Kill the chicken - Pt I

A blog by Martin Erasmuson.

First published April 2016.  Updated and republished June 2018.

You’ll often see organisations state ‘innovation’ as one of their core values.  This is usually easy to spot because it is typically written in a funky, bold font on a poster on the wall under the title: ‘Our Values’.  Despite such value statements, 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 to describe the conditions necessary to foster innovation; most would struggle to give a satisfactory account.  Even those organisations with a sincere wish to promote innovation, and even evidence of that happening, they remain puzzled why really good ideas struggle to take root.  It's like watching reruns of Gilligan's Island where each episode starts with some crazy idea to get off the island, and things start off well, but then as the episode proceeds things go wrong and in the end everyone eds up back where they started, back on the island. Then 'rinse and repeat' but somehow the status quo persists.  How did it get like that?

When I was a young boy growing up in North Canterbury in the rural South Island 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 told 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 because any individual chicken that does not conform to colour and behavior of the other chickens in that shed will be harassed to death by its shed-mates.  The chickens my mother brought home just didn’t match the expected behaviors, 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 culture, articulated as ‘the way we do things around here’.  Typically unspoken, you will see that culture or norm-congruence in action when people, behaviors or ideas, that do not conform to this unspoken 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 seek to come to grips with ‘how people do things around here’ and look to conform to that model.  

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”.   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.  In his book 'The Element', 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 make mistakes.

How does an organisation cultivate a culture where staff have ‘permission’ to experiment, innovation by design?  I think it has something to do with starvation, insight and desire. 

More on that in my next blog.

Kill the Chicken Pt II