Essay

Rethinking Innovation in a Bureaucracy

About a year ago my organization embarked on journey to modernize. Recognizing that many of the best ideas for organizational improvement probably resided in the workforce not the board room, we began soliciting ideas from throughout the firm.

During a town hall meeting I appealed to newer employees who may have ideas from other organizations they have worked in, to younger employees who may have ideas based on exposure to new technology or ideas from school, and to our more experienced employees who have observed the organization over the years and probably have some insightful observations that could help us modernize. The seasoned employees also understand the bureaucratic systems and processes better than anyone and can help us avoid pitfalls as we move forward.

I got some criticism for that approach.

While I thought I was appealing to everyone to be innovative about how we do business, what some employees heard was, “the young employees are innovative and have great ideas and the older ones only know the old ways of doing things.” I have been vocally critical of many of the “old ways” as the outdated processes derived in the 1900s might need an overhaul. Unfortunately some employees interpreted my criticism of 20th Century policies as criticism of our 20th Century employees.

I can understand why some people might think that.

It’s so common to have become cliché: when leaders are looking for change agents in their workforce they often look towards younger employees, hoping a bevy of good ideas will emerge from among the most tech-savvy amongst them. Confusing a willingness to learn and employ new technology with true innovation, many senior leaders believe that the best ideas must come from the portion of the firm’s population most willing to try the latest gadget or app.

And they would be wrong.

Innovation has little to do with an ability to employ emerging technology. Digital natives (people who have grown up in the digital age) typically have a cultural propensity to adopt new technologies as they emerge. After all, new technologies have emerged regularly throughout their lives, and adopting new ones is quite natural. Digital immigrants (those of us that are acquiring skills in digital systems as adults), on the other hand, culturally have different ideas about adopting new tech.

But adopting new tech isn’t really innovation, is it? While there are dozens of different definitions for innovation, the one I like to use is this:  Innovation is combining two or more things in a new way to bring about value.

Using a new app isn’t innovative. It can be useful, but it isn’t necessarily innovative. The inverse may be a truism: the unwillingness to try a new technology will likely impede innovation. But that isn’t because of the technology: it’s about the unwillingness to try.

So innovation isn’t about age, it’s about culture. It’s about a willingness to try to implement new ideas. It’s about experimenting with new ways of doing things. It’s about being thoughtful about the world around you, and imagining how things might be better. It’s about a willingness to see more opportunities than obstacles. Most importantly, it’s about being willing to fail.

Fail? Why would I have to be willing to fail? Because when you try to bring about something new that has value there is a chance that it won’t work. If you’re not willing to take that risk, nothing new will ever emerge. Innovation is about imagining new things and having the willingness to risk failure to give them a chance to succeed.

Don’t misunderstand this tenet as a license to drive the organization off the road. Failing while innovating requires taking prudent steps to mitigate risks, and learning to fail early enough in an effort to learn from it. 

The hard part about practicing innovation in government or large organizations is that bureaucracies tend to be exceptionally risk averse. Having been burned before, these organizations don’t want to risk failures or public criticism or lawsuits by deviating from “the process.” The longer someone has been in the organization the more likely it is that they have been told to “shut up and color inside the lines” by a leader who isn’t willing to take the risk of failing.

Too often our more experienced employees have enough scar tissue from early attempts at innovation that they have simply quit trying. Process-centric bureaucracies don’t often reward non-compliance and creativity. Quite the opposite, they tend to stamp them out. I once had a boss actually tell me to “quit thinking and start doing.” He wasn’t my favorite boss. 

Interestingly, studies have shown that the average age of a majority of successful innovators is somewhere in the mid-40s or later.  See RPRN Mag, or Newsweek, or Government Executive. Research indicates that it is often the nexus of experience and the willingness to fail that brings about the best innovations in any organization. That is, of course, if their organization lets them.

If we want to modernize, we need to change our culture. Our challenge as leaders is to overcome the existing risk-averse culture, and try to instill a culture of innovation. This means seeking out change leaders and innovators throughout your organization and empowering them to make things better. It means reinforcing innovative successes and underwriting honest failures. It means identifying and exploiting talent in every part of your organization regardless of demographics, including age, rank, or longevity with the firm. 

Since we embarked on our modernization effort we have received literally hundreds of great ideas from across the organization. Unsurprisingly many of the best ideas have come from our most experienced workers. Moreover, the experienced workforce knows how these great ideas might actually work in our risk-averse organization and are taking the initiative to make things happen. I couldn’t be more impressed by the way many people have begun embracing new ideas.

It doesn’t seem to matter how young or old our innovators are, or where they are in the organization’s hierarchy. What seems to matter is how willing they are to imagine a better way to do things and a willingness implement change.

Leaders need to back these innovators, and give them a voice when the process-driven culture lashes back at them. 

By the way, Steve Jobs was well over 50 when Apple introduced the IPhone. Just saying.

Essay

Dribbling with Your Head Down: failing to see how you impact the bigger mission

In my spare time I coach youth soccer. I never thought of myself as a coach, but when my kids were starting off in bee-hive ball the leagues were always looking for volunteers to help out. Figuring this was a great way to spend time with my kids I signed on. Eventually my kids got older (as they are wont to do) and “better” coaches showed up to train my kids. What I found, though, is that I was still coaching my kids, only this time from the sidelines. I was frustrated because the coaches weren’t coaching the way I thought they should.

That’s when I figured out that nobody was going to coach the way I wanted them to but me. If I wanted my kids to get my brand of coaching I would have to put up or shut up, regardless of how busy I am with work or other distractions. (see Work/Life balance)

Now I’m not saying I’m the best youth soccer coach out there. I’m saying coaching from the sidelines is counterproductive and if you aren’t willing to put in the time between games you haven’t earned the right to coach your kid during the game. (Note to sideline parents: read that last sentence again and either pitch in at practice or pipe down during the game. Your player can’t listen to both of us at the same time and I actually know the game plan.)

So I started to learn to coach. I read up-teen books and watched as many videos, and even attended USA Soccer’s licensing program. I got better at it.

One of the things all the professionals emphasize is the importance of individual skills. At younger ages, they teach individual skills even at the expense of team skills. Footwork, shooting, individual defending… these are primary. Tactics and moving as a team is secondary as these are advanced skills that kids can learn later, and build upon the individual skills. This is the sine qua non of youth soccer training, at least according to the experts.

It is also a problem, and explains a lot about American soccer and about the modern workforce.

Kids who are only focused on their own skills pay a lot of attention to what is happening on the ground in front of them when they have the ball, and not much else. You can watch it on any youth soccer field.

Here is what I observed last weekend. When the ball arrived at little Johnny’s feet, his head automatically dropped as his focus shifted. He knew roughly where the goal was because he was looking at it before the ball arrived, but he won’t see it again any time soon. He began to dribble towards the opponent’s goal, vaguely acknowledging the shouts from the crowd and teammates, but only seeing what was in his peripheral vision. His eyes were glued to the ball.

Despite the fact that the defense had shifted all of their players to his side of the field and he was about to be surrounded, Johnny didn’t have a clue. He also couldn’t seem to hear or see his open teammate on the other side of the field who was in a good scoring position. He was fixated on his own stuff.

Now Johnny is a pretty good dribbler, but very few kids can get through 4 or 5 defenders. Johnny isn’t one of those kids. He, predictably, lost the ball and the other team began their counter-attack.

Johnny’s coaches have failed him because he never learned to dribble with his head up. Nor was he taught to “look off the ball” to see what else is going on. When you are focused on your own stuff so intently, you don’t see what has changed on the field. How have your teammates adjusted? How has the opposing team changed? Where exactly are you on the field? These things are nearly invisible to Johnny and his ilk as they focus on themselves.

Some people never outgrow this tendency.

I have seen company commanders “solve” their problem by pushing it into someone else’s sector. I have seen battalion commanders declare victory in their own area even though their momentary success contributed nothing to the brigade’s mission. I have seen professional, senior leaders focus on the task at their feet and fail to “look off the ball” and see how their actions impact their teammates, their opponents, and the field.

I have learned that teaching soccer players at the earliest opportunity to dribble with their heads up makes a huge difference in the long run. When they see how their actions are affecting the game they can make better, more creative decisions about how to contribute to the team’s success. Teaching Lieutenants and Sergeants to lift their head to see the environment, their teammates and adversaries while accomplishing their tasks pays incalculable dividends later. Teaching junior managers and leaders throughout any organization to see where they fit into the bigger picture, and where their actions support the organization’s overall mission and vision is essential to maximizing each person’s potential. It will help people see where they need to act outside their job description to contribute to your organization’s success.

It’s very difficult to get people to look off the ball and put their individual effort (or their section’s, division’s, etc.) second to the overall mission and vision. It is nearly impossible if they are rewarded their entire careers for being great individual achievers. If team play is secondary to personal accomplishment you will have a difficult time getting teams of teams to operate as a mutually supporting organization focused on an overarching vision.

Teach your people to dribble with their heads up from the start, and you will reap the benefits for a long time to come.

Essay

On Thinking in Systems

A few years ago I worked on a project for the Chief of Staff of the Army regarding how the Army would potentially operate in megacities (cities with a population above 10 million people).  During that endeavor my team and I discussed many aspects of this extremely complex environment. I penned the attached essay based on those discussions. It is a perhaps somewhat whimsical view of how we tend to look at complex problems. In the essay I am critical of the Army’s (and most of modern society’s) automatic bias towards reductionism, the proverbial “eat the elephant one bite at a time.” While reductionism is useful in some systems, particularly mechanical systems, it has probably done more harm than good when dealing with complex, nonlinear systems (like large urban environments).

Elephants v2

Essay

On Leadership Stories

As a 24-year veteran serving as the Commander of a US Army Corps of Engineers District, I am often asked about leadership development and how the Army helps people become better leaders. There are so many ways leaders are developed that there is rarely a short answer to these kinds of questions.

One common theme, though, is that the stories about leadership are often the most effective ways of helping people develop their own leadership philosophies. Us old Soldiers tend to tell a lot of stories, and the good ones seem to stick. Many of the stories you collect share lessons in values or ethics. Some stories are metaphors for today’s challenges. Some are just fun.

I have been informally collecting stories for a long time, and I thought it might be time to write some of them down.

This is my attempt to do just that.

My goal is to publish a new story or essay every two weeks. Please feel free to like, comment and/or follow if you like what you read here.