After spending some time in the corporate sphere, you can’t help but notice some things. Organisations (aka capitalistic organisms) are entities that are comprised of individuals (aka egoic cognition machines). The organisation itself, while it might have once had an ego or identity tightly coupled with its original founders, can easily lose its sense of self overtime as it becomes diluted with more and more individuals.

And then, as an organisation grows, a problem emerges. That problem is often referred to as ‘silo.’ Teams become siloed, projects become siloed, thinking becomes siloed, and silo kills innovation. So then the language of the organisation might start to change to combat silo by saying, ‘silo = bad’ ; ‘collaboration = good’ and every organisation will sift through potential solutions to this problem, hiring consultants, adopting new processes, running hackathons, etc to try and encourage a ‘culture of innovation’ to emerge.

Those of us in leadership positions then gear up by reading books, attending seminars and acquiring certifications to deem ourselves stewards of collaboration. We arm ourselves with workshops to bring people together where we use can use candy-coloured sticky notes to pull threads of diverse ideas out of our individual participants in order to weave collaborative solutions together. And occasionally we’ll run hackathons to get people out of their cubicles to mix, mingle, collaborate and pitch new ideas that the organisation may or may take on.

Tactics like these can have a positive impact: they encourage collaboration, bring people together, level the playing field and encourage diverse and divergent thinking around a given problem space. But too often I’ve witnessed these events fall short of providing real value due to the lack of follow-through. Too often, I’ve seen workshops get used in place of individual work that could, with collaborative agreement of goals and outcomes, yield far better results than could a few workshops; and I’ve seen hackathons get used as more of a PR device to keep people happy by showcasing a collaborative culture (pizza and beer included) through a one-off, time-boxed event. They make for good photo-ops and in-house PR, especially when they can be done in person (those photos of young innovators playing Mario-Kart from bean bags really sells it to the interns, right?)

The idea of using workshop tactics and candy-coloured post-it notes is based on the idea that innovation happens when a central group or group of designated innovation figures facilitate and then controls the output of those events. I’ve worked on UX teams where this is the case. The understanding is that we, as a group of creative people, will be able to facilitate these workshops well, and then we, as a team, will use the output of the workshops to inform innovative solutions to problems that our customers are facing. But let’s face it, too often the question we’re trying to answer in those workshops were less about discovery—of encouraging dialogue and exploring possibilities to alleviate customer problems—and more about delivery—the business has defined the problems we need to solve, so can we please make a decision on how to solve those problems quickly so they can feel comfortable in sustaining today’s business (rather than looking at ways to create tomorrow’s business). So it goes (in business).

Why is innovation so hard?

In case you missed my cynicism in the last section, let me be clear: the strategies being used to encourage innovation are falling flat because they’re interpreting innovation too narrowly, literally silo-ing ‘innovation’ into comfortable pockets of workshops or small one-off hackathon events. This isn’t an unknown or surprising fact, but it’s been really interesting to experience it first-hand. In fact, many books have been written on this dilemma, including the classic by Clayton Chirstensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma, where he outlines how companies privilege investments made to sustain today’s business over those with potential to create tomorrow’s business.

Thinking about long-term goals is one thing, this is why it’s easy for organisations to write aspirational strategy and mission statements. But acting to obtain a long-term goal is another thing. It’s hard. Like, really hard.

Think about yourself, some of your own long term goals, or those New Years resolutions you set and gave up on. Long-term thinking is hard enough, long-term action is even harder because we have been conditioned to live in a world of instant gratification and simple pleasures. We want what we want and we want it NOW. Our culture teaches us there’s always something out there that will cure us—some cream to make our skin look younger NOW, some diet that will make us thinner NOW, some pill that will make us smarter NOW, some dessert that will satisfy our cravings and serve us that well-earned reward for being ourselves NOW (with cherries on top). We’re more consumers than we are humans, we’ve been conditioned to think and believe that anything we want, we can get, because we deserve it just for being here, breathing, and having desires. This is our programming.

And now think about those long-term dreams you’ve had. How many have you achieved? How many have you maintained? Are your long-term goals now the same as they were 5 years ago? 10 years ago? You call that progress?

Native Americans, when they first encountered the Europeans, actually thought they were inflicted with some kind of mental disease that made them crave the accumulation of material goods and conquering nature rather than living in harmony with nature—they called it Wetiko.

Wetiko is an Algonquin word for a cannibalistic spirit that is driven by greed, excess, and selfish consumption (in Ojibwa it is windigo, wintiko in Powhatan). It deludes its host into believing that cannibalizing the life-force of others (others in the broad sense, including animals and other forms of Gaian life) is a logical and morally upright way to live.

Seeing Wetiko: On Capitalism, Mind Viruses, and Antidotes for a World in Transition

I think the Native American’s were really onto something, they could see something that we’re all blind to because we’ve been brought up deeply embedded in the Wetiko dream.

And it’s no surprise that the struggle of the individual—that struggle of being programmed into being a consumer who wants relief NOW—is a struggle that organisations face as well. After all, what is an organisation made up of if not a bunch of individual humans? Many organisations have the same goals now as they did 5 years ago, or 10 years ago. Maybe they’ve been successful in staying alive and keeping the business going, but how long do we expect the status-quo to survive? (Fun fact, the lifespan of companies is shrinking.)

So in order to fight against Wetiko—in order to re-program ourselves and our organisations to live and thrive in a connected future (hopefully one a bit more considerate of earth)—we need to innovate. But I think we need to think about innovation not as the magic tool or silver bullet that we think will propel our business (or at least keep our last remaining customers pacified until they turn toward better offerings). We need to think about innovation as a way to evolve, re-program and re-invent ourselves and our organisations. And we can only do this by accepting that there is no salve or cream or magic pill that will get us there, it’s going to require deep work.

Shadow Work

Many of you, like myself, will have probably gone through a lot of changes in your life, and maybe some of you even did some deep personal work in order to improve yourselves. If so, you’ll know a little something about personal growth and development—and in developing yourself you may have done some shadow work.

Shadow work is the work you do (sometimes with professional help) to uncover the bad programming that got written to your core operating system at some point in your life (this happens to all children, always). It’s the limiting beliefs and collection of negative values that you hold (that each of us hold actually) that keep you from being your best, fully actualised self.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Carl Jung

The shadow is the scary unknown that we struggle to face. But we aren’t the only ones who have shadows, it turns out organisations do too. You can think of it as a ‘Shadow Strategy’ as outlined in the book Eat, Sleep, Innovate by Scott D. Anthony, Paul Cobban, Natalie Painchaud and Andy Parker. Interestingly when one of the authors asked a group of 1,000 top executives in consumer and retail industries to use a single word to describe what makes innovation a challenge within their organisations, the most used word was Fear. Just behind that were the words: Failure, Risk, Culture, Inertia, Habit, Cost, Adverse and Mindset.

Shadow strategies are the embedded habits and beliefs that are held by people within organisations, they’re the patterns of behaviour and comfort zones that are hard for us to break out of. Too often we get stuck thinking we need to solve innovation dilemmas using pipeline processes and tactics, like we’re still working in factories and just need to find the right tools for the job. We forget that in our modern age we’re all working a bit differently. No longer on assembly lines, we’re clustering together groups of humans using technology that is more like an extension of our central nervous system than the linear, time-driven assembly-line productivity of our recent past. Organisations these days function a bit more like organisms than they do factory lines, which explains why words like ‘Fear, Culture, Habit and Mindset’ are being used to explain why organisations are finding innovation so challenging.

My hunch is that many of us were brought up in a world of assembly-line mindsets—in order to be successful we must productive, which means we must be efficient, which means we must have processes and rules for driving and measuring efficiency! We were probably all brought up in assembly-line schools that compartmentalised subjects into nice time-boxed exercises and we change from one siloed subject to the next at the ring of a bell. But the world we live in now is much different, and it’s continuing to change.

Marshall McLuhan described electric technology as an extension of our central nervous system (an apt description considering the flow of information from peer-to-peer, org-to-peer, etc. much like information travels between synapses in ones’ brain). Alan Kay imagined software running on a giant, distributed computer where individual computers acted like biological cells operating independently in their own isolated state, and communicating via message passing. The thinkers and designers behind the technology we mindlessly use today, including the technology we use to do our jobs in the workplace, saw it as a natural extension to organic systems—it’s important to remember that that is what we’re working with (at least those of us in tech jobs).

And in order to work well with these systems and organisations that are more organic than assembly-line, we need new ways of approaching innovation. So let’s first look back to the individual, the path of growth and habit building that can help us overcome our shadows; because, after all, the individual is not only essential to an organisation; the individual is the micro-organism within the organisation.

Habit Hacking

Recently I read a book by James Clear called Atomic Habits. In this book, Clear provides a profound yet incredibly simple method for making big improvements through tiny changes in behaviour and environment. He refers to making one percent improvements overtime in order to gain compound interest.

“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.”

James Clear, Atomic Habits

When you’re making these small changes, it might feel like you’re going nowhere for a long time, the most powerful outcomes are delayed. But if you hold steady and keep investing that 1% repeatedly, you will eventually break through—this is how ‘overnight success’ happens: most people will perceive the breakthrough as an overnight success, never seeing the hard work, time and effort that preceded the event.

“…go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.”

Jacob Riis, social reformer (p21 of Atomic Habits)

When you look at it this way, you realise that break-throughs require patience, time and commitment to changing habits and mindsets—there’s no silver bullet.

Mindset is an interesting one, something I keep noticing over and over in systems thinking literature and lectures is that mindset (culture) is the linchpin to sustaining a system. In a lecture by Donella Meadows (author of Thinking in Systems), given at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business in 1999, she actually used the word ‘sacred’ to describe what’s required to maintain a balanced system (in this case, a stable population of sea turtles). There must be a collective, cultural mindset (belief / faith) in order for a system to be sustainable—otherwise the system will collapse, whether it’s sea turtles, a monetary system, government, and yes even innovation at a tech company 🙂

Clear describes the power of mindset in Atomic Habits as ‘Identity-based habits’: If you focus only on outcome (what you want), it’s harder to achieve and you’re more likely to give up; if you focus on your identity (who you wish to become), you’re more likely to reprogram your beliefs, world-view and self-image which make maintaining habit change much easier. You become what you believe you are. It’s all about mindset.

One of my favourite lines in Eat, Sleep, Innovate comes from the actions of Paul Cobban who, when working with a company in Singapore to improve their innovation culture, gave the innovation team one rule: under no circumstance should it innovate. Instead, he directed the innovation team to be made up of evangelists, agitators, coaches, and guides that teach the whole company to innovate. The Innosight Team (authors of Eat, Sleep, Innovate) recommend a habit-hacking approach using what they refer to as BEANs (behaviour enablers, artefacts and nudges) in order to change the mindset and behaviours of an organisation to become more innovative.

The thing I like about the BEAN approach is that it aligns with habit hacking, in fact it’s pretty-well aligned with behaviour hacking used in tech anyway as it reflects how technology is programmed to be addictive. For those of you who aren’t aware, I’m sorry to break it to you, but the algorithms used to make slot machines so addictive are the same algorithms (and psychology) used to make your favourite apps so addictive. You’re pulling the lever on the slot machine every time you refresh your Twitter feed. You can read all about how to do this in a nice little book called Hooked by Nir Eyal, or do a little Google on Captology 🙂

Similar to BEANs (behaviour enablers, artefacts and nudges) is this simple habit loop Clear refers to in Atomic Habits (very similar, in fact, to Samsara, the cycle of suffering outlined by the Buddha—Namaste.)

At least bad habits and spirals of not-so-innovative behaviour are a very natural phenomena—something that humans have been aware of and learning to tame for thousands of years (re: Buddha). I don’t know about you, but that gives me a little comfort—it feels like something we can tame.

The key to hacking habits on a personal level is to watch out for the cues and cravings, and buddhist meditation practices teach you to practice awareness so that you can disrupt the process of cue, craving and response by becoming aware of your cues and choosing to respond differently to those cues. The same practice can be done within an organisation, it just requires a bit of hacking and coordination.

It can help by doing a little disruption, like raising a flag and admitting that what you’ve been doing isn’t working, and socialise it. Just like an individual must bring awareness to their actions and get real about their problems, so too can we do this within an organisation. One tip I love in Eat, Sleep, Innovate is to do a ‘Zombie Amnesty’ – this is a ritual to get real and put to bed a project or idea that just wasn’t working. The idea reminds me of a meet-up I used to attend called “Fuck-Up Nights” where a group of professionals would come together to shares ways in which we’d fucked up in our careers and it was so wonderful and cathartic and real! The point is to take something that is a failure, and make a symbolic event out of it, extract and share the learnings and move on. I really think it’d be awesome to see more organisations doing this type of thing on a regular basis—celebrate failures rather than bury them. I think it’s especially helpful for newcomers and young people just starting their careers to see and hear the failures and know that it’s definitely ok, it’s all part of the process of growth.

Another disruptor is of course having workshops and maybe running some internal research to get a pulse on the organisation to understand the current state of behavioural patterns that are existing amongst teams. This would be like an individual who decides they want to get healthy by training for a marathon having a few sessions with a nutritionist and a trainer in order to get some clarity on how best to train. The same can be done within an organisation. Workshops and check-ins are a good way to surface blockers and make agreements on how to proceed.

Then following that I think that it’s important to remember the lesson from Atomic Habits—change takes time, but small incremental changes and habits create compound value overtime. Use behaviour enablers like routines, rituals and check-ins and create checklists and guides to help maintain focus in a positive direction. Nudges help to support behavioural change, this is anything you can do to encourage, automate and optimise for positive behavioural output. A nudge for an individual might simply be keeping their running shoes by their bed so they get up and go for a run first thing in the morning. In an organisation this might be office design, games, meet-ups to share stories of failures and successes. Artefacts are useful in reinforcing both. For the individual training for a marathon, they might make a vision board of pictures of marathons as a visual artefact of what they want to achieve. In an organisation this can be images, tokens, trophies, pictures, visuals, anything that can be used to help nurture the desired narrative of an organisation wanting to become more innovative.

Growth Mindset vs. Survival Mindset

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, is a great example of someone who truly understands growth mindset. Our shadows, and our organisations’ shadows, keep us in survival mode. When we stay in our comfort zones, when we lack the courage to take risks, we are functioning in a survival mindset—we’re holding on to what makes us feel comfortable and safe. Individuals do this. Businesses do this. It’s natural, but it’s a useless place to be.

A growth mindset means we’re taking risks, we’re trying new things, we’re willing to fail and fail proudly because we know that with every set-back comes a lesson, or more time to improve, or a new perspective. You can’t gain these things if you don’t try.

An excerpt from Eat, Sleep, Innovate about Nadella:

Soon after being named CEO, Nadella spoke at a large gathering of market-facing Microsoft employees in Orlando to describe his view of the power of a growth mindset and its connection to culture:

“We can have all the bold ambitions. We can have all the bold goals. We can aspire to our new mission. But it’s only going to happen if we live our culture, if we teach our culture. And to me that model of culture is not a static thing. It is about a dynamic learning culture. In fact, the phrase we use to describe our emerging culture is ‘growth mindset,’ because it’s about every individual, every one of us having that attitude—that mindset—of being able to overcome any constraint, stand up to any challenge, making it possible for us to grow and, thereby, for the company to grow.”

In essence, Nadella is saying that financial performance was a lagging variable that resulted from pursuing individual growth. “I was not talking bottom line growth,” Nadella wrote in Hit Refresh. “I was talking about our individual growth. We will grow as a company if everyone, individually, grows in their roles and in their lives… I had essentially asked employees to identify their innermost passions and to connect them in some way to our new mission and culture.”

Eat, Sleep, Innovate p168

What is innovation?

Too often I’ve seen innovation get confused with the idea of leveraging a flashy new tool or gadget, like ‘what can we do with Microsoft Hololens?’ or ‘How can we save the music industry with blockchain?’ and, to be fair, new tools, gadgets and technologies certainly do have a role in delivering innovation, but they are not where innovation lies. Innovation is mindset, it’s about confronting the shadows and enabling ourselves to seek the state of the art by adopting a growth mindset—committing to learning, failing, learning some more, sharing ideas, collaborating. I think innovative solutions emerge when you find ways to bridge the gap between technology and the needs of humans, but in order to get to that place you’ve got to be willing to learn. And to encourage a culture of learning and growth, you’ve got to make it a practice—there’s no one-off event that can make it happen. Just like there’s no magic pill that will turn you into a marathon runner overnight.

To close, I’d like to repeat a quote you’ll have seen earlier, but it’s a good one to remember…

“…go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.”

Jacob Riis