Author Archives: Robyn Bolton

About Robyn Bolton

Robyn M. Bolton works with leaders of mid and large sized companies to use innovation to repeatably and sustainably grow their businesses.

5 Job Titles That Break the Mold and Fuel an Innovation Culture

5 Job Titles That Break the Mold and Fuel an Innovation Culture

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

Fabric & Home Care Marketing

That is the job title on my very first business card.  I remember holding the card in my hands, staring at it for entirely too long, and thinking, “This is sooooo boring.  Even my parents won’t be impressed.”

To be fair to P&G, that was the job title on the business card of everyone in marketing in the business units.  The company didn’t put job titles on the card for security reasons (or at least that’s what my boss told me when I politely asked why my title wasn’t on the card).

I am older now and should have the maturity to accept the bland and nondescript title on my first business card.  But I’m not.  It’s still boring, and it shouldn’t be because we were working on innovation projects with code names and outfoxing corporate spies in the airport (another story for another post).  We were doing cool stuff and should have cool titles to show for it!

So, to right the wrong inflicted upon me and the countless others stuck with boring job titles despite doing brave, bold, and daring things, today is Make Your Own Title Day (business cards not included)

Intrapreneur

PRO: Short and sweet with a great original definition – “dreamers who do”

CON: Everyone will think you misspelled Entrepreneur

Pirates in the Navy

PRO: Title of a book by one of the foremost thinkers in the field of corporate innovation and a phrase inspired by Steve Jobs’ statement that it’s better to be a pirate than be in the Navy.  It also creates the excuse to wear an eyepatch, talk like a pirate, and keep a parrot in the office.

CON: People are afraid of pirates.  You don’t want people to be scared of you.

Rebel Smuggler

PRO: Also the basis of a book with the benefit of being a cool title that doesn’t scare people.  Plus, who wanted this to describe them:

Whether you’re are a Rebel in a functional company or a Smuggler in a dysfunctional company, you are the essential part of any transition.  You are the catalyst that transforms the caterpillar into a butterfly.  You disrupt the status quo and create opportunities for growth,

You are not the caterpillar nor the butterfly.  You are the magic that prompts the transition.”Natalie Neelan, Rebel At Work: How to Innovate and Drive Results When You Aren’t the Boss

CON: Legal and Corporate Security may not love the “Smuggler” part of the title

Tempered Radical

PRO: A more “professional” version of Rebel Smuggler, and it’s a term used in HBR, so you know it’s legit.  Here’s how they’re described:

They all see things a bit differently from the “norm.” But despite feeling at odds with aspects of the prevailing culture, they genuinely like their jobs and want to continue to succeed in them, to effectively use their differences as the impetus for constructive change. They believe that direct, angry confrontation will get them nowhere, but they don’t sit by and allow frustration to fester. Rather, they work quietly to challenge prevailing wisdom and gently provoke their organizational cultures to adapt. I call such change agents tempered radicals because they work to effect significant changes in moderate ways.Debra Meyerson, “Radical Change, the Quiet Way” in HBR (October 2001)

CON: Sometimes working quietly doesn’t work.  Sometimes, you need to make a ruckus. 

[YOUR TITLE HERE]

What title do you want to give yourself and other innovators?

Drop your suggestion in the comments (and feel free to print up new business cards)!

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This One Word Will Transform Your Approach to Innovation

This One Word Will Transform Your Approach to Innovation

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

Have you heard any of these sentences recently?

“We don’t have time”

“Our people don’t have the skills”

“We don’t have the budget”

“That’s not what we do”

I hear them all the time.  

Sometimes they’re said when a company is starting to invest in building their innovation capabilities, sometimes during one-on-one stakeholder interviews when people feel freer to share their honest opinions, and sometimes well after investments are made.

Every single time, they are the beginning of the end for innovation.

But one word that can change that.

“We don’t have time – yet.”

“Our people don’t have the skills – yet.”

“We don’t have the budget – yet.”

“That’s not what we do – yet.”

Yet.

Yet creates space for change.  It acknowledges that you’re in the middle of a journey, not the end.  It encourages conversation.

“We don’t have time – yet.”

“OK, I know the team is busy and that what they’re working on is important.  Let’s look at what people are working on and see if there are things we can delay or stop to create room for this.”

“Our people don’t have the skills – yet.”

“Understand, we’re all building new skills when it comes to innovation.  Good news, skills can be learned.  Let’s discuss what we need to teach people and the best way to do that.”

“We don’t have the budget – yet.”

“I get it.  Things are tight. We know this is a priority so let’s look at the budget and see if there’s a way to free up some cash.  If there’s not, then we’ll go back to leadership and ask for guidance.”

“That’s not what we do – yet.”

“I know.  Remember, we’re not doing this on a whim, we’re doing this because (fill in reason), and we have a right to do it because of (fill in past success, current strength, or competitive advantage.”

You need to introduce the YET.

It is very rare for people to add “yet” to their statements.  But you can.

When someone utters an innovation-killing statement, respond with “Yet.” Maybe smile mischievously and then repeat their statement with “yet” added to the end.

After all, you’re not disagreeing with them. You’re simply qualifying what they’re saying.  Their statement is true now, but that doesn’t mean it will be true forever.  By restating their assertion and adding “yet,” you’re inviting them to be part of the change, to take an active role in creating the new future state.

There’s a tremendous amount of research about the massive impact of this little word.  It helps underperforming students overachieve and is closely associated with Dr. Carol Dweck’s research into fixed and learning mindsets.

The bottom line is that “YET” works.

Put YET to work for you, your organization, and your efforts to innovate and grow.

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3 Steps to Building a Psychologically Safe Environment

or The No-Cost, No-Hug Secret to Smarter Teams

3 Steps to Building a Psychologically Safe Environment

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

Welcome to the exciting conclusion of “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Psychological Safety but Were Afraid to Ask.”

Our generous expert, Alla Weinberg, CEO and Culture designer at Spoke & Wheel, has been patiently leading us beyond and through the buzzy frothiness that we (I) usually associate with Psychological Safety and into the deeply powerful and absolutely essential core elements.

In Part 1, we learned that psychological safety is more neuroscience than psychology (and required to be your smartest self).

In Part 2, we learned the first step to creating safety (and why corporate mandates are antithetical to the goal). 

Today, we’re going where we need but don’t want to go – how to create a psychologically safe environment so everyone can thrive.


If Step 1 in creating Psychological Safety is verbalizing your emotions and understanding others’ emotions, I’m hoping Step 2 is easier.

Step two is relational intelligence.

There are three intelligences: emotional, relational, and systems

Relational intelligence is about understanding how to connect with different people, being aware when disconnection happens, and then acknowledging and repairing it. That last part is the most important because, without repair, there’s no safety.

Are you saying that saying, “I’m sorry” is essential to building psychological safety?  Because I would much rather ignore the issues and move on.  Or, better yet, pretend it never happened.

Nice try.  But you know as well as I do that people are messy, and when we come together, there’s tension and conflict, and someone will get hurt or make mistakes. It’s normal.  It’s okay as long as you know how to recover, repair, and heal.

The issue isn’t the conflict but how we handle it and whether we can repair it. I have a diagram of a relationship, which is a circle of connection, disconnection, and repair. We go around this circle just like breathing is inhaling and exhaling.  Relating, connecting, disconnecting, and repairing is what a relationship is.

OK, step 2 is relational intelligence which requires repairing relationships, so how do I do that?  Bonus points if I don’t have to admit to being wrong.

Not only do you have to admit that, but you also need to take responsibility for your impact, not just your intentions. Intentions are great, but without action, they don’t mean much.

When apologizing, we tend to try to explain ourselves.  For example, we say, “I didn’t say anything in that meeting, and I’m sorry, but that wasn’t my intention, and I wanted to, but I had my own issue.” Instead, we should say, “I didn’t say anything in that meeting, and I’m sorry.”

When you apologize, don’t say “but.” To repair a relationship, you must take responsibility for your actions and their impact. Saying “but” negates all of that.

(head now on the desk because this is a lot to take in): I’m afraid to ask what Step 3 is, but I will practice verbalizing my feelings and ask anyway.  What’s Step 3?

You’re doing great.  This is a lot, and it’s ok that you feel overwhelmed.

Step 3 is systems intelligence, which focuses on the relationships within an organization that gives rise to its culture. Systems thinking is about understanding how structures, policies, processes, and relationships interact to create a greater whole,

Systems thinking!  We’re getting back to left-brained stuff now.  I’m feeling better.

Yes, and since connection is core to psychological safety, systems thinking tells us that we must fundamentally rethink how people work together by centering connection.

How do we do that?

We must reinvent, innovate, and rethink how we work together.

Lack of safety leads to power struggles, walls, and departmental rivalries, creating divisions and “othering.”

Hierarchy doesn’t align with connection, but shared leadership does. Hierarchy erodes trust because you need manager approvals, beg for budgets, or are told to prove your worth to get a seat at the table.

Silos are another problem because they lead to turf wars and people making decisions to protect themselves or their team rather than do what’s best for the greater good. 

Look, I love challenging the status quo, but you’re suggesting that we burn it all to the ground and start over.

(Laughing) I don’t lead with that.  When I work with organizations, I start with meetings.

Most meetings focus on work topics like status, decisions, and updates. But where are the meetings where we discuss emotions, share personal stories, and express hurt feelings? Everything shifts when we center connection.

Isn’t that called therapy?

Organizations value information, right?  Emotions are information.

Emotions reside in our bodies, but in many organizations, the focus is on the intellect.  It’s as if the head is the only important part, and the body is merely a vessel to transport the head from meeting to meeting.

And that brings us full circle to why psychological safety is mostly neuroscience.  Our body houses our nervous system, where we feel safety or the lack thereof. So, when people talk about bringing their whole selves to work, I mean our entire body, not just the intellect. Our bodies contain wisdom and information that we often overlook and undervalue, yet this is where the crucial information resides to create psychological safety.

We don’t think of emotions as information.  We think of them as signs of weakness, and you can’t be weak and successful.

It’s a lot of fear because how we’ve worked for the last 50 years gave us an illusion of certainty.  Acknowledging that there is no certainty and that we’re in entirely uncharted territory is scary, and there’s a fear that everything will fall apart. We think the business won’t survive if we do it the other way.

I respect that fear. It’s okay to be afraid. But if we acknowledge that all of this comes from fear, we will be open to new ideas or thoughts. For organizations that want to innovate, they must change how they work. You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. You need to innovate your approach to work.

Thank you so much for all of this.  You’ve shared so much.  Some of it was hard to hear, but I think that’s also a sign that it’s important to hear.  Any last words of advice?

Give yourself and others permission to be human beings again.  Not robots or cogs, not human resources, but to be human beings. That includes our bodies, our emotions, our messiness, and our relationships with each other.


If you would like to learn more about Alla and her work, please visit her firm’s website, www.spokeandwheel.coand definitely download a FREE digital copy of her book, A Culture of Safety: Building a Work Environment Where People Can Think, Collaborate, and Innovate

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How to Use Your Nervous System to Feel Psychologically Safe

or “Why Mandating a Return to the Office Destroys Safety”

How to Use Your Nervous System to Feel Psychologically Safe

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

In last week’s episode, we learned that psychological safety is more neuroscience than psychology and the huge role our nervous system plays in our experience of safety. 

This week, we’re going deeper into our nervous system and how we can use our understanding of it to influence our psychology.


I’m sensing I can’t think my way to safety.  So, can I fix my nervous system to feel safe and smart?

This is where I go beyond Dr. Amy Edmondson’s definition of psychological safety to incorporate neuroscience and how our nervous system works.

Our nervous system has three states:

  1. Immobilization or the freeze response, as you felt, is often accompanied by a sense of overwhelm
  2. Fight-and-flight when you try to either end the conversation or become more aggressive, resistant, and push back on exploring other alternatives.
  3. Rest-and-Digest when you feel safe, social, and connected to the people around you

This third state sets humans and mammals apart from other living things.  Communicating and connecting serve as a survival mechanism and represent a safe state for our nervous system.  When we communicate and connect, our tribe looks out for us and keeps us safe from threats like lions or unfriendly tribes.

So, the answer is to foster more profound connections among human beings, which requires going well beyond our work roles and activities.

Does it require hugging?  I knew it would require hugging.

Don’t worry, hugging isn’t mandatory.

We, as individuals, have a strong desire to connect and communicate, but it doesn’t necessarily require physical proximity. Being physically together doesn’t guarantee anything.

But what about the push to return to the office? There’s even research to support executives’ claims that physical proximity is essential to culture, innovation, and connection.

Not only does physical proximity not guarantee anything, but being forced to return to the office causes more harm than good. 

From a safety perspective, our nervous system doesn’t want to feel trapped. Being forced back to the office activates our flight-or-fight response and erodes safety. Because of how our nervous system perceives choices, the more choices people have, the safer they feel.

Even though I’m tempted to ask questions about building psychological safety at the team or company level, I want to stay on the individual level for a moment. We talked about how I wasn’t consciously unsafe during a phone call. How can I tell when I feel unsafe if I’m not conscious of it?

There’s physical science behind what happens when you feel unsafe. Your heart rate increases, you might hold your breath, and your body may tense up.  Your thoughts might blank out, and your peripheral vision may narrow as your body prepares for fight or flight.  Your body doesn’t differentiate; it treats any threat as a threatening event.

On the other hand, feeling safe doesn’t mean you lack emotions or feel calm. Feeling calm and internally relaxed signifies safety, but it’s more than that.  When your nervous system is regulated, your emotions align with the situation. They’re not an extreme overreaction or underreaction. There’s congruence. If your emotional response matches the situation, your nervous system and brain feel safe.

That makes sense, but it’s not easy.  We’re trained to hide our emotions and always appear calm.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard and said, “Be a duck.  Calm on the surface and paddling like hell below it.”

And that is not congruent.  But congruence doesn’t mean you act out like a toddler, either.

Step one in creating safety is calming your nervous system by verbalizing your feelings. If you say, “This conversation is overwhelming for me. I need a break. Let me get some water,” you’re safe and regulated at that moment. There’s nothing wrong.

But when you can’t verbalize what you’re experiencing and freeze, that’s a sign you’re no longer in a safe state. Your body starts pumping cortisol and adrenaline, preparing for whatever it perceives as a threat.

Even if you feel overwhelmed, if you’re aware of that feeling and can take some breaths or a short break and return to the conversation, you’re in a safe, regulated state.

I can’t imagine admitting to feeling overwhelmed or asking for a break! Plus, I work with so many people who say, “I feel overwhelmed, but I can’t take a moment for myself.  I need to plow through and get this done.”

It takes a tremendous amount of self-awareness. If you want to create safety and emotional intelligence, you must know what you’re feeling and be able to name it. You also need to sense what others are feeling and understand your emotional impact on them.

For example, if you say, “I’m feeling overwhelmed right now,” and I respond calmly and slow my cadence of speech, your nervous system receives the message that everything is okay.  However, if I’m in “fight or flight” mode and you’re overwhelmed, we’ll end up in a chaotic and unproductive cycle.

Self-awareness and understanding are essential to safety. Unfortunately, many organizations I speak with need help with this.

Amen, sister,


Stay tuned for next week’s exciting conclusion, 3 Steps to Building a Psychologically Safe Environment or The No-Cost, No-Hug Secret to Smarter Teams

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80% of Psychological Safety Has Nothing to Do With Psychology

or Why the Lack of Psychological Safety Makes You Dumber

80% of Psychological Safety Has Nothing to Do With Psychology

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

It’s been over 20 years since “Psychological Safety” exploded onto the scene and into the business lexicon.  But as good as it sounded, I always felt like it was one of those “safe space, everyone gets a trophy, special snowflake” things we had to do to make the Millennials (and subsequent generations) happy.

Then I read Alla Weinberg’s book, A Culture of Safety, and realized I was very, very wrong.

It’s not the equivalent of an HR-approved hug and high-five. 

It’s the foundation of what we do. Without it, there is no productivity, creativity, or progress.

Needing to know more, I reached out to Alla, who graciously agreed to teach me.


Thanks for speaking with me, Alla.  Let’s get right to the point: why should I, or any business leader, care about psychological safety?

The short answer is that without psychological safety, you are dumber.  When you feel unsafe, your operating IQ, which you use for daily tasks, drops in half.

Think about all the people you work with or all the people in your company.  They’re there because they’re smart, have experience, and demonstrated that they can do the job.  But then something goes wrong, and you wonder why they didn’t anticipate it or plan appropriately to avoid it.  You start to question their competence when, in fact, it may be that they feel unsafe, so parts of their brain have gone offline.  Their operating IQ isn’t operating at 100%.

I am so guilty of this.  When things go wrong, I assume someone didn’t know what to do, so they need to be trained, or they did know what to do and decided not to do it. It never occurs to me that there could be something else, something not logical, going on.

We all forget that human beings are biological creatures, and survival is the number one evolutionary trait for all living beings. Our body and mind are wired to ensure our continued existence.

A part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex, responsible for planning, executive thought, and analysis – is unique to humans, and it goes offline when our body feels unsafe. 

When we experience extreme stress, our body and mind cannot distinguish an impending deadline from a lunging tiger.  Our body and mind prioritize survival, so we experience all the biological responses to a threat, like getting tunnel vision, losing peripheral vision, and perceiving limited options.

So, when you’re trying to meet a deadline, and your manager or supervisor asks why you didn’t consider alternatives or complete a specific task, it’s because you physically couldn’t think of it at that moment. This is how human beings operate.

My first reaction is to wonder who can’t tell the difference between a deadline and a tiger because if you can’t tell the difference between the two, you may have bigger problems.  But when you mentioned the inability to perceive options, I immediately thought of something that happened yesterday.

I was on a call with a client, someone I’ve worked with for years and consider a friend, and we were trying to restructure a program to serve their client’s needs better.  I didn’t feel under threat…

Consciously.  You didn’t consciously feel under threat.

Right, I didn’t feel consciously under threat. But I froze.  I absolutely couldn’t think.  I put my head in my hands and tried to block out all the light and the noise, and I still couldn’t think of any option other than what we were already doing.  My brain came to a screeching halt.

That’s your nervous system, and it’s a huge driver of psychological safety.  80% of the information our brain receives comes from our nervous system.  So, while you didn’t consciously feel unsafe, your body felt unsafe and sent a signal to your brain to go into survival mode, and your brain chose to freeze.

But it was a Zoom call.  I was sitting alone in my office. I wasn’t unsafe.  Why would my nervous system think I was unsafe?

Your nervous system doesn’t think. It perceives and reacts.  Let me give you a simple illustration that we’ve all experienced.  When you touch something hot, your hand immediately pulls away.  You say “ouch” after your hand is away from the heat source.  When you felt the hot object, your nervous system entered survival mode and pulled away your hand.  Your brain then had to catch up, so you saw “Ow” after the threat was over.

Hold up.  We’re talking about psychological safety.  What does my nervous system have to do with this?

I define psychological safety as a state of our nervous system with three states: safe, mobilized (fight or flight), and immobilized (freeze response). The tricky part is not psychological but neurobiological. You cannot think your way to safety or unfreeze yourself. The rational mind has no control over this. Mantras and mindsets won’t make you feel safe; it’s a neurobiological process.

That is a plot twist I did not see coming.


Stay tuned for Part 2:

How to Use Your Nervous System to Feel Psychologically Safe, or “Why Mandating a Return to the Office Destroys Safety”

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Continuous Improvement vs. Incremental Innovation

Are They the Same?

Continuous Improvement vs. Incremental Innovation

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

“Isn’t continuous improvement the same as incremental innovation?  After all, both focus on doing what you do better, faster, or cheaper.”

Ooof, I have a love-hate relationship with questions like this one.

I hate them because, in the moment, they feel like a gut punch.  The answer feels obvious to me – no, they are entirely different things – but I struggle to explain myself clearly and simply.

I love them because, once the frustration and embarrassment of being unable to offer a clear and simple answer passes, they become a clear sign that I don’t understand something well enough or that *gasp* my “obvious” answer may be wrong.

So, is Continuous Improvement the same as Incremental Innovation?

No. They’re different.

But the difference is subtle, so let’s use an analogy to tease it apart.

Imagine learning to ride a bike.  When you first learn, success is staying upright, moving forward, and stopping before you crash into something.  With time and practice, you get better.  You move faster, stop more quickly, and move with greater precision and agility.

That’s continuous improvement.  You’re using the same solution but using it better.

Now, imagine that you’ve mastered your neighborhood’s bike paths and streets and want to do more.  You want to go faster, so add a motor to your bike.  You want to ride through the neighboring forest, so you change to off-road tires.  You want a smoother feel on your long rides, so you switch to a carbon fiber frame.

That’s incremental innovation.  You changed an aspect of the solution so that it performs better.

It all comes down to the definition of innovation – something different (or new) that creates value.

Both continuous improvement and incremental innovation create value. 

The former does it by improving what exists. The latter does it by changing (making different) what exists.

Got it. They are entirely different things.

Sort of.

Think of them as a Venn diagram – they’re different but similar.

There is evidence that a culture committed to quality and continuous improvement can lead to a culture of innovation because “Both approaches are focused in meeting customer needs, and since CI encourages small but constant changes in current products, processes and working methods its use can lead firms to become innovative by taking these small changes as an approach to innovation, more specifically, incremental innovation.”

Thanks, nerd.  But does this matter where I work, which is in the real world?

Yes.

Continuous Improvement and Incremental Innovation are different things and, as a result, require different resource levels, timelines, and expectations for ROI.

You should expect everyone in your organization to engage in continuous innovation (CI) because (1) using CI helps the organizations change adoption and risk taking by evaluating and implementing solutions to current needs” and (2) the problem-solving tools used in CI uncover “opportunities for finding new ideas that could become incremental innovations.”

You should designate specific people and teams to work on incremental people because (1) what “better” looks like is less certain, (2) doing something different or new increases risk, and (3) more time and resources are required to learn your way to the more successful outcome.

What do you think?

How do you answer the question at the start of this post?

How do you demonstrate your answer?

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Is AI Saving Corporate Innovation or Killing It?

Is AI Saving Corporate Innovation or Killing It?

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

AI is killing Corporate Innovation.

Last Friday, the brilliant minds of Scott Kirsner, Rita McGrath, and Alex Osterwalder (plus a few guest stars like me, no big deal) gathered to debate the truth of this statement.

Honestly, it was one of the smartest and most thoughtful debates on AI that I’ve heard (biased but right, as my husband would say), and you should definitely listen to the whole thing.

But if you don’t have time for the deep dive over your morning coffee, then here are the highlights (in my humble opinion)

Why this debate is important

Every quarter, InnoLead fields a survey to understand the issues and challenges facing corporate innovators.  The results from their Q2 survey and anecdotal follow-on conversations were eye-opening:

  • Resources are shifting from Innovation to AI: 61.5% of companies are increasing the resources allocated to AI, while 63.9% of companies are maintaining or decreasing their innovation investments
  • IT is more likely to own AI than innovation: 61.5% of companies put IT in charge of exploring potential AI use cases, compared to 53.9% of Innovation departments (percentages sum to greater than 0 because multiple departments may have responsibility)
  • Innovation departments are becoming AI departments.  In fact, some former VPs and Directors of Innovation have been retitled to VPs or Directors of AI

So when Scott asked if AI was killing Corporate Innovation, the data said YES.

The people said NO.

What’s killing corporate innovation isn’t technology.  It’s leadership.

Alex Osterwalder didn’t pull his punches and delivered a truth bomb right at the start. Like all the innovation tools and technologies that came before, the impact of AI on innovation isn’t about the technology itself—it’s about the leaders driving it.

If executives take the time to understand AI as a tool that enables successful outcomes and accelerates the accomplishment of key strategies, then there is no reason for it to threaten, let alone supplant, innovation. 

But if they treat it like a shiny new toy or a silver bullet to solve all their growth needs, then it’s just “innovation theater” all over again.

AI is an Inflection Point that leaders need to approach strategically

As Rita wrote in her book Seeing Around Corners, an inflection point has a 10x impact on business, for example, 10x cheaper, 10x faster, or 10x easier.  The emergence and large-scale adoption of AI is, without doubt, an inflection point for business.

Just like the internet and Netscape shook things up and changed the game, AI has the power to do the same—maybe even more. But, to Osterwalder’s point, leaders need to recognize AI as a strategic inflection point and proceed accordingly. 

Leaders don’t need to have it all figured out yet, but they need a plan, and that’s where we come in.

This inflection point is our time to shine

From what I’ve seen, AI isn’t killing corporate innovation. It’s creating the biggest corporate innovation opportunity in decades.  But it’s up to us, as corporate innovators, to seize the moment.

Unlike our colleagues in the core business, we are comfortable navigating ambiguity and uncertainty.  We have experience creating order from what seems like chaos and using innovation to grow today’s business and create tomorrow’s.

We can do this because we’ve done it before.  It’s exactly what we do,

AI is not a problem.  It’s an opportunity.  But only if we make it one.

AI is not the end of corporate innovation —it’s a tool, a powerful one at that.

As corporate innovators, we have the skills and knowledge required to steer businesses through uncertainty and drive meaningful change. So, let’s embrace AI strategically and unlock its full potential.

The path forward may not always be crystal clear, but that’s what makes it exciting. So, let’s seize the moment, navigate the chaos, and embrace AI as the innovation accelerant that it is.

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Don’t Waste Your Time Talking to Customers

(until you answer these 3 questions)

Don’t Waste Your Time Talking to Customers

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

You know that customer insights are important.

You spend time and money to collect customer insights. 

But are you using them?

And by “using,” I don’t mean summarizing, synthesizing, discussing, PowerPointing, and presenting the insights.  I mean making decisions, changing strategies, and rethinking plans based on them.

I posed this question to a few dozen executives.  The awkward silence spoke volumes.

Why do we talk to customers but not listen to them?

In a world of ever more constrained resources, why do we spend our limited time and money collecting insights that we don’t use meaningfully?

It seems wild to have an answer or an insight and not use it, especially if you spent valuable resources getting it.  Can you imagine your high school self paying $50 for the answer key to the final in your most challenging class, then crumpling it up, throwing it away, and deciding to just wing the exam?

But this isn’t an exam.  This is our job, profession, reputation, and maybe even identity.  We have experience and expertise.  We are problem solvers.

We have the answers (or believe that we do).

After all, customers can’t tell us what they want.  We’re supposed to lead customers to where they should be. Waiting for insights or changing decisions based on what customers think slows us down, and isn’t innovation all about “failing fast,” minimal viable products, and agility?

So, we talk to customers because we know we should. 

We use the answers and insights to ensure we have brilliant things to tell the bosses when they ask.

We also miss the opportunity to create something that changes the game.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

What do you NEED to learn?

It’s easy to rattle off a long list of things you want to learn from customers.  You probably also know the things you should learn from customers.  But what do you need to learn?

What do you need to know by the end of a conversation so that you can make a decision?

What is the missing piece in the puzzle that, without it, you can’t make progress?

What insight do you need so badly that you won’t end the conversation until you have it?

If the answer is “nothing,” why are you having the conversation?

Will you listen?

Hearing is the “process, function, or power of perceiving a sound,” while listening is “hearing things with thoughtful attention” and a critical first step in making a connection.  It’s the difference between talking to Charlie Brown’s teacher and talking to someone you care about deeply.  One is noise, the other is meaning.

You may hear everything in a conversation, but if you only listen to what you expect or want to hear, you’ll miss precious insights into situations, motivations, and social dynamics.

If you’re only going to listen to what you want to hear, why are you having the conversation?

Are you willing to be surprised?

We enter conversations to connect with others, and the best way to connect is to agree.  Finding common ground is exciting, comforting, and reassuring.  It’s great to meet someone from your hometown, who cheers for the same sports team, shares the same hobby, or loves the same restaurant.

When we find ourselves conversing with people who don’t share our beliefs, preferences, or experiences, our survival instincts kick in, and we fight, take flight, or (like my client) freeze.

But here’s the thing – you’re not being attacked by a different opinion. You’re being surprised by it. So, assuming you’re not under actual physical threat, are you willing to lean into the surprise, get curious, ask follow-up questions, and seek to understand it? 

If you’re not, why are you having the conversation?

Just because you should doesn’t mean you must.

You know that customer insights are important.

You spend time and money to collect customer insights. 

But are you using them to speed the path to product-market fit, establish competitive advantage, and create value?

If you’re not, why are you having the conversation?

Image Credit: Pexels

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LEGO Knows Why Companies Don’t Innovate

LEGO Knows Why Companies Don't Innovate

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

“Lego’s Latest Effort to Avoid Oil-Based Plastic Hits Brick Wall” – WSJ

“Lego axes plans to make bricks from recycled bottles” – BBC

“Lego ditches oil-free brick in sustainability setback” – The Financial Times

Recently, LEGO found itself doing the Walk of Atonement (see video below) after announcing to The Financial Times that it was scrapping plans to make bricks from recycled bottles, and media outlets from The Wall Street Journal to Fast Company to WIRED were more than happy to play the Shame Nun.

And it wasn’t just media outlets ringing the Shame Bell:

  • In the future, they should not make these kinds of announcements (prototype made from recyclable plastic) until they actually do it,” Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics
  • They are not going to survive as an organization if they don’t find a solution,” Paolo Taticchi, corporate sustainability expert at University College London.
  • “Lego undoubtedly had good intentions, but if you’re going to to (sic) announce a major environmental initiative like this—one that affects the core of your company—good intentions aren’t enough. And in this instance, it can even undermine progress.” Jesus Diaz, creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce, writing forFast Company

As a LEGO lover, I am not unbiased, but WOW, the amount of hypocritical, self-righteous judgment is astounding!  All these publications and pundits espouse the need for innovation, yet when a company falls even the tiniest bit short of aspirations, it’s just SHAME (clang) SHAME (clang) SHAME.

LEGO Atlantis 8073 Manta Warrior (i.e., tiny) bit of context

In 1946, LEGO founder Ole Kirk Christiansen purchased Denmark’s first plastic injection molding machine.  Today, 95% of the company’s 4,400 different bricks are made using acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), a plastic that requires 4.4 pounds of oil to produce 2.2 pounds of brick.  Admittedly, it’s not a great ratio, and it gets worse.  The material isn’t biodegradable or easily recyclable, so when the 3% of bricks not handed down to the next generation end up in a landfill, they’ll break down into highly polluting microplastics.

With this context, it’s easy to understand why LEGO’s 2018 announcement that it will move to all non-plastic or recycled materials by 2030 and reduce its carbon emissions by 37% (from 2019’s 1.2 million tons) by 2032 was such big news.

Three years later, in 2021, LEGO announced that its prototype bricks made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles offered a promising alternative to its oil-based plastic bricks. 

But last Monday, after two years of testing, the company shared that what was promising as a prototype isn’t possible at scale because the process required to produce PET-based bricks actually increases carbon emissions.

SHAME!

LEGO Art World Map (i.e. massive) amount of praise for LEGO

LEGO is doing everything that innovation theorists, consultants, and practitioners recommend:

  • Setting a clear vision and measurable goals so that people know what the priorities are (reduce carbon emissions), why they’re important (“playing our part in building a sustainable future and creating a better world for our children to inherit”), and the magnitude of change required
  • Defining what is on and off the table in terms of innovation, specifically that they are not willing to compromise the quality, durability, or “clutch power” of bricks to improve sustainability
  • Developing a portfolio of bets that includes new materials for products and packaging, new services to keep bricks out of landfills and in kids’ hands, new building and production processes, and active partnerships with suppliers to reduce their climate footprint
  • Prototyping and learning before committing to scale because what is possible at a prototype level is different than what’s possible at pilot, which is different from what’s possible at scale.
  • Focusing on the big picture and the long-term by not going for the near-term myopic win of declaring “we’re making bricks from more sustainable materials” and instead deciding “not to progress” with something that, when taken as a whole process, moves the company further away from its 2032 goal.

Just one minifig’s opinion

If we want companies to innovate (and we do), shaming them for falling short of perfection is the absolute wrong way to do it.

Is it disappointing that something that seemed promising didn’t work out?  Of course.  But it’s just one of many avenues and experiments being pursued.  This project ended, but the pursuit of the goal hasn’t.

Is 2 years a long time to figure out that you can’t scale a prototype and still meet your goals?  Maybe.  But, then again, it took P&G 10 years to figure out how to develop and scale a perforation that improved one-handed toilet paper tearing.

Should LEGO have kept all its efforts and success a secret until everything was perfect and ready to launch?  Absolutely not.  Sharing its goals and priorities, experiments and results, learnings and decisions shows employees, partners, and other companies what it means to innovate and lead.

Is LEGO perfect? No.

Is it trying to be better? Yes.

Isn’t that what we want?

Image Credit: Pixabay

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The Comforter Cold War of 2006

(or How Assumptions Stifle Innovation)

The Comforter Cold War of 2006

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

In the room were two single beds, each with a fluffy white comforter folded neatly on top.

“Yeah, this is not gonna work.”

I had just entered my one-bedroom corporate apartment in Copenhagen, and while everything else was pleasantly light and spacious, there was no way I would spend the next six months sleeping in a single bed.

So, I set down my suitcases and immediately pushed the two beds together, using the two nightstands to secure them. The two comforters would work since there was just one of me, and I made a mental note to request a king-sized comforter from the desk when I left for work in the morning.

Thus began the great Comforter Cold War of 2006/2007.

Every few days, I would request a king-sized comforter for my jerry-rigged king-sized bed.  I would return to find one queen-sized comforter.  The luxury of a larger comforter would diminish the disappointment of not getting an appropriately sized one, and I would bask in the warmth of fully covered sleep.  For one night. The next day, I would return to my room only to find that the two single comforters had returned.

This went on for nine months.

I shared this story of passive-aggressive housekeeping at my going away party with my colleagues. Midway through the story, I noticed the absolutely baffled looks on their faces.

“What?”

“Why did you want one comforter?”

“Because I have one bed.  A comforter should cover the bed.”

“Why?  A bed doesn’t need a comforter.  A person does.  You just need a comforter to cover you.”

[extended silence while we try to process each other’s points]

“So, does that mean that in Denmark, if a couple sleeps together, they each have their own comforter?”

“Yes, of course!  Why would we share?  Each person has their own temperature preferences, and there’s no worry about someone stealing your covers.”

My mind.  Was.  Blown.

This made so much sense. A comforter covers a person, so the 1:1 ratio of comforter to people is far more logical than a 1:1 ratio of comforter to bed (and often a 1:2 ratio of comforter to people).  Seriously, how many relationships would be saved by simply having separate comforters?

Yet, for nine months, it made more sense to me to battle for a comforter size that apparently doesn’t exist in the country without ever asking why I couldn’t get what I was so clearly and reasonably (in my mind) requesting.

I assumed the apartment building didn’t have king-sized comforters or only enough for the actual king-sized beds.  I assumed housekeeping was on automatic pilot, not realizing they were replacing a queen-sized comforter with two single ones.  I assumed that communication amongst the staff was poor, so my request wasn’t being shared.  I assumed a lot.

But I never assumed that I was wrong and that the root of the problem was a cultural difference so deeply ingrained and subtle that it never occurred to anyone to question it.

Question your assumptions.

Assumptions are a shortcut to understanding our world.  Based on culture, experiences, and even stereotypes, we make assumptions about what came before, who we’re interacting with, what’s happening now, and what will happen next.

Most of the time, we’re right (or at least more right than wrong), so we keep making assumptions. It’s also why, when our assumptions are wrong, we tend to question everything but our assumptions.

And that kills innovation because it limits our curiosity and imagination, our perception of what’s possible, and our willingness to engage with and learn from others.

We all cling to assumptions that lead to Cold Wars. 

What’s yours?

Image Credit: Pixabay

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