Innovation & The Importance of Crashing Into Walls

Every project has that looming obstacle in the distance (if not several), you know it’s there but you’re never sure when, where or how it’s going to appear. Even worse, you keep crashing into the same obstacles because that’s what the process tells you to do.

In the latter case people often don’t realize they’re hitting the wall because it’s always been that way, or they’re so removed from the people actually doing the work they never know what is happening. It’s as if you send your car off with someone you don’t know and they return it back to you sometime later, smashed up but just barely recognizable. At that point you’re so glad to see it again that you simply take it and say “Thank You”.

For innovators in a big organization I think it’s a critical part of our job to seek out those obstacles and deliberately go crashing headfirst into them. Let me explain…

The Field and The Jungle

My biggest learning in the past few months since joining a huge organization has been just how many obstacles there are and how hard it can be to identify who’s responsible and how to resolve the issue. There are endless rabbit holes of anonymous forms, group email addresses and blackbox processes where you slip in your idea and wait to see what comes out.

Having previously worked in nothing but small organizations & start-ups (<20 people, usually 3-5) in the past I always knew who was responsible for a specific task or process and where I could go if I was having problems. If it couldn’t be solved there was always a way around the problem. I’d equate it to standing on a path through an open field with some small pebbles and rocks blocking your path – Sure you’d hit the odd big, immovable rock (i.e. “Money”) but generally getting over, around or just plain removing an obstacle always seemed possible.

The path

Compare that to a big enterprise where it’s more like walking down a narrow, sometimes barely discernible, path in a heavy jungle that turns black with darkness a few feet off the path. Sure you encounter the odd pebble and rock but quite often you find yourself face to face with a giant boulder obstructing the way. It could probably be moved, and you know the person responsible for it is somewhere out there in the jungle, but stepping off the path is fraught with danger and you’re not even sure who you’re looking for. It’s full of risk and many people are taught “stay on the path”. As a result, many simply stand at the boulder waiting for someone or something to come along and roll it out of the way for them, resenting the process while they watch their project backup on the trail behind them.

Innovation in a Big Organization

In the team we refer to the three types of innovation work we address “New to ‘us'”, “New to the Industry”, and “New to the World” – of course everyone would rather play in that final category but the reality is very few organizations have the stomach for, or capability to play in, that realm.  Instead there’s a lot of time spent bringing new to us, or new to the industry, ideas that have traction in the ‘outside’ world into the organization.

Increasingly though, I’m seeing the role of our team evolve to become jungle guides – it’s become less about “what” we bring into the organization but more about the “how” we bring things in. There are actually plenty of innovative people in the organization, everyday we learn of initiatives or ideas that are being hatched and worked on. Too often though we hear about them because the people championing them are coming to us looking for help navigating the trail.

Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

Our team has a huge advantage in the enterprise jungle – Our cross-functional make-up of our team (we all report to different areas of the organization) and interaction with a diverse group of people across the organization gives us a unique view of the landscape. Our complementary skills (Strategist, Business Analyst, Facilitator and a Developer) serve as a giant machete, it’s not hard for us to blaze new trails occasionally and when we get on open trails we can move quickly. Lastly, our executive support means we’ve got air support that when necessary, can be used to help get obstacles out of our way.

Put the Stick Away

Here’s the thing though – putting all those tools to use helps in the short term, but in the long run it doesn’t actually help the organization. It all comes down to whether you want innovative ‘things’ or an innovative culture. Sure we can push a new technology or application through a little quicker or find loopholes and openings to get us around the obstacles but that isn’t something the average employee has the benefit of. To really benefit the organization we need to go running headfirst into some of these obstacles. This will necessarily mean it takes longer to get to our destination but there’s no point in blazing new trails that other people can’t follow.

Crash Test Dummies

The IIHS doesn’t crash cars into things because it’s fun (though I’m sure it doesn’t hurt) – they smash them into the walls, see what happens and then learn from their findings. As innovators we need to crash a few cars. Our advantage is we’re equipped for the crash. We know we can withstand it, and largely, we’re in control of it – we can see the obstacle ahead and we can choose when, where and even how fast we’re going to crash into it.


Now I’m not advocating rushing recklessly into walls to see what happens, to be effective you need to control the experiment as much as possible – in our case we first Scout out what’s ahead on the road. We learn what’s ahead while trying to balance not over familiarizing ourselves with the process, just enough to have a pretty good hunch where something is going to break. It’s important to scout on both sides, with the drivers and the obstacle owners. Find out what’s failed for people and learn what is expected at each stage – then you can put your car on the track.

There will often be multiple obstacles, take on one at a time.

Look What Happened To My Car

We need to crash into these walls not just so we can make better cars (better prepare our projects/ideas) but also so we can go visit the owner of the obstacle and say “Look what happened to my car” and hear their version of what happened. It’s not about blame, but rather understanding. One there’s common understanding we can begin to determine if the obstacle is the right size and how we better let the drivers know where it is so they can anticipate it.

I’ve been consistently amazed when I talk to the groups on either side and find how similar their stories are. Each feels the other doesn’t understand them, has unreasonable requests and ridiculous time lines. “There’s not enough information” “They can’t tell me what information they need” – the list goes on. The reality is, neither side is to blame, often there’s multiple middlemen between the people with the request and the people whose job it is to fufil it.

Communicate & Facilitate Change

At the end of the day this is all an exercise in communication. You need to crash a car or two so you can demonstrate that you’ve followed the path and something isn’t working long it and it builds credibility with all involved. The most important thing is to avoid blame, note the wording of “look what happened to my car” versus “look what your boulder did to my car” . The obstacle owners aren’t mischievous punks who put a big rock out to see what happens – they may not even be aware it’s there or that something they’re doing makes it bigger than it needs to be. Everyone is trying to do their own job to the best of the ability but they may have goals or expectations that challenge the others. This process is about helping create awareness about what each participant needs and helping create an environment where those needs are fulfilled.

Sometimes awareness is all that’s needed, other times the solution is more complex but if we don’t follow the path we’ll never gain those insights.

Photos: Car Wreck – OpenSkyMedia | Jungle Path – chrissuderman

The Power of a Single Marker

Dave GrayWant to create a dictatorship in a workshop? Put one marker in the room.

I suppose I always knew this in the back of my head but learned it first hand this week while facilitating a 3-day long ‘think tank’ workshop at the bank I work at. As part of the process team I had helped design a self-facilitated process that teams would guide themselves through over the course of the day.

It was fairly standard vision-creation fare; ‘What’s our vision? What’s Stopping Us from getting There? How does our business model need to change? What do We Do First?” and exercises to help them think about do the thinking to answer those questions. To help them out we also had a team of roving facilitators (myself and the crew from The Moment) who would check on them periodically and either help them through parts they didn’t understand, or in the case of the teams who might be storming through, make sure they’re really working on expanding their thinking and not just trying to ‘Slam Dunk’ the idea.

A Room Full of Leaders
We expected there might be the odd challenge for teams as these were all high-performing individuals, each a leader (or potential leader) in their own respect – it didn’t take long for my first interesting scenario to pop-up.

I immediately knew one team was in for an interesting ride when I walked into their room 5 minutes into the morning and one team member (let’s call him ‘Bob’) was already laying out their ‘idea’ to them. My presence in the room received looks from other members of the team that clearly conveyed “help!” – their guide packages hadn’t even been opened yet. A quick pep-talk on trusting the process and the thinking that they needed to do before jumping to the ideas seemed to get them back on track and I wandered off to check on my other teams. However, when I returned a little while later I noticed that Bob was up once again, marker in hand and in control of the conversation.

The Invisible Hand
Now, when I do these types of sessions I try to insert myself into the team’s discussion as little as possible – I always picture those cars at amusement parks – the ones where you can steer a bit but there’s a rail to prevent you from getting too far off course. My job is to be that rail – if you’re steering nicely then most of the time you won’t even notice it’s there a little rub here and there to help make the corner but the passengers are probably completely unaware it’s happening – sometimes it takes a slightly rougher bounce to reinforce the path. The latter should be a rarity though if your process is designed right.

As a result, most of my time is spent listening to the teams trying to get a sense of how they’ve advanced since I last saw them as well as feeling out how ‘healthy’ the dialog is. Is everyone engaged & contributing? Has anyone checked out? What’s the body language in the room?

In the case of this room, Bob was the only one standing. The rest of the team were in their chairs. A couple of the team members looked to be on the verge of checking out, a few were actively listening and two were actively contributing to the dialog. Nothing surprising until I realized almost nothing was getting captured unless Bob either came up with the idea, or the idea supported his theory. The team wasn’t consciously aware of it but you could certainly see how it was playing out in the body language. As I scanned the room though, something clicked for me – I couldn’t see any other markers. There was only one visible, and it was firmly in Bob’s hand – the team hadn’t realized it but they had unwittingly granted him a dictatorship over their process.

Restoring Democracy
Four whiteboard pens and a highlighterSo how to restore democracy? Bob was a good guy and I don’t think he even realized what he was doing – I know when I’m capturing stuff in sessions there’s time where my mind really doesn’t want to add some other idea to the board but as a facilitator I’m conscious and aware of those types of thoughts/actions when I’m in the room. Had I stopped him and asked he probably would have told me he’d captured all the ideas that the team had come up with. I also risked alienating him and/or causing him to checkout from the process if I called him out on it in front of the team.

Instead I didn’t do anything, I left the room and asked the facility staff for some more markers. When I came back I placed them on the table (in front of the two who were actively trying to get in on the conversation) and simply said “I noticed your room didn’t get enough markers” then walked out. Ten minutes later I peeked in the window and there were a couple of people up at the boards, people were leaning forward in their chairs and the dialog was rolling along again. They never knew what happened, no one felt their car rub the rail.

Letting Other Ideas Bloom
I also made a mental note to come back to these guys at a critical moment in the conversation where they would flesh out their future vision. Time was tight and I didn’t want to chance them getting stuck in a similar cycle again if Bob really tried to drive his idea home.  It was a part of the process that had been deliberately left open, in that there were no instructions other than “You’ve got an hour, and this is what you need to have by the end of it” – the roving facilitators all knew to visit their teams early in this step and help the teams get off to the right start. So with this team I suggested they break into two groups and do some brainstorming & bodystorming to get some ideas, then regroup and discuss later in the hour.

I didn’t want to squash Bob’s idea but it’s important to ensure other ideas have the opportunity to grow and the team has a crop of ideas to choose from. By splitting the team I ensured that even if Bob convinced half of the team his idea was the way to go other ideas would have the chance to bloom with the other group.

In the end, the team came up with their own idea that incorporated bits and pieces of their individual ideas (including Bob’s) and I think they came up with an interesting concept. This was another case where the team didn’t realize what was happening but they had gently been guided around another corner.

All-in-all if you asked this team how much facilitating I actually did they’d probably say not much, that’d I’d just answered some questions for them and helpfully got them some markers.

Photo Credits: Marker Tray – massdistraction | Guy at Whiteboard – Bill Keaggy | Markers – Tim Green aka atoach

Sidenote: The guy at the Whiteboard is not Bob but a guy named Dave. Dave’s pretty much the anti-Bob