Running on Empty

Do you know what kind of fuel you need for inspiration and innovation?  I discovered the answer to that question the hard way this past weekend.

Last weekend several members of my family achieved important milestones. As a result, the entire weekend was taken up with large family events. And, with all that celebrating, I didn’t have my usual weekend time for reading and thinking. Not surprisingly, when I woke up Monday morning I didn’t have a blog post ready to publish.  Thankfully it didn’t take too long for me to prime the pump, but it was a good reminder that it’s hard to generate outputs without the requisite inputs and processing time.

The same rule applies to organizations that are trying to innovate.  It’s hard to produce new ideas if you have not ingested and digested a wide variety of stimuli.  Organizations (like brains) need something to chew on.  This suggests that a manager who is responsible for innovation better be sure that every member of the team has time to read, think and discuss.  Better still, they should have the opportunity to read outside their immediate area of responsibility and to discuss their findings with people outside their discipline.  It’s precisely this cross-pollination of ideas that leads to breakthroughs.

So, do you know what kind of fuel you and your team need in order to innovate?  Are you getting it in adequate supply or are you running on empty?

[Photo Credit:  mag3737]


Do You Need a Failure Target?

We know that failure is necessary for innovation.  In fact, experience shows that repeated failure usually precedes a major breakthrough.  So then, why do we constantly run from failure when we should be planning for it?  According to Scott Anthony, it’s because the cost of failure is perceived to be so high that we don’t believe we can afford it.  As a result, most of us focus hard on trying to ensure complete success even though we know that in most cases this is impossible without some preliminary failures.  Unfortunately, when you’re caught in the bind of trying to avoid failure at all costs, all you really manage to avoid is innovation.

If you’re serious about innovation, you should consider an alternative approach:

Make Failure Cheap. Give up the old method of creating do-or-die projects in which you tightly control development, foreclose alternative approaches, roll-out a fully-baked product and then hope it works.  Instead, institute a series of small experiments beginning early in the life of the project and allow the results of those experiments to determine the course of your project.  These experiments are not intended to be earth-shattering, but they are intended to provide a controlled means by which to test a concept or approach before too much has been committed.  In other words, these experiments come fast and cheap.

Make Failure Safe. Create a culture in which failure is not only accepted but welcomed, provided that it leads to learning.  And conduct your experiments in a manner that minimizes the collateral damage of failure.  Taken together, this organizational culture and controlled experimentation constitute a “safe-fail” approach to innovation.

Make Failure A Goal. The idea behind this is not to promote sub-par performance, but rather, to institutionalize an attitude of deliberate, calibrated risk-taking for the sake of learning and innovation.  Since this fundamentally different approach won’t be adopted without endorsement at the highest levels, consider having management set annual Failure Targets.  Scott Anthony suggests including in each employee’s annual review an evaluation of whether they met their Failure Target by achieving deliberate low-risk failures designed to promote innovation.  When employees are rewarded rather than castigated for taking sensible risks, you move closer to creating a culture that truly fosters innovation.

So, how high a Failure Target do you dare to set?


The Patron Saint of KM

At the recent LegalTech 2009 conference, nearly every session I attended started with some variant of the words: “Doing more with less.” To be honest, even the session I spoke at spent some time on why a downturn is a good time to invest in social media tools. (Hint: Social media tools help you do more with less.)

In retrospect, we were all working from a glass-half-empty perspective.  Given the tenor of the times, that is perfectly understandable.  Nonetheless, I was very glad to be reminded today by Andrea Meyer that working from a glass-half-full perspective can be much more productive.  In her post, Dr. Seuss:  Innovating within Constraints, she tells the story of how Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) was asked to create a reading primer that was more compelling than the bland fare then available to children in the early 1950s.   The catch was that he was limited to a vocabulary of just over 200 common words that were well within the abilities of beginning readers.  Instead of railing against the constraint, he reveled in it.  The result was  The Cat in the Hat — and a revolution in children’s literature.

In this era of shrinking budgets and staff, law firm knowledge management is facing some real constraints.  Creating something useful (and even innovative) is a great challenge — especially given the nearly overwhelming temptation to retrench or retreat.  Yet, how you approach the constraints you face can have a great impact on what you can accomplish.  As Andrea Meyer points out, one great benefit of a constraint is that it helps limit choices and frees you from distraction.  She suggests working within your constraints by stripping a problem down to its basic elements and then putting those elements together in new and unusual combinations until you come upon a creative solution.

March 2 was the anniversary of Theodore Geisel’s birth.  In honor of the occasion, I’d propose that we name him the Patron Saint of Recessionary KM and then take another look at our situation to see if we can follow his example by exploiting our constraints  to innovate with verve.

[Photo Credit, Diane Cordell]