On Criticism and Innovation

When working on a project or just doing day-to-day work, managers and team members are given countless opportunities to either praise, criticize, or ignore others work. HBR just wrote an article called ‘The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio’ that explains how a mix of both is best to improve team performance. The research was a bit limited in that it took a binary view of praise/criticism and ignored ‘flavors’ of criticism like sarcasm and disparaging remarks. Recognizing that limitation, they found that a ratio of 5 positive comments to 1 negative comment was most beneficial to team performance.

What - How - Why: On Leadership and Success

I'm a huge fan of Ted talks and just found one that I highly recommend where Simon Sinek describes the biological foundations for why people grow to be successful leaders. His idea is that people and companies work at three levels: the what, how, and why. Most people and organizations work at the what layer. Ask someone "tell me about yourself" and they will surely explain what their job is and what they do in their free time.

Sun Tzu Knows Innovation

In a recent course, I was asked to come up with three quotes that I like on leadership. My top choices were:

1. “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

Source: Steve Jobs; 2005 Stanford University Commencement Speech

Why it resonates: From interviewing and observing leaders, a common trait seems to always be motivation (Stay Hungry) and two leaders told me the key to their success was to take risks (Stay Foolish).

2. “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

Source: Wayne Gretzky

Why it resonates: A leader has a vision for the future and aligns events and people in such a way that they are able to be successful and achieve a common goal. 

3. “A skilled commander seeks victory from the situation and does not demand it of his subordinates. He selects suitable men and exploits the situation. He who utilizes the situation uses his men in fighting as one rolls logs or stones.”

Source: Art of War, Sun Tzu

Why it resonates: Leaders must not try to extract outcomes from workers, but instead they should create circumstances, use the environment/situation to their advantage, and utilize resources (including financial and human) so the natural result is success.

When I looked back at them, I realized all three of these quotes align with both leadership and innovation.  My favorite was from Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese military general who is famous for his treatise on military strategy. His quote reminds me, that a true innovator looks at the prevailing consumer needs before shoving a useless product down the market’s throat. It may be possible to earn revenue through operational excellence, ingenious marketing, and fantastic salesmanship, but in the long run all that is for naught if consumers don’t have any need for what your selling. Is it possible that Sun Tzu was the world’s first military design thinker? I’ll vote yes.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re an ancient Roman general in charge of the western front of Sudan. You’ve been in a few battles before and decided to you can just copy-paste your last battle strategy into the one you’re facing today. Remember, you’re imagining here. Surely, it’s possible to demand that your front line swordsmen and archers move forward along path 1 and 2 then complete 3 tasks, but this linear thinking ignores important environmental realities. You’ve already decided that you’re only going to focus on path 1 and 2 so what happens when the conditions are different and the enemy responds in a different way? Most likely, you’ll fail when your whole battle plan is solely based on a framework for a battlefield different than what you planned on encountering.

Sun Tzu speaks of natural consequences such as rolling logs down a hill. It’s simple laws of physics that you’re dealing with here – it’s innate and unchangeable. Similarly, if you can find the product that meets the (natural) needs of consumers you’ll find a captive audience of buyers. You’ll gain great momentum in the marketplace if you take time before you hit the production line researching what consumers actually want way before you start building. The greatest design thinkers have been doing this for decades. It’s always fun to have a solution, but it’s better to realize the problem first, and then define the solution.

Luckily for you, consumers are always looking for more. Technology is changing every day and expectations rise constantly. Successful innovation, then, is about meeting this rising tide of change with a product that solves a problem at the right price. Success is there for the taking because you’ve already realized success – all you need to do is execute it.

On Leadership

Are innovation leaders born or made? I just finished my first summer class of the year and was left with some great thoughts on Leadership. Our professor, David Hirschey made interesting points and asked several pointed questions that got me (and the rest of class) thinking.

Q: What is innovation? A: The application of creativity 

Hirschey posed this question to the class and few had a solid answer. I like his concise way of defining innovation and I think he’s spot on. I love to think of new ideas: a freeway system of driverless pod-cars; windows that capture energy like solar panels; or sharks with lasers – but these are just fun and creative thoughts. Once I sell my first laser-shark to the military, then I’m an innovator.

Q: Are leaders born or made? A: Umm...made? 

Okay, he didn’t really answer but because he’s a behaviorist he must believe they are made, right? Behaviorists posit that people can learn to become a leader through guidance and observation and that you should focus on future leaders mental qualities and internal states to drive change.

A similar question – are innovation leaders born or made? Again, I believe that you may be naturally creative, but if you are going to be an innovator, you have to work to get your product to market in a meaningful way. You have to desire change, and work to influence those around you (your followers) towards a common goal. We chatted for a bit on whether or not it’s okay to be manipulative or Machiavellian as a leader. My thought is that if your groups end goal is justifiable and virtuous in some way shape or form, you should use all reasonable (no poking or prodding please) methods to encourage behaviors that create the change necessary for success.

Statement: human capital should focus on onboarding and performance management.

This thought makes perfect sense to me. You have one chance to make a first impression and if you screw it up you’ll never get it back. Once you’ve made that first impression, its up to you to get the most out of your employees and retain them. This statement has a perfect parallel into innovation. You have one chance to go to market with your new product - make sure you do it right. If you fumble around, deliver a buggy product, and leave users wanting more they will move on. Similarly, once you’ve got your product out there, continue to refine the product in a way that ensures users believe you still care about them. You can do this by fixing the issues they bring up online or through your operations call centers and ensuring that iteration 2 of your product is more aligned with how your first user base wanted to use the product.

Q: What’s the problem with common sense? A: It’s not that common.

It seems like we could ask the same thing about disruptive innovation…