Potato Peelers and a Culture of Innovation

spudsIn the summer of 2013 I went to work with the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group (SSG) in DC. The group was set up to do some innovative thinking and produce some ideas of value to the CSA and the Army. The director of the SSG at the time was a retired US Army Colonel with a PhD named Dave. When my cohort first arrived at the SSG, Dave told us a story about why we were there that has stuck with me ever since.

Dave started his career as soldier in the late 1960s, enlisting in the infantry and attending basic training as all soldiers do. In those days it was common for trainees to spend time on work details, augmenting the installation’s workforce by doing some of the manual labor tasks. Dave had been selected (“voluntold”) to go work for the mess sergeant on Kitchen Patrol (KP). He was to report in the afternoon to help the chow hall prepare the evening meal.

When Dave reported in he was given a choice. “Do you want to clean the grease traps, or do you want to peel the potatoes?” the mess sergeant asked. Dave didn’t have to think long about that. “I’m no fool, I don’t want to be anywhere near the grease traps. Give me the knife and I’ll peel the potatoes.”

The mess sergeant laughed. “You don’t need a knife to peel the potatoes, son. Come over here and let me show you.” The sergeant led Dave to a new-looking machine of stainless steel and sharp looking blades. “Throw a couple potatoes in the hopper there.” Dave did as instructed. The machine whirred and rumbled a bit, bouncing the potatoes around and peeling off bits of skin. Soon the potatoes were peeled. Now this was new to Dave, and he was very impressed. The mess sergeant left Dave with instructions and several hundred pounds of potatoes.

Now Dave is known for his curiosity, so once he got the hang of the peeler he started wondering what would happen if he left the potatoes in a bit longer. It turns out that they get a bit smaller, but also a bit rounder. He started leaving them in longer and longer. The results were just what you might expect. The potatoes bounced around and around and got smaller and smaller. They also got perfectly round. If you left the potatoes in long enough you would get perfectly spherical, marble-sized potatoes that were pretty neat looking.

After producing a few more potato-marbles, the mess sergeant returned to check on Dave. Seeing the collection of marbles growing, the sergeant exploded. “Troop, what the @#%$@ are you doing?”

Dave, still excited about this new technology, showed off his collection of marbles and told the sergeant, “Look at these things! They are perfectly round! Aren’t these great?” “No, they are not great! They are tiny. You’ve wasted most of the potato! How am I supposed to feed hundreds of troops with these? They may look pretty like that, but they are essentially useless!”

Dave went on to explain that this is exactly what happens to a lot of good ideas in the Pentagon, and most large organizations. Someone produces a great plan or idea, and it gets thrown into the organization’s potato peeler. This peeler is often called “routing” or “staff procedures” or “compliance checks” and serves the same purpose as the mess sergeant’s peeler: it creates aesthetically pleasing staff products that have little or no institutional value. Much of the essence of the original idea is shaved off with the peel. The job of the SSG, Dave said, was to present a few really good ideas with some of the peel still on.

How often do good ideas get rounded off in your organization? What venue or opportunity to you have to see what the ideas look like before they are “staffed” to death? How are you getting exposed to ideas that can have real value to your organization?

There is an interesting phenomenon about middle management that tends to incentivize “form over function” and risk-averse behavior. Too often, leaders who have had some success and gained some level of status are reluctant to jeopardize it. They tend to want to stick to the “tried and true” methods that got them there, and new ideas are chalk full of risk.

How do we prevent risk-averse staffs and procedures from over-tumbling good ideas? Do you set up a separate group to fast-track ideas with some peel still on them? Do you aggressively review staff procedures that limit creativity? Do you schedule your time so that you get to spend time with the idea-generators in your organization?

I think there are merits to all these approaches. I also think that all of these are deeply impacted by the culture of your organization. If you have a risk-averse culture you will find it difficult to capture and implement innovative ideas your organization needs to remain relevant in a changing environment.

If you find that your culture is what is holding your organization back from being innovative, you now know where you must focus your efforts. Creating or fostering a culture of innovation is a challenging undertaking, and it will take all your leaders, senior, junior and middle management to shape it. If you really want some ideas with the peel still on, you are going to have make that culturally acceptable. To do that, you have to get everyone on board.

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