Spur Innovation.

Spur Innovation.

Your business needs it, you ask employees for it, you incent them to deliver it, but in the end, do you really get it? I’m talking about innovation. When the Conference Board queried CEOs in 2018, it found that one of their most important concerns was “creating new business models to adapt to disruptive technologies.”

Unfortunately, many companies, even those with innovative histories, struggle to keep up with the torrid pace of change in their industries. This past fall, for instance, Starbucks, an organization widely regarded as nimble and forward-looking, announced a restructuring, with CEO Kevin Johnson emphasizing the need to “increase the velocity of innovation.” Established businesses have trouble innovating for many reasons, including siloed structures, fuzzy strategies, inadequate talent, and not enough funding. “Softer” factors also come into play, for example, a team or corporate culture that fails to give employees the time and space they need to think creatively.

How do effective leaders overcome these hurdles? I’ve spent the past decade studying creative bosses, such as filmmaker George Lucas, hedge fund guru Julian Robertson, and fashion magnate Ralph Lauren, who not only innovate but also create work environments in which everyone else does too. When I advise leaders on how to bring some of the same behavior into their organizations, I emphasize that it’s OK to start small. And one of the first tools I recommend is a group exercise I call the “change notebook.”

Here’s how it works: At your next team meeting, pull out a pad of paper, turn to an empty page, and divide it into three columns. Each one corresponds to a question relevant for innovation:

  1. “What is the existing practice/the recipe for success/the way we’ve always done it at our organization?” Jot your thoughts down in the left-hand column, including the key beliefs or assumptions underlying the practice. Then look critically at each of them and ask yourself if any are on the verge of becoming anachronistic or obsolete.
  2. “What market shifts, external forces, or technologies might threaten the elements of our operational status quo?” List these in the middle column.
  3. “What can we do about these impending disruptions you’ve uncovered?” For each one, use the right-hand column to note some preemptive action you could take. Sometimes you’ll want to tweak an existing practice to render it “disruption-proof.” Other times you’ll need to toss it out and start from scratch.

When a team at one of my client companies, a midsize insurer specializing in the automobile market, ran through this exercise, employees identified a number of operational “sacred cows” — practices like designing policy parameters based on past experience, selling to customers through independent agents, subcontracting with insurance adjusters to work with customers after an incident, and putting premiums into secure investment options. Threats to the business noted by the team included self-driving cars, the growth of Uber-type services, the rise of larger insurance companies offering “one-stop shopping,” the digital customization of policies for customers, a volatile investing climate, and the company’s increased vulnerability to bad publicity on social media.

Brainstorming actions to take, executives came up with a range of options, including studying self-driving cars and their implications more closely, creating new products and services for gig-economy workers, seeking out ways to tighten relationships with existing customers, scouring their network of independent brokerages for digital innovations they might exploit, and reevaluating the company’s investment portfolio for its resilience in the face of volatility. Whether or not all of these ongoing initiatives succeed, the exercise spurred team members to break out of entrenched mindsets, leading to far more innovative results than if they had remained passive.

As you experiment with the change notebook, you’ll find that your team members become progressively more comfortable exploring new ideas, including those that conflict with the status quo, and taking action to deal with looming change before it catches them unawares. Don’t just do the exercise once and forget it; make it a regular part of your team’s workflow. Devote 15 minutes to it at a weekly team meeting, filling in a new page of the notebook each week. Remind yourselves of potential disruptions you’ve identified in the past, and then work on spotting new ones.

Over time your team will gain more facility in the exercise. Due to the structured nature of these conversations, change will come to seem less chaotic and scary, and team members will become accustomed to talking through disagreements and tough issues. If my experience consulting with teams is any indication, you’ll also get group members in the habit of pulling themselves away from daily concerns to focus on the big picture. You’ll help them internalize the notion that change, not stasis or stability, is a fundamental quality of business; eventually, this sensibility will color everything they do.

It’s easy for teams and organizations to fall into a pattern of reacting to change. But why can’t you be the aggressive, proactive ones? You can. Follow the example of the world’s greatest bosses, and take an important step toward instilling a culture of creativity, growth, openness, and innovation that your team or organization so desperately needs.

By Sidney Filkenstein

Now is the Time.

Now is the Time.


The time to blossom is now, not sometime in the future when you believe the stars will be aligned for you.

Having a vision for our future that differs from our current circumstances can be inspiring and exciting, but it can also keep us from fully committing to our present placement. We may become aware that this is happening when we notice our thoughts about the future distracting us from our participation in the moment. We may find upon searching our hearts that we are waiting for some future time or situation in order to self-actualize. This would be like a flower planted in North Dakota putting off blooming because it would prefer to do so in Illinois. 

There are no guarantees in this life, so when we hold back we do so at the risk of never fully blossoming. This present moment always offers us the ground in which we can take root and open our hearts now. What this means is that we live fully, wherever we are, not hesitating because conditions are not perfect, or we might end up moving, or we haven’t found our life partner. This can be scary, because we might feel that we are giving up our cherished dreams if we do not agree to wait for them.

But this notion that we have to hold back our life force now in order to find happiness later doesn’t really make sense. What might really be happening is that we are afraid to embrace this moment, and ourselves, just exactly as we are right now. This constitutes a tendency to hold back from fully loving ourselves, as we are, where we are. 

We have a habit of presenting life with a set of conditions–ifs and whens that must be fulfilled before we will say yes to the gift of our lives. Now is the time for each of us to bloom where we are planted, overriding our tendency to hold back.

Now is the time to say yes, to be brave and commit fully to ourselves, because until we do no one else will. Now is the time to be vulnerable, unfolding delicately yet fully into the space in which we find ourselves.

Leveraging corporate politics to drive change.

Leveraging corporate politics to drive change.

Change Starts With Alignment

The need to have people on the same page is huge when implementing a major change. This is particularly true when the change involves thinking differently to solve a problem that can’t be solved by doing things better, faster, or cheaper. Enabling leaders to get people aligned is always necessary, but is seldom easy. 

Harness The Power of Politics

Alignment is also an area where an objective outside point of view can really help. The reason for that is corporate politics: the hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) agendas competing just under the surface in large organizations.  Politics in the office have the power to sink a change initiative or catapult it to raging success. To get to the latter, you need to think politically. It’s easy to say but what does that look like in a world where anything close to being, ‘political’ is the antithesis of effective?

Change Your Perspective

Thinking and acting politically is not about joining the bureaucracy standing in the way of progress. It is about taking a very hard and realistic look at the agendas of all the stakeholders involved in a change. It is seeking to understand how their situation relates to the proposed change and how it will affect them, so you know how to plan for and address the transitions they will go through. The concerns they will deal with are very real and will have a huge impact on whether or not they will align behind the change or quietly seek to undermine it. A leading expert in tackling adaptive challenges, Ron Heifetz, perfectly describes how to think things through change from a stakeholder’s perspective in his book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. For each stakeholder, you need to identify their:

  • Stakes – How will they be affected by the change? Think in terms of them personally, their team and their business. Intangibles like credibility or influence are important stakes to consider.
  • Desired Outcomes – What do they want to happen in terms of this change? It often makes sense to ask them directly in a safe environment.
  • Engagement – How much (or little) do they care about the change? Figuring out where it is on their radar will go a long way to helping you figure out how to make it a focus.
  • Power and Influence – What resources and people do they control and what or who is competing for those resources or time?
  • Values – What commitments have they made and what beliefs do they have that guide their decisions? Positioning the change favorably in terms of what’s important to them will help to create alignment.
  • Loyalties – What obligations and relationships do they have with people outside their group that could impact the change? Don’t underestimate the degree to which they will support an ally’s position.
  • Losses at Risk – What do they fear losing as a result of the change (status, resources, power, etc.)?

The best way to gather this information is almost always to ask directly. The fact is, however, you may not get an honest answer. You’ll need to make judgment calls and do your best to interpret what you hear along with your observations. The other challenge to accuracy here is your own objectivity. It is easy to get caught up in your own agenda of implementing the change. Your own assumptions about other stakeholders can create a blindside if you aren’t able to fly up to a 50,000-foot view and look down at the situation to see it in its entirety. That’s where an objective point of view helps.