Kill the chicken - Pt I

You’ll often see organisations state ‘innovation’ as one of their core values.  This is easy to spot because it is typically written in large letters in a bold font on a poster on the wall under the heading ‘Our Values’.  Despite such value statements and indeed a sincere wish to promote innovation, most organisations, particularly those in the Public Sector struggle to introduce anything truly innovative into their business.  Indeed if you were to ask senior managers and executives to describe the conditions necessary to foster innovation; most would struggle to give a satisfactory account.  Some might articulate the basics but are puzzled why really good ideas struggle to take root and the status quo persists.  How did it get like that?

When I was a young boy growing up in rural North Canterbury in the South Island of New Zealand, my mother, for a time, worked at a local poultry farm.  Occasionally she would arrive home with refugees; hens she had rescued from the farm.  These hens, my mother would tell me, were a different colour from all the other hens in the shed.  Apparently, on commercial poultry farms it is usual practice to have only one breed and colour of chicken in a particular shed.  That is because any individual chicken that does not conform to the colour and behaviour of the other chickens in that shed will be harassed and eventually killed by its shed-mates.  The chickens my mother brought home just didn’t match the expected behaviours, the ‘norms’ of the shed they were in.

Well it turns out that organisations are a lot like chicken sheds.  Every organisation on the planet has an overt, though typically covert ‘way we do things around here’ or norm-congruence.  Typically unspoken, you will see norm-congruence in actions when individuals, behaviours or ideas that do not conform to this unspoken underground culture of established norms and values; are quickly killed-off.

In many ways this is unsurprising given our tribal heritage which suggests that conformity, or tribalism is a way of thinking and behaving that manifests with individual people being more loyal to their tribe than even their friends, family or country.  i.e. Street Gangs, Football hooligans etc.  This is backed up by an industrial-era education system that, along with math and literacy; teaches us the importance of avoiding getting stuff wrong; to know the answers; learn the rules; fit in; look good and above all; avoid looking bad.  When we enter the workforce, we take this tribal-educo modus operandi with us into any new organisation such that we’ll immediately want to come to grips with ‘how people do things around here’ and above all, avoid making mistakes.

Unfortunately such a mistake-adverse; blame-driven culture can never support innovation.  Dictionary.com describes innovation as:

* Something new or different introduced

* Introduction of new things or methods

Anyone who has been involved in successful start-up projects can tell you how many times they failed before they eventually succeeded.  One of my favourites is that of Norm Larson, inventor of the water-displacing lubricant WD-40.  WD-40 literally stands for “Water Displacement – 40th Formula (Attempt)”.   It took Larson and his team 40 attempts to get the formula right (though they might have considered a snappier name).

Innovation relies on trial and error, individual and collective intuition, a willingness to have a go and; most importantly, a willingness and acceptance that you’ll get some stuff wrong.  Sir Ken Robinson points out: “Getting things wrong is not the same as being innovative but if you are not prepared to be wrong; you’ll never come up with anything original.”

Many organisations desire the very thing their culture makes it almost impossible to achieve.  And when things do go wrong, which is all the time, we have developed all manner of alternatives to innovation in an attempt to fix the problem while trying, we think, to play it safe; to not to make mistakes.

How do organisations cultivate a culture where staff have ‘permission’ to innovate in a controlled or at least directed fashion?  I think it has something to do with starvation, insight and desire. 

Go to 'Kill the Chicken Pt II: http://www.stratsim.co.nz/new-blog/kill-the-chicken-pt-2