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Book review: Innovation leaders

Innovation Leaders: How Senior Executives Stimulate, Steer and Sustain Innovation

Jean-Philippe Deschamps

Jossey-Bass, $37.99

There's a quote at the top of Chicago's John Hancock Centre that we should bring back to Hamilton and put up on every billboard.

The quote, from the late Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow, headlines the history of Chicago exhibit in the Hancock Observatory.

"Chicago builds itself up, knocks itself down, scrapes away the rubble and starts over."

Taking in Chicago's skyline from 94 stories up, you can't argue with the results.

So how about Hamilton? Are we ready to knock ourselves down, scrape away the rubble and start over? And do we have a choice?

The Conference Board of Canada just put out a report that warns Hamilton is headed for hard times. Our city is poised to have the slowest growing economy of 13 large Canadian census metropolitan areas and our manufacturing output is expected to fall 7.3 per cent. The Conference Board says Hamilton's real gross domestic product is forecast this year to increase by just 0.3 per cent and that growth rate could be even more tepid in the wake of recent layoffs and plant closings.

That's bad news for anyone who's looking for work or worried about job security.

Now would be a good time for Hamiltonians to start failing and doing it as fast and frequently as we possibly can. It's not about throwing in the towel. Failure leads to innovation and innovation leads to solutions that'll create new jobs, new opportunities and a new start for Hamilton.

Listen to this trio of leading innovators, who caution against risk aversion and a fear of failure.

"Tolerate mistakes," says Daniel Borel, co-founder and former chairman of the board of Logitech. "Accept failure, otherwise you'll kill innovation. There is a fine line between success and failure.

Sometimes, it's just luck. But the good news is that you learn more from failures than successes. In our business, you would rather be right six times out of 10 than two times out of two to make sure you do not miss out on opportunities." The key is to learn from failure and make fewer mistakes than others going forward.

"Most of the great breakthroughs come through failure, through an experiment that does not go as you thought it would," says Bill George, former CEO and board chair of Medtronics. "The experiments that go as you think they would, all they do is confirm previous knowledge. The experiment that doesn't go that way leads you to say, 'Oh, what can I learn from that?' and then you play that to making it better."

And then there's IDEO, America's leading design studio and innovation culture evangelists. The company's motto? Fail often to succeed early.

A tolerance for risk-taking and failure is just one of six innovation imperatives, according to author Jean-Philippe Deschamps, an innovation management practitioner with 40 years of international experience.

Those innovation imperatives include:

  • An insatiable urge to try new things.

  • An obsession with redefining and adding more value.

  • The ability to manage risks.

  • Speed in spotting opportunities and in project execution.

  • A shift in focus and mindset from optimizing business to creating business.

You also need the right folks leading the charge. Innovation has two parts, says Deschamps. There's a creative front end, fuelled by imagination and a disciplined back end focused on implementation.

Deschamps says few innovators are great at both dreaming and doing.

"These processes are very different in nature and require very different and complementary talents, attitudes and styles of leadership. Indeed, some observers suggest that the front end of innovation calls for 'question-asking' leaders, while the back end requires 'problem-solving' ones."

Front end innovation requires an extreme openness to new ideas, acceptance of out-of-the-box thinking, a predisposition to networking and a willingness to experiment and learn.

On the other hand, back end innovation needs rigour in analysis, an implementation focus, operational knowledge, an ability to coordinate multiple functions, speed in decision-making and pragmatism in managing risk.

The trick is to put together a team of innovators who can pull off seamless handoffs between imagination and implementation.

And then there's the need to create the right conditions and a can-do climate for generating and diffusing bottom-up and top-down innovation.

Grassroots innovation is idea-fuelled and entrepreneur driven. Top-down innovation is vision-fuelled and ambition driven.

In truly innovative companies, innovation is moving both up and down, with a whole lot of small bets coming up from the frontlines and a few big bets being championed by visionary leaders who rally the troops.

So if we want to replace lost jobs with new and better jobs, make Hamilton the best place to raise a child, create Canada's most sustainable community and turn Steeltown into the capital city of Innovation Nation, we need to start rolling the dice, failing fast and furious and batting six for 10.

Book review: Art of Possibility

The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life

Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

Penguin Books,$21

I apologize in advance. I don't mean to be rude, disruptive or disrespectful. But the next time you inflict death by PowerPoint and drone on and on and on about 101 slightly interesting and not so relevant facts and stats, I may jump up and shout out "enough". Spare us the pain and anguish. Stop talking. Leave us be. We can't take it any more.

I blame TED for my intolerance. Or more specifically, TED.com. It's a website with more than 200 videotaped presentations from 24 years worth of Technology Entertainment Design conferences. Folks pay $6,000 to go to this annual conference and, before whipping out your MasterCard and booking a flight on WestJet, you should know that the 2009 get-together in Long Beach is already sold out and wait-listed.

So what's the appeal? The TED conference organizers assemble all-star lineups of deep thinkers with big ideas and doers who've done remarkable things. Researchers and rock stars, entrepreneurs and educators, trailblazers and mavericks take to the stage and have just 18 minutes to deliver the talk of their lives.

And they deliver. No death by PowerPoint here. No 101 slightly useful stats and facts. Just unadulterated and inspired storytelling that connects with your head and your heart. If you want to experience presentations done right, check out TED.com.

My favourite TED talk, and the best presentation I've yet to experience, is delivered by Benjamin Zander. The conductor of the Boston Philharmonic since 1979, Zander is world renowned as a guest conductor and guest speaker on leadership. A champion of classical music, Zander packs the house with his preconcert talks.

According to his TED.com bio, Zander has two passions — classical music and helping the rest of us realize our untapped love for classical music and for all new possibilities, experiences and connections.

"Imagine Martin Luther King saying, 'I have a dream … But I don't know if the others will buy it," Zander tells the audience early on in his talk. Watching Zander work his magic on the crowd will inspire you to read the book he co-authored with spouse Rosamund Stone Zander.

In their book and in his TED talk, Zander leads off with a story about a shoe factory in the early 1900s that sends two marketing scouts to a remote African village. The scouts are searching for new markets to grow the business. One scout sends back a telegram saying "situation hopeless, no one wears shoes". The other scout fires off a telegram declaring "glorious business opportunity, they have no shoes." The first marketer believes the situation is hopeless. The second marketer sees abundance and possibility. Why the difference? And who would you rather have working for your organization?

"Each scout comes to the scene with his own perspectives; each returns telling a different tale," say the Zanders. "Indeed, all of life comes to us in narrative form; it's a story we tell."

It's an invented story that we can rewrite at any time. "Many of the circumstances that seem to block us in our daily lives may only appear to do so based on a framework of assumptions we carry with us," say the Zanders. "Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances and new pathways come into view. Find the right framework and extraordinary accomplishment becomes an everyday experience."

The Zanders outline a series of possibility-expanding practices that'll make the extraordinary an ordinary part of our day. Here's one practice to mull over before rolling out the next round of performance appraisals at work.

At the New England Conservatory where Zander teaches, every student automatically gets an A to start the year before any tests or assignments are handed out.

"After 25 years of teaching, I still came up against the same obstacle," says Zander. "Class after class, the students would be in such a chronic state of anxiety over the measurement of their performance that they would be reluctant to take risks with their playing."

So Zander, in consultation with his wife, decided to start the school year in September by giving every student an A. In return, students wrote Zander personal letters dated next May that began with "Dr. Mr. Zander, I got my A because…". Students then had to tell, in as much detail as possible and in the past tense, how they earned their extraordinary grade. What were the insights gained, lessons learned and milestones reached? And Zander told students he was especially interested in the person they became next spring. What were the attitudes, feelings and world view of someone who's done all they wanted to do and become all they wanted to be?

Zander recalls a Taiwanese exchange student at the conservatory who was ranked 68 out of 70 in his music class back home. Zander gave the student an A. This initially confused the student. But then the student decided he was far happier being an A than a 68 out of 70.

"This student, in a brilliant flash, had hit upon the secret of life. He had realized that labels he had been taking so seriously are human inventions. It's all a game. The number 68 is invented and the A is invented, so we might as well choose to invent something that brightens our life and the lives of people around us."

Giving an A brings people together under a common purpose and recognizes that everyone wants to contribute and make a difference.

Without that shared vision, we're driven by our own agendas, sticking close with folks who think like us and ignoring anyone who seems to have nothing in common with us.

"When you give an A, you find yourself speaking to people not from a place of measuring how they stack up against your standards, but from a place of respect that gives them room to realize themselves. An A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into. The A is an invention that creates possibility for both mentor and student, manager and employee, or for any human interaction."

And here's one other practice worth paying attention to. The Zanders tell a story about two prime ministers who are deep in a conversation about matters of state. Suddenly, a bureaucrat bursts into the room, stamps his feet and bangs his fists. One of the leaders tells the apoplectic bureaucrat to remember Rule Number Six. The bureaucrat immediately calms down and leaves with a bow and an apology. The other prime minister asks about the secret of Rule Number Six. "Very simple," says his colleague. "Rule Number Six is don't take yourself so goddamn seriously." When asked about the other rules, the prime minister says there are no other rules.

Lighten up, say the Zanders. "Humour and laughter are perhaps the best way we can get over ourselves. Humour can bring us together around our inescapable foibles, confusions and miscommunications, and especially over the ways in which we find ourselves acting entitled and demanding, or putting other people down, or flying at each other's throats."

So if you're stuck with a possibility-limiting you win, I lose scarcity mindset, spend some time at TED.com and then read what the Zanders have to say about transforming our professional and personal lives.

10 reasons Gen Xers are unhappy at work

I've yet to work in an organization where you could actually field an entire company softball team with all the Gen Xers on staff. At best, we could field a team of 5 players, with no one covering 3rd base, left field and catcher.

As Boomers start retiring, employers shouldn't count on Gen Xers to enthuastically step up to the plate. We may be able to take on leadership roles but are we willing?

Courtesy of Tamara Erickson and Business Week, the 10 reasons why Gen Xers are unhappy at work:

1. X'ers' corporate careers got off to a slow start and many are still feeling the pain. You graduated when the economy was slow and the huge bulge of Boomers had already grabbed most of the key jobs.

2. When you were teens, X'ers witnessed adults in your lives being laid off from large corporations, as re-engineering swept through the business lexicon. This engendered in most X'ers a lack of trust in large institutions and a strong desire for a life filled with back-up plans, just in case.

3. Most corporate career paths "narrow" at the top —the perceived range of options diminishes as individuals become increasingly specialized in specific functions or roles. X'ers crave options, which assuage your concerns about being backed into a corner, laid off from one path. The sense of narrowing career paths and increased vulnerability is often most palpable at the transition from middle to upper management—just where many of you are today. This step also often brings demands for relocation and separation from established social networks—an additional assault on your sense of self-reliance.

4. Just your luck—the economy was slow when you entered the workforce and now its slowing once again—just as you are standing at the threshold of senior management. Stepping into leadership roles right now looks more difficult and the roles themselves, more vulnerable than they have at any point in the past decade.

5. And then there are those pesky Gen Y's. Many X'ers are charged with "managing" Y's which—let's face it—is an impossible task, at least if you define "manage" as controlling their channels of communication. While vying for promotions and trying to look good, many of you feel that Y's are doing an end run around.

6. X'ers are, in fact, surrounded by a love fest—and not feeling the love. As I wrote in last week's post, Boomers and Y's are learning from each other—and enjoying their interactions. It's easy to feel left out.

7. X'ers are the most conservative cohort in today's workforce—and you're surrounded by "shake ‘em up" types on both sides. In your personal lives, X'ers are not particularly keen on rules, but you had to follow them in the workplace—and you resent it when others now don't. It seems unfair to be rewriting corporate etiquette when you've had to toe the line for so long.

8. Many X'ers' are guarding a closely held secret: you're not all as comfortable with the technology that is changing the way things are done as everyone seems to think you are. While it's perfectly acceptable for Boomers to feign ignorance and ask for help, it's embarrassing for X'ers to do so.

9. And if Boomer colleagues are annoying, the Boomer parents of your Y reports are down-right over-the-top. X'ers can't believe the frequency of Y-parent interactions and are deeply turned off by parents who make their presence felt in the workplace.

10. Finally, your own parenting pressures are at a peak. You're deeply committed to spending more time with your kids than your parents did or were able to spend with you, but juggling is getting more and more difficult.

Trouble at the office?

Business Week has put out their special Business@Work issue.

Great articles on work-life balance, staying creative, dealing with toxic bosses, rigid bureaucracies, generation gaps and time management survival strategies.

From Good to Great author Jim Collins…"as I look at the most effective people we've studied, a 'stop-doing' list or not-to-do list is more important than a to-do list, because the to-do list is infinite. For every big, annual priority you put on the to-do list, you need a corresponding item on the stop-doing list."

From Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It authors Cali Ressier and Jody Thompson…"Stop assuming that if someone's body is in the building, you are getting something out of their mind. As a business leader, would you rather have someone do rock-star work in less time or mediocre work in more time?".

And from The No Asshole Rule author Robert Sutton…"most people, regardless of their personality traits, will automatically and mindlessly start feeling and displaying the emotions expressed by the people around them. If you want to avoid acting like a nasty and insensitive creep, treat it like a contagious disease."

Sutton adds that research shows 3 things happen when people are put in positions of power:

1. they focus more on satisfying their own needs

2. they focus less on the needs of their "underlings"

3. they act like the "rules" others are expected to follow don't apply to them.