversity of inputs from his inner circle, as well as casting his net for ideas as widely as possible  is important, and for all intents and purposes, it’s an innovative way to govern! The economic crisis magnifies the hopes and expectations from the new administration to an extent that I personally think is not humanly possible to satisfy. But at least Obama has set the stage to get diverse and intelligent opinions.  Only time will tell if he will be able to facilitate channeling such opinionated tensions into something great. We should all root for that. 


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While browsing the AP 2008 image collection, I was struck by two parallel tales of overindulgence in free lunches that reduced normally majestic creatures to a pitiful state from which they desperately needed to be bailed out… 

Notice the similarity? Any lesson in here?

In this Jan. 11, 2008 file photo, eagles await transfer to a warm U.S. Fish and Wildlife warehouse after being rescued from the cold in Kodiak, Alaska. They were among 50 eagles which dove into the back of an uncovered dump truck full of fish guts and became too wet to fly away. (Image and caption courtesy of AP)

In this Jan. 11, 2008 file photo, eagles await transfer to a warm U.S. Fish and Wildlife warehouse after being rescued from the cold in Kodiak, Alaska. They were among 50 eagles which dove into the back of an uncovered dump truck full of fish guts and became too wet to fly away. (Image and caption courtesy of AP)


In this Dec. 4, 2008 file photo, auto executives, from left, General Motors Chief Executive Officer Richard Wagoner, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally, and Chrysler Chief Executive Officer Robert Nardelli testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, before a Senate Banking Committee hearing on the auto industry bailout. (Image and caption courtesy of AP)

The lure of the free lunch brought about the downfall of the free loaders in both examples.

The eagles, seemingly forgetting they were supposed to obtain nourishment through making good use of their mighty arsenal of hunting capabilities, overindulged on scraps. However, in their defense, they probably were mindlessly opportunistic and could not foresee the consequences.

On the other hand, what was the excuse of the US auto industry’s titans? The CEOs were supposed to be aces at their game! Maybe it was the overconfidence and reliance on the status quo that had raised them to such heights: for so long had they relied on the known and tried old routines that they just thought it could go on forever? There were plenty of people who told them otherwise (e.g., see the 2006 MSNBC series ).

Nevertheless, the US Auto industry decision makers determined it was easier to just lobby Congress and continue to sell gas guzzlers, the equivalents of the automotive dinosaurs, rather than to innovate. Their strategy eventually led to a dead-end, and the huge downfall was going to bring along many others.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. If someone gets it for free, someone else – in this case, all of us – will have to pay for it. The US Auto Industry will have to “innovate or die”. The cataclysm should not be a wasted opportunity, just as the disappearance of dinosaurs created the evolutionary break needed by the mammals to colonize the earth.

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