Book review: Out of our Minds: Learning to Be Creative

This review originally ran in the Hamilton Spectator.

Out of our Minds: Learning to Be Creative

By Ken Robinson

John Wiley & Sons


My daughter was a happy camper this summer.

She spent her days dancing, rehearsing and performing in plays, productions and talent shows.

My daughter was in her element. Dancing has long been her creative outlet. She’s at her happiest when she’s on stage. It’s where she shines the brightest. Dancing fills my daughter with grace and brings a real joy to both her and her parents.

Yet watching my daughter’s Friday performances this summer left me frustrated on two counts.

In a few weeks, my daughter returns to school. She won’t spend any part of her days dancing. She’ll have to leave an important part of who she is at home. My daughter doesn’t dance at school because dancing falls on the bottom rung on the hierarchy of academic disciplines. It’s not tested so it’s not taught. Dancing doesn’t factor into the standardized testing that’s used to sort, rate, rank and process students. Her natural abilities aren’t being engaged or valued. And I’m bracing for the day when a teacher or guidance counsellor unwisely questions and challenges my daughter’s ambition to be a ballet instructor.

Fortunately, my wife and I can afford to send our daughter to summer camps and to the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts where she adores her teachers and feels very much at home. But not every family is so lucky. There are too many kids who never get to discover, much less develop, their special talent. If they’re resilient, they’ll survive their education and find their true calling beyond the classroom. If not, they’ll drop out and, even worse, spend the rest of their lives believing that they’re not creative, that they’re not full of potential and that they can’t contribute, make a difference or add value to our community.

That represents a huge waste of our most valuable resource, says Sir Ken Robinson, author and professor emeritus of education at the University of Warwick, in his fully updated and revised edition of Out of Our Minds. “Our best resource is to cultivate our singular abilities of imagination, creativity and innovation. As the world spins faster and faster, organizations everywhere say they need people who can think creatively, communicate and work in teams: people who are flexible, and quick to adapt.”

These people are hard to find. It’s not that we grow out of creativity. Robinson says we’re educated out of it.

We continue to use a seriously outdated educational system that was created to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution. We don’t need educational reform, says Robinson. We need a wholesale transformation.

“In the interests of the industrial economies, we have subjected generations of people to narrow forms of education that have marginalized some of their most important talents and qualities,” says Robinson. “We have wasted much of what people have to offer because we have not seen the value of it. Along the way, we have jeopardized the balance of communities by not recognizing how our different talents and passions sustain and enrich each other.”

We need to move from an impersonal system built on the primacy of linearity, conformity and standardization to one where the focus and value is on entrepreneurship, innovative and creativity. The future belongs to those who can imagine, rethink and create it.

“Current approaches to education and training are hobbled by assumptions about intelligence and creativity that have squandered the talents and stifled the creative confidence of untold numbers of people,” says Robinson.

“The whole process of elementary and high school education is a protracted process of university entrance. Those who go to university rather than straight into work or vocational training programs are always seen as the real successes of the system. You might conclude that the primary purpose of compulsory education is to produce university professors.” We educate our kids from the neck up and to the left side of their brains.

South of the border, 30 per cent of students who enter Grade 9 don’t graduate. In some areas, the dropout rate hits 50 per cent. As we learned through this paper’s Code Red series, dropout rates are equally high in some Hamilton neighbourhoods.

“It’s wrong to blame the students for these numbers. Any other standardized process with a 30 per cent wastage rate would be condemned as a failure. In the case of education, it isn’t a waste of inert commodities; it’s a waste of living, breathing people. Those who don’t graduate from high school are offered few alternatives apart from low-income work if they can find it; or long-term unemployment if they cannot.”

Robinson sets out an agenda for creating an educational system that unlocks and develops creativity. “When students find something they enjoy and can excel in, they do better in education generally,” says Robinson. “Transforming education is not easy but the price of failure is more than we can afford, while the benefits of success are more than we can imagine.”

Education and training are the keys to the future. But as Robinson points out, a key can be turned in two directions. Turn it one way and we lock resources away. Turn it the other way and we release resources and give people back to themselves.

“To realize our true creative potential — in our organizations, in our schools and in our communities — we need to think differently about ourselves and to act differently towards each other,” says Robinson. “We must learn to be creative.”

My daughter is one of the lucky ones. She’s realizing her creative potential albeit beyond the classroom. And whether she follows through on her dream of becoming a ballet teacher or chooses a different path, she’ll always carry with her the creative spirit she’s developing when she slips on her ballet shoes at the conservatory. Here’s hoping your children have the same glorious opportunity to be fully in their element. The future health and prosperity of our community depends on it.

Book review: The Great Workplace

This review originally ran in the Aug. 1 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Great Workplace: How to Build it, How to Keep it and Why it Matters

By Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin



Maybe you’re tone deaf when it comes to singing your employees’ praises.

Maybe you believe the troops should be thanking you for their steady jobs and decent paycheques.

Or maybe you’re just too busy with meetings, reports and paperwork to give thanks for a job well done.

That’s your choice. But here’s the deal. You can invest some of your time every day saying thank you in big and small ways. Or you can waste every minute managing for compliance and dealing with the headaches and hassles of constant turnover.

A demographic shift of epic proportions is headed our way. By all accounts, there won’t be enough Gen Xers and Millennials to fill the high-skilled jobs vacated by retiring Baby Boomers.

Embedding recognition into your organizational DNA will help you weather the storm. Show the love to your best and brightest and they’ll be less likely to stray.

But if you’re unwilling or unable to formally and informally recognize your staff, you risk turning your workplace into the Land of Misfit Toys. You’ll be left with a motley crew of malcontents and nonperformers who have nowhere else to go.

Effective recognition starts at the top with strong leadership. “Where you invest your time and attention as a leader serves as a powerful model for what employees see as important and meaningful,” say authors Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin, who work with the Great Place to Work Institute. Established in 1991, the institute is a global research and consulting firm that publishes annual lists of the best places to work in 40 countries.

“When a leader focuses time and attention on their people’s successful performance behavior, employees respond with even greater energy and commitment.”

Yet based on the institute’s research and their own consulting experience, Burchell and Robin claim the majority of leaders and organizations don’t earn a passing grade on formal and informal recognition. “Most people aren’t thanked enough for their contributions, instead they are rarely praised at all for their good work and extra effort.”

Recognition demonstrates respect. And respect, together with credibility, fairness, pride and camaraderie, are the key dimensions that make up the institute’s tried, true and tested Great Places to Work Model.   

Employees at great place to work believe five things to be true. They believe in their leaders. They believe they are valued members of the organization. They believe that everyone plays by the same rules. They believe that they contribute something meaningful. And they believe the people they work with are great.

Trust underpins the Great Places to Work Model. Open and honest two-way communications is the place to start for leaders looking to build buy-in.  

“If you were to work on one single aspect of a great workplace, you’d likely make far-reaching improvements by strengthening two-way communications,” recommend Burchell and Robin. “Two-way communication is arguably the most important dimension of the Great Place to Work Model. It is foundational to employee perceptions of credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie. How can you believe your leaders are competent in the first place if you have no idea what they’re up to?”

Communications is about more than setting expectations, giving employees the information they need to do their job and letting them how their performance measures up. It’s also about giving straight answers to tough questions, being accessible and approachable and actually listening to what staff have to say.

A great workplace is built by great leaders.  “In the best companies, leaders at all levels have a strong commitment to creating strong ties between the employee and the organization. Indeed, enhancing trust, pride and camaraderie in the workplace is the central task of effective leadership in today’s organization.”

Great leaders also understand the need to balance the tensions between responsibility and humility, passion and patience, relationships and results.

“As a leader, you must accept responsibility for your role in culture,” say Burchell and Robin.  “You are the chief role model and trust builder, and people look to your behavior and decisions for guidance on their own behavior and decision making. But you also need some degree of humility that allows you to reach out and enlist people. Your responsibility needs to become everyone’s responsibility if you want to create a great workplace.”

If your organization is less than great, there’s still time and hope for a turnaround. Burchell and Robin offer a proven gameplan for shoring up your employees’ relationships with you, their work and their colleagues.

And if you’re not feeling the love at work, Burchell and Robin will introduce you to employers that get it right when it comes to credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie. It’s about to become a seller’s market so don’t settle for anything less than a great place to work.

Review: Being Strategic

This review first ran in the July 18 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Being Strategic: Plan for success, outthink your competitors, stay ahead of the change

By Erika Andersen

St. Martin's Griffin


Here’s a quick and easy test to see if you’re a strategic thinker.

A new initiative is ramping up at work. You’ve been assigned to the project team.

Within the first 10 minutes of the team’s inaugural meeting, do you propose launching a newsletter, blog, Facebook group, Twitter feed and weekly podcast?

Do you pitch a contest where every employee is invited to design a logo for the project?

Do you then lay out plans to put the winning logo on a shipping container worth of coffee mugs, key chains, mouse pads, lapel pins, pens, paper weights, mantle clocks, picture frames, golf shirts, ball caps, note pads, temporary tattoos, laptop bags, Christmas tree ornaments and other giveaways for staff?

Do you walk the team through the minute by minute logistics of an all-staff pig roast barbecue in the head office parking lot featuring a marching band, clowns, balloons, dunk tank, carnival rides, circus acts, performances by the last five winners of American Idol and a flyover by the Canadian Forces’ Snowbirds?

Or, instead of a laundry list of tactics where money and common sense are no obstacles, do you convince your colleagues to first define and agree on the problem that your team has been assigned to solve?

If the latter, you’re a strategic thinker and a godsend to senior management who want their people to work smarter and actually deliver stellar results on time and on budget.

All of us want to be strategic. Most of us have thought, or said aloud, in a meeting mired in the weeds that we need to be more strategic. Yet few of us can agree on what it means.

Here’s a good working definition, courtesy of author Erika Andersen, founder of an organizational development firm that helps big-name clients develop winning strategies.

Strategic thinking is about consistently making those core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future.

“Being strategic involves a way of thinking and a set of skills that are applicable to almost any decision, large or small, professional or personal,” says Anderson.

You start thinking that way and building the required skill set by following a five-step process.

Start by defining the core challenge. What’s the real problem you’re trying to solve? The goal you’re trying to reach? Don’t jump to solutions until you’ve nailed the problem.

“Until you have a clear sense of the problem to be solved, it’s impossible to envision what ‘solved’ would look like — that is, the future you want to create.”

Define the challenge by answering three questions. What isn’t working? How can we …? And would this feel like success?

Next, clarify what is. Get a clear sense of where you’re starting from relative to your challenge.

“People tend to err in one of two directions,” says Andersen. “Either they look too narrowly, overfocusing on one or two aspects of the ‘what is’ or they focus too broadly, trying to look at every single aspect of their current reality.”

Look too narrowly and you won’t have all the information you need. Focus too broadly and you’ll get buried in data. And always be what Andersen calls a fair witness. Are you stating things as they really are or as you’d like them to be? Are you neglecting or ignoring uncomfortable and inconvenient facts?

Now focus on what’s the hope.

“For most people, this is the fun part of being strategic: envisioning possibilities. It’s also a key element of most successful lives. People who achieve important goals rarely do it by accident. Aim for a reasonable aspiration. Pick a time frame for success. And imagine yourself in that future.

Face what’s in the way. Take a step back. Look at where you’re starting from, where you want to go and what’s between you and the future. By knowing this, you can figure out what you need to get over, around and through.

And finally, determine the path. Set strategies first, tactics second. Strategies are the roadway. Tactics are the asphalt.

“This step of the process is central to being strategic — and is the point where many people, even if they’ve made it this far, are most likely to run off the rails and just start doing stuff.”

Clear strategies serve to filter and screen tactics. To craft winning strategies, always test for feasibility, impact and timeliness. Can you do what you’re proposing? Is this the best use of limited resources? And is this something that can, and needs to be, done now?

The temptation to jump straight to tactics and create the illusion of progress can be overwhelming. But do yourself, your team and your organization a favour.

Focus first on defining the challenge. Clarify what is. Envision what could be. Face what’s in the way. Find the right path. And banish anyone from the team who suggests a logo contest.

Book review: Onward — How Starbucks fought for its life without losing its soul

Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul

By Howard Schultz



Now here’s a cool way to brainstorm.

You walk into a ballroom. You’re given a black sharpie, a white iPod and a pack of index cards.

You hit play on the iPod and start listening to Come Together. You walk over to a large table covered with enlargements of album covers and photos from The Beatles.

You flip over one of the index cards and you’re asked to answer the question what does it take to reinvent an icon?

That’s the exercise Howard Schultz did a week into his second tour of duty as CEO of Starbucks in 2008.  Schultz had stepped aside almost eight years earlier from the company he had built from 11 stores into a ubiquitous global brand. He was back to reinvent an icon.

“It had never been my intention to return as CEO,” says Shultz. “But I have always said that people are responsible for what they see and hear. I could not be a bystander as Starbucks slipped toward mediocrity, especially since I had played a role in and bore some responsibility for our troubles.

Schultz started to worry that something was wrong with Starbucks back in 2006. “The merchant’s success depends on his or her ability to tell a story. What people see and hear or smell or do when they enter a space guides their feelings, enticing them to celebrate whatever the seller has to offer. So when I walked into more and more Starbucks stores and sensed that we were no longer celebrating coffee, my heart sank. Our customers deserve better.”

Many little things were dangerously slipping by unnoticed or unacknowledged. “How could one imperfect cup of coffee, one unqualified manager, or one poorly located store matter when millions of cups of coffee were being served in tens of thousands of stores? We forgot that ‘ones’ add up.”

Schultz returned to the helm just as Starbucks posted its worst three-month performance since the company had gone public in 1992. For 16 years, same-store sales had grown five per cent or better. Sales were now at an anaemic one per cent. “Sales were in free fall. Every day, around the country, fewer and fewer people were coming into our stores. And those who did were spending less money than in the past.”

Schultz wasted no time getting back to basics or, as he called it, getting in the mud. He hung a poster in the boardroom that showed a pair of dirt-smugged hands palm up framed with the words “the world belongs to the few people who are not afraid to get their hands dirty.”

His first order of business? Discontinuing warm breakfast sandwiches.  The stink of burnt cheese overpowered the aroma of coffee and that drove Schultz to distraction. “Despite the sandwiches’ loyal following, and disagreement among Starbucks’ top managers, I was convinced this was right for business.”

In February of 2008, Starbucks closed all of its 7,100 for three hours to retrain every barista on how to make espresso.

Shultz drafted and rolled out a transformation agenda with seven big moves for Starbucks. Be the undisputed coffee authority. Engage and inspire our partners. Ignite the emotional attachment with our customers. Expand our global presence while making each store the heart of the local neighbourhood. Be a leader in ethical sourcing and environmental impact. Create innovative growth platforms worthy of our coffee. And deliver a sustainable economic model.

Starbucks launched a loyalty card, a new brew, instant coffee and, a website where customers and employees could submit big and small innovative ideas. More than 100,000 ideas have been submitted so far by 250,000 registered members. “Starbucks is at its best when we lead, not follow, when we reinvent categories, create new rituals and transform an industry.”

Some hard decisions also got made.  Six hundred stores closed and there were deep job cuts at head office. “One particular statistic raised my ire,” says Shultz. “Seventy per cent of all stores slated for closure had been opened in the past three years during the aggressive growth period when we opened 2,300 locations. We were closing almost 20 per cent of our newest stores. A lesson resonated. Success is not sustainable if it’s defined by how big you become. The number that matters is one. One cup. One customer. One partner. One experience at a time.”

By the third quarter of 2009, Starbucks had its first earnings growth since the first quarter of 2009. The company earned $152 million, compared to $7 million a year earlier. The company had cut $580 million from its cost structure and improvements to supply management management saved another $400 million.

The transformation was gaining traction and an icon was reborn.

“Starbucks has regained a healthy balance with a culture that celebrates creativity and discipline, entrepreneurship and process, as well as rigorous innovation,” says Shultz. “But perhaps the most vital thing that came out of the past two years has been the confidence we gained knowing that we could preserve our values despite the hardships we faced. Holding fast to those values steadied us throughout the tumultuous journey.”

This is a must-read for every entrepreneur, aspiring entrepreneur and anyone who’s trying to rescue, reinvent and renew an organization.  If you’ve got the passion and the vision, the rewards will be far greater than all of the tough calls, heavy lifting and muddy hands.


This review first ran in the May 8th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

You Can't Fire Everyone

By Hank Gilman

Portfolio ($32.50)

Congratulations on your promotion and welcome to middle management.

For your orientation, here’s a quick introduction to your new team.

Kent has a great sense of humour that will be entirely at your expense.

Jane mostly keeps to herself, although her recurring bouts of silent sobbing will, if ignored or acknowledged, become full-on meltdowns that weird out the rest of the staff.

George had an incredibly productive year once back in the early 1980s and is overdue for a comeback.

Brenda is a fiercely loyal and devoted follower whose allegiance is to the manager we fired so we could hire you.

Rick is a real go-getter who’s well on his way to reaching 100,000 followers and 10,000 tweets on his “Things I’d rather be doing than working” Twitter feed.

Kate is a freshly minted grad and academic all-star who considers our organization and whatever work you try to assign to be beneath her and unworthy of her attention.

And Phil has moved past denial at not getting your job and has moved straight to anger.

So, welcome aboard. And while it’s last minute and your first day on the job, could you please submit your annual departmental budget with a 15 per cent clawback by 4 p.m. today?

Like parenting, there’s no instruction manual that comes with managing. And while there’s no shortage of advice, theory rarely translates into practice.

Hank Gilman can relate. He was a rock-solid, major league journalist who was promoted to editor with no training provided. Twenty years later and now the deputy managing editor at Fortune magazine, Gilman is sharing what he learned through trial and error in his book, You Can’t Fire Everyone.

“If any human resources type could be honest with you for a second, they’d tell you their company was filled with folks who have no clue how to be good bosses and make their people better at what they do,” says Gilman. “They scream, discourage, hire the wrong people, take all the credit for great work and blame their employees for their own mistakes. Most of them don’t even know how to fire someone the right way. Some of this misbehaviour can be blamed on really warped personalities. But the biggest problem is that no one ever trained them how to be good bosses — or any sort of bosses, for that matter.”

So here are some highlights from Gilman’s guide to effective managing in the real world.

You can’t be both boss and friend. Loneliness, says Gilman, is the penalty of leadership. “You can never have good, close friends on your staff once you start being their boss. If you’re doing your job the way you’re supposed to, you’ll invariably do something to fracture the relationship.”

Drop the myth that all employees are created equal. Treat your stars differently. “The hardest part of the job is making sure your most important employees stay happy and you get the most out of them.” Let your stars work from home on occasion, give them a nicer office and some extra time off. Above all, says Gilman, give them interesting work. “Your stars do the best work, typically are the hardest workers and tackle the projects with the highest degree of difficulty. They’re also a rare commodity.”

Avoid the cardinal sin of casting the right people for the wrong job. “It’s the ‘asking the short guy to dunk the basketball’ thing,” says Gilman. “The very worst thing you can do for anyone is put them in a position where they’re sure to fail.” Trust your gut. You’ll know what your staff can and can’t handle. Doling out assignments on the hope that your staff will rise to the challenge is a bad idea that will lead to predictable results.

Firing employees is unpleasant, unavoidable and one of the most important parts of your job, says Gilman. Terminate quickly. Don’t leave staff languishing in jobs they have no hope of excelling at.

And don’t delegate the dirty work. “The best bosses always do the firing themselves. They want to show the rest of the staff that they’re not afraid to take on unpleasant tasks. You do not want to be perceived as a wimp.”

Always pay attention to how things look. Optics matter. “In boss land, how you behave and how things look is more important than almost everything else.”

Stand up for your staff. “Management is a lot about conflicts,” says Gilman. “Probably the toughest thing a manager has to do is stick up for his or her employees — largely because there’s not a lot of upside in terms of your own career advancement.” Don’t shy away from the unpleasant confrontations behind the scenes with your boss and peers.

One final piece of advice from Gilman. Don’t force your employees to abandon their families. “When workers feel like they have to ignore their husbands and wives and miss their kids’ after-school events because their boss has those expectations — or sets those expectations through example — that’s a big problem.”

Clock punching is silly, says Gilman. He doesn’t care when his staff come in. He doesn’t care when they leave or how many hours they put in. He only cares about getting the job done right and on time.

If you’re new to the management ranks, or looking for a new approach to leading the troops, give Gilman’s book a read. He’ll make your life easier with some battle-tested, practical advice.

Book review: The Improvisation Edge

This review originally ran in The Hamilton Spectator.

The Improvisation Edge: Secrets to Building Trust and Radical Collaboration at Work

By Karen Hough

Repeat after me.

Wow! That’s a great idea. Yes!

Let’s try again. Only this time, with a straight face.

Wow! That’s a great idea. Yes!

Sometime during the next month, we’re going to say it for real and out loud to someone who works up the courage to pitch an idea at work.

Now, seldom are heard such encouraging words. This goes a long way to explaining not only why the skies are so cloudy all day around the office, but why you’ve been seconded to yet another staff engagement and morale-boosting committee and why you’re booked for an offsite trust and team-building retreat.

We instinctively react to new ideas with the same enthusiasm as finding the in-laws unannounced on the front porch with their overnight bags.

Instead of a wow, we say not now. That’s an interesting idea but we don’t have the time. The budget. The people. We have other priorities. There’s too much on our plates. We tried or thought about that idea before and it didn’t fly. The idea will never work here. That idea solves a problem that’s not ours to worry about. Why don’t you go away and think about it some more?

But if you want to boost morale, engage the troops, build up the trust and forgiveness account and shore up communications, try saying wow, great idea and yes.

“By voicing the word yes, you are saying yes to possibility,” says author Karen Hough, founder and CEO of ImprovEdge. “Yes is not a literal commitment, as in ‘yes, we will’. It is a commitment to considering a possibility, as in ‘yes, we could.’ This means that every idea or contribution is considered valid.”

Having been a professional actor and done improv in Chicago for eight years, Hough now makes a career out of teaching improvisational skills offstage and in the corporate world. Nothing, says Hough, works better than improv at creating, earning and keeping trust. “Anyone can improvise, and anyone can learn to collaborate on an extreme level. Improvisers collaborate radically — their level of trust and the intensity of their work are far above and beyond normal teamwork. That sort of behaviour is the key to building, managing, showing and engendering trust.”

Hough says there are four transferable keys to success from the world of improv.

1. Create what Hough calls Yes! Space. You do this by saying “yes,” putting your inner critic on hold and making your support public. “By saying yes to ideas and contributions, just long enough to enable them to breathe and live for a while, you take a break from the critic ruling your interactions, and your positive example creates safety, trust and collaboration among your team.”

2. Break out the building blocks. Say “yes, and …” to new ideas. “This is where the skin in the game really happens,” says Hough. “Your creative juice, your connected idea and your responsibility for success all rely on the block that you bring.” Think of an idea as a brick. If you toss out a bunch of unrelated ideas, you end up with a pile of bricks. If you build off each other’s ideas, your bricks build a castle.

3. Build team equity. Don’t confuse equity and equality. Team equity is about having the right people in the right places and doing the right things. It’s not about giving everyone equal time and say and pretending that everyone has equal skills. Effective teams have a diversity of backgrounds, skills and strengths. Or, as Knute Rockne once said, “the secret is to work less as individuals and more as a team. As a coach, I play not my 11 best but my best 11.”

4. Get comfortable with the concept of “Oops to Eureka!,” what Hough calls the scariest concept of improv. Know that you’re OK if you screw up. “In improv, the best moments onstage often come right after a train wreck. That’s because people are impressed if you can do something brilliant with a mess.” Mistakes happen. It’s how you recover that matters.

While some of the exercises Hough puts her clients through may strike fear in your heart (one game has teams of three coworkers hopping around a room pretending to be a giant rabbit and shouting “bunny, bunny, bunny” non-stop), Hough offers practical advice if trust is lacking and there’s a failure to communicate on the work or home front.

“Improvisation, along with the skills and behaviours that are the breath and blood of improvisers, is the surest way to start working at a higher level, creating high-performance teams, exhibiting greater leadership behaviours and building and engendering trust at work.”

And it all starts with saying “Wow! That’s a great idea. Yes!”

Book review: Innovative Intelligence

This review originally ran in the March 28 issue of The Hamliton Spectator.

Innovative Intelligence: The Art and Practice of Leading Sustainable Innovation In Your Organization

By David Weiss and Claude Legrand

John Wiley & Sons


Innovation is important to the future success of your organization. Agree or disagree.

Your organization is effective at innovation. Yes or no?

Now let’s compare your answers with senior executives at 500 large organizations who were surveyed by authors David Weiss and Claude Legrand.

While 88 per cent of leaders agree that innovation is important, only 33 per cent say their organizations are effective when it comes to innovation.

So why the gap?

“The root cause of the innovation gap is the inability to effectively manage the complexity inherent in the knowledge economy,” say Weiss and Legrand, who lead firms specializing in innovation leadership and sustainable innovation.

“Enhancing the ability to lead through complexity will dramatically contribute to closing the innovation gap,” says Weiss and Legrand

The biggest obstacle to leading through complexity is the way leaders think today.”

If you’ve been tapped for a leadership role, chances are you’re an ace trouble-shooter. You have a proven track record of simplifying and fixing problems. You’re fast on your feet. You’ve been there, solved that. You religiously read Harvard Business Review. And you have a cavalry of consultants on speed dial for industrial-size clean-ups and salvage operations.

But there’s a world of difference between complicated problems and complex issues. In today’s knowledge economy, we’re up against increasingly unpredictable and unique challenges. The old rules no longer apply.  Complex issues tend to come with underlying and unchallenged assumptions. There are more moving parts, more chefs in the kitchen and more stakeholders at the table.

More than a few leaders confuse the complicated with the complex. And that gets them, and our organizations, into a mess of trouble. “Instead of focusing on the uniqueness of the complexity, which distinguished it from previous problems, the leader assumes that the problem is not unique, that the ambiguity can be ignored, and that a quick answer that was used before will suffice.”

Good luck with that. Falling back on the tried and true in the face of complexity is a surefire way to fall behind and turn the innovation gap into a canyon.

“The most effective way to lead through complexity is to apply innovative thinking to tap into the innovative intelligence of leaders, employees and their teams.”

Weiss and Legrand define innovative thinking as the process of solving problems by discovering, combining and arranging insights, ideas and methods in new ways. “Innovations are mostly derived from linking together separate ideas in new ways to gain insights into issues and to discover new solutions to problems.”

Innovative thinking is a four step process.

Step one is what Weiss and Legrand call building the framework. It’s a critical first step and one that too many of us overlook or rush to finish. At this first step, you create a project charter that defines the complex problem to be solved and your objective. You also set clear boundaries and decide how to measure success. “A clearly defined framework greatly increases the probability of a successful outcome,” says Weiss and Legrand. “No framework or an unclear framework almost guarantees failure or sub-optimal results.”

Step two is issue redefinition. This is where you strip a problem down to its root causes, make complexity manageable and identify the real issue to resolve.  “Simple answers to the right question are always preferable to brilliant answers to the wrong question.”

Step three is idea generation. A rigorous process and structured approach to resolving complex issues is essential, according to Weiss and Legrand.

 “The proponents of unstructured creativity tell fascinating stories about how a group of random people had great fun playing music or creating art and produced an innovative business idea. What they do not talk about are the many sessions spent arguing the issue rather than resolving it or the sessions where brilliant ideas were later shot down because they did not answer the real problem.”

Step four is implementation planning where you fine-tune the best solution. You do an honest assessment of risks and weaknesses. You make your pitch for approval and ensure a successful hand-off and roll-out. “Innovation is successful only when a solution is implemented successfully, not when an idea or a solution is identified. This is the main difference between creativity and innovation.”

Along with a four-step process for innovative thinking, Weiss and Legrand explore the essential elements for fostering a culture of innovation in any organization and the key role leaders play in making it happen.

“A leader needs to excel at facilitating innovative thinking rather than being the most innovative person,” say Weiss and Legrand. “A leader’s role is to raise the overall innovative thinking capacity of employees and teams so they understand a complex issue thoroughly before even considering a resolution. Most complex problems are unique, so a leader needs to excel at asking questions to expose the underlying assumptions and uniqueness of the issue that created the complexity.”

Book review: When the Headline is You

This review was orginally published in the March 14 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

When the Headline is You: An Insider’s Guide to Handling the Media

By Jeff Ansell

I happen to really like reporters. I like their slightly warped sense of humour, the bemused way they look at our mixed up world and their fearlessness in asking tough questions.

I trained to be a journalist. I did a brief and unspectacular stint as a cub reporter before crossing over to the dark side of public relations.

And I got very lucky and married a really good journalist. I get to be her arm candy at reporter retirement parties and journalism award shows.

Pitching good news stories to the press is pretty cool and it’s one of the best parts of my job.

Yet despite all of that, I still get nervous when reporters call to ask a few questions and get some clarification about a story they’re working on.

I get anxious because, just like author and former journalist Jeff Ansell, I know the media coverage will only be as good as my worst quote.

“Though someone answering a reporter’s questions may strike all the right notes for the majority of the interview, it takes only a single miscue to trigger disaster,” says Ansell. “The cut and thrust of a media interview is not subject to the rules of everyday chit-chat.”

Ansell says that when you and I have a conversation, we’re able to appreciate the context of everything we say to each other. But a reporter won’t include everything you say. “A journalist’s job is to separate the wheat from the chaff and sometimes it is only the chaff they seek to report. It all comes down to the edit.

“Reporters, along with editors and producers, decide who plays the hero or villain in a story,” says Ansell. “Supporting roles are available for the victim, witness, survivor, expert and goat – or as I like to call that character, the village idiot.”

So here’s what Ansell recommends you do to avoid being cast as the villain or village idiot.

Be friendly with the reporter right from the start. “If the reporter hears stress, irritation or anxiety in your voice, it could be an immediate tip-off that you may be less than co-operative and may, in fact, have something to hide.” Instead, convey a desire to be helpful and forthcoming. The reporter has a job to do and you have a story to tell.

Create a buffer zone for yourself. While the reporter will want you to drop everything and do the interview immediately, you’re entitled to a stoppage in play. Tell the reporter you’ll call back in a few minutes. Clear your head, focus your thoughts, take a few deep breaths and return the call.

You’re also entitled to ask the reporter questions. “The answers you get to these initial questions will provide insight into the content and context of the proposed interview and the resulting news story,” says Ansell. What’s the purpose of the interview, the overall objective of the story, and who else are you interviewing are all fair questions to ask a reporter.

Asking to see the questions in advance and demanding to review the story before it’s published or goes to air is way out of bounds and all but guarantees you a rough ride.

Ansell recommends heading into media interviews with something called a value compass. It’s a guide that will help you stay onside with messages that match up with your organization’s values. The compass takes into account the spokesperson’s nature and standards and the stakeholders’ emotion and well-being.

When it comes to dealing with bad news, always fess up if you’ve messed up. Aim to tell it first and fast. Be accessible and forthcoming with reporters. Lying low and avoiding the press is never a smart strategy.

Be among the most upset at what’s happened. Know that the facts will never trump the emotion that people are feeling, whether it’s anger or fear. Always show humility, give people a reason to trust you again and couple your obvious concern with a genuine commitment to action. Tell the reporter that you’re sorry about what happened and here’s what we’re doing to fix the problem.

Whatever messages you give, always use simple words. Keep your sentences short and avoid qualifiers. “Scratch your ‘but’,” advises Ansell. “Spokespeople say but far too much and often with harmful consequences.” Sticking a but in the middle of your sentence cancels out whatever goodwill preceded it and signals that an excuse is forthcoming.

Along with a value compass, Ansell offers a one-page template for crafting quotable messages that meet the needs of reporters and assure you’ll get the opportunity to tell your story without stepping on a landmine. Ansell also walks you through 20 what-if scenarios.

“Answering questions from reporters is risky business. Knowing how to talk to reporters is like learning a new language, a language that bears little if any resemblance to everyday conversation. Exposing oneself to media scrutiny requires more than simple candour. It requires knowledge, training and a keen understanding of how reporters write the news.”

Book review: Workarounds That Work

This review originally ran in the Feb. 28 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Workarounds That Work: How to Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way at Work

By Russell Bishop

McGraw Hill

You and I belong to one of two clubs at work.

We’re either part of the 99 per cent crowd or charter members of the 100 per cent club.

If you’re in the 99 per cent crowd, you can be counted on to always try to your best to see things through and get the job done. But you’re prone to bail on projects when the going gets tough and you slam into the inevitable roadblock that makes work so wonderfully unpredictable.

Launching a new project is not unlike getting strapped to a rocket and shot across the Grand Canyon. It’s a high risk proposition. And even if you’re 99 per cent committed, that missing one per cent will set you up for a really long and painful fall.

Unlike the 99 per cent crowd, folks in the 100 per cent club get the job done with a “no matter what” mindset. You don’t play the blame game. You don’t make excuses. And you don’t cast yourself in the starring role of innocent victim who’s at the mercy of conspiring forces beyond their control.

Instead, you turn problems into puzzles to be solved. And you prove that where there’s a will, there’s always a way.

Everyone in the 100 per cent club has mastered the art of the workaround. Author Russell Bishop calls workarounds a method for accomplishing a task or goal when the normal process or method isn’t producing the desired results. Maybe it’s a wonky procedure, an outdated policy, a dysfunctional team, risk-averse boss or a less than helpful co-worker standing in the way of you getting the job done.

When you hit a roadblock, the first question to ask is “What could I do that would make a difference that requires no one’s permission other than my own?” The answer may be all it takes to move from roadblock to effective, productive action, says Bishop.

“The most powerful thing you can do when laid low with the frustrations that will surely arise is to keep your mind focused on your positive intention. Stay focused on what you want and why it matters. If you allow yourself to lose sight of your purpose or intention, then you will be unlikely to find a successful workaround and will instead become preoccupied with the hurdle in front of you.”

There are no shortage of roadblocks at work. Consensus and its close cousin buy-in are two fan favourites. Both can grind your project to a halt or kill it before you even get your bold and brilliant idea off the ground.

“In most versions of consensus, whenever someone objects to a decision, it is fair game to resurface the issue,” says Bishop. “And to resurface it again. And again. The basic rationale is that everyone must be on board.”

The belief that everyone will get on board is a really bad assumption to make. Savvy coworkers who like the status quo or who don’t like you or your project know they can stall momentum and reverse decisions by raising doubts and disagreements at any time. Instead of getting the job done, you’re trapped in endless meetings where an ever-widening net is cast to safeguard against anyone feeling excluded. Everyone gets a chance to weigh in, even if they have nothing to contribute and their motives are less than pure.

So here’s a good workaround to the pain of consensus-based decision making. Decide upfront who has the ultimate authority to decide something, who has the right to be consulted prior to a decision being made and who has the right to be informed once a decision’s been made.

“By clarifying rights to decide, along with the rights to contribute through consultation, you can differentiate roles and accelerate the process considerably. This simple roles and rights clarification allows more streamlined meetings involving only those who need to contribute given the nature of each meeting.”

And then there’s buy-in. Organizations that love consensus-based decision making also give buy-in a warm embrace. “Over and over, we hear the apparently sage advice that we need to create buy-in before proceeding in any new direction,” says Bishop. “In my experience, buy-in is a laudable concept that is also pretty much guaranteed to slow anything down, if not kill it outright.”

While consensus is about inviting anyone and everyone to join the discussion, buy-in looks to gain upfront support from anyone and everyone before a project moves forward.

Again, you’ll find yourself trapped in a never-ending series of meetings, discussions and debates to deal with every imaginable doubt, complaint and concern.

The workaround to buy-in is progress. Just do it. Get your project started and rack up some early wins. “If you are waiting for everyone to buy in on an idea, you may be retired before they all give the thumbs up,” says Bishop.

Instead, recruit some members from the 100 percent club, figure out what you can do on your own and get on with it. Once you start showing real progress, others will readily sign on and won’t need to be persuaded. Everyone loves a winner.

“Remember, it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission,” says Bishop. “If you keep asking for permission and seeking buy-in, you may merely be giving people reasons to object.”

Far better to give the powers that be something that’s already been completed rather than an idea that may require a ton of debate and discussion in an endless series of meetings.

Bishop offers an arsenal of workarounds to turn seemingly intractable problems into easily solved puzzles. All the solutions rest on you first taking ownership and control.

The final word goes to Henry Ford. “Whether you believe you can or cannot, you are right.”

Book review: Power — Why some people have it and others don’t

Power: Why Some People Have It And Others Don’t

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

HarperCollins ($32.99 Cdn)

You’re a team player. You do your best to fit in. You go along to get along. You play by the rules.

You’re a workhorse. You get the job done and done right. No fanfare. No drama. No blowing your own horn. You believe your actions speak louder than words.

Which is all well and good unless you’re banking on a promotion any time soon. 

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that good performance – job accomplishments – is sufficient to acquire power and avoid organizational difficulties,” says author Jeffrey Pfeffer and a professor at Stanford University. “If you are going to create a path to power, you need to lose the idea that performance by itself is enough.”

So what else do you need?

You need to get noticed.  To move up the org chart, the people in power have to pick you for a senior role. But powerful people are preoccupied with their own agendas.  They aren’t paying much, if any, attention to you and what you’re doing.

They’re not going to seek you out so you need to stand out.  You need to be visible, familiar and memorable.  You need to tell your boss what you’re accomplishing and contributing.

“If you blend into the woodwork, no one will care about you, even if you are doing a great job,” says Pfeffer. “Being memorable equals getting picked.”

Do not listen to anyone who believes that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. It’s lousy career advice, warns Pfeffer.

“In order for your great performance to be appreciated, it needs to be visible.”

It’s not just what you tell your boss. It’s what you ask. You need to find out what matters to your boss. Because what matters to your boss should matter to you.

“Many people believe they know what their bosses care about. But unless they are mind readers, that’s probably a risky assumption. It is much more effective for you to ask those in power, on a regular basis, what aspects of the job they think are the most crucial and how they see what you ought to be doing.”

And that’s where you need to turn in a command performance and deliver stellar results.

There’s one other thing you need to do. You need to make your boss and others in power feel better about themselves. “The surest way to keep your position and to build a power base is to help those with more power enhance their positive feelings about themselves,” says Pfeffer. “The last thing you want to do is be known as someone who makes your boss insecure or who has a difficult relationship with those in power.”

It turns out flattery really will get you everywhere. “Flattery works because we naturally come to like  people who flatter us and make us feel good about ourselves and our accomplishments, and being likeable helps build influence.”

A professor at the University of California-Berkeley did a study to see if there was a point beyond which flattery becomes ineffective and the flatterer comes across as insincere, annoying and a suck up. The prof couldn’t find that threshold in her research. So when it comes to flattery, you can never overdo it.

The big lesson here is that you need to worry about your relationship with your boss as much as you worry about your job performance.

“The people responsible for your success are those above you, with the power to either promote you or to block your rise up the organizational chart. And here are always people above you, regardless of your position,” says Pfeffer.

“Therefore, your job is to ensure that those influential others have a strong desire to make you successful. That may entail doing a good job. But it may also entail ensuring that those in power notice the good work that you do, remember you, and think well of you because you make them feel good about themselves. It is performance, coupled with political skill, that will help you rise through the ranks. Performance by itself is seldom sufficient, and in some instances, may not even be necessary.”

Pfeffer says most leadership lectures, courses and books by well-known executives should be stamped with a caution warning so we’re fully aware that the material could be hazardous to our organizational survival.

Successful leaders tend to gloss over the power plays that got them to the top. And the teaching on leadership serves up prescriptions “about following an inner compass, being truthful, letting inner feelings show, being modest and self-effacing. In short, prescriptions about how people wish the world and the powerful behave.”

Pfeffer’s book doesn’t need a caution warning and warrants a careful read by anyone interested in knowing how the world really works, how to gain more power and influence and how to move up the ladder of success.