Experimentation Matters

Embed from Getty Images


“Experimentation matters because it fuels the discovery and creation of knowledge and thereby leads to the development and improvement of products, processes, systems, and organizations.”  -Stefan Thomke Experimentation Matters: Unlocking the Potential of New Technologies for Innovation

Never has there been an easier time for us to ask more what if questions, while actually having greater access to the tools and means to actually explore those questions; cheaper, easier, faster.  However, far too often, we often continue to be satisfied in playing it safe, staying content with what is, what we have, and what we’ve always done.  Yeah, we all know, change is hard.

And yet, as we have all heard at one time or another, there will be no innovation without exploration and experimentation.

Which is healthy to consider, as we see the rising importance of creativity and innovation in almost every profession is vital to the ongoing growth and progress of today’s organizations.  In a time of turbulent change, accelerated through an overwhelming growth in data, both experimentation and discovery learning will be vital to keep our organizations vibrant, flexible and future-relevant.

As Emilia Saarelainen shares in the article Why There’s No Innovation Without Experimentation,  “Experimentation is a bit like innovation, a word that can mean different things to different people and in the worst case, it is just an empty word without meaningful intent.  However, experimenting itself doesn’t need to be complicated, in the purest form it is about trying thing out in small-scale.  We don’t need to know the extensive experimentation vocabulary to test our ideas or to experiment.  We can spend ages on brainstorming good (or bad) ideas, but without testing them, they are just concepts without any evidence to prove that they would work.  So the question to ask is not “what’s your idea?” but “how have you tried to test it?”

The funny thing is that we are often experimenting continuously on an ongoing basis, both in our personal and professional lives, without even knowing or acknowledging we are doing it (utilizing what Henry Mintzberg consider more of an emergent than a deliberate strategy towards experimentation).

The problem with this approach, especially across an organization, is that without creating any type of process and/or systems for engaging experimentation, as well as a lack of determining any goals or outcomes up front for the experimentation, we find ourselves spinning our organizational wheels.

First, lacking any organizational process or system the learning from the experimentation is often lost, or remains stasis, stagnant and fails to have any level of reach by its limited ability and access to create flow across organizational learning networks.

Second, without setting goals and outcomes up front for the experimentation, it is difficult to determine if you have hit the target you were working towards, or not.  Setting goals and outcomes up front allows for greater feedback and learning from the experimentation, as the point where end up becomes a valuable space for improvement.  The in-between gap of where we wanted to be and where we ended up serves as our learning gap.  It is that space, that gap, that we gain feedback that loops back to us providing important information for progress.  This learning gap provides the impetus for iteration and next steps, as well as providing new learning and knowledge along the way.

Third, when experimentation happens in individual pockets lacking any organizational processes or systems, the learning and knowledge gained from the experimentation fails to scale to any level across the organization, leaving that learning and knowledge in static pockets.  If we are to scale innovation across our organization beyond bright spots, we have to make sure that the learning and knowledge gained from ongoing experimentation flows to all levels of the organization.

As Thomke puts forth, “Indeed, at the heart of every company’s ability to innovate lies a process of experimentation that enables the organization to create and evaluate new ideas and concepts for products, services, business models, or strategies.”  For which he adds, “All companies have some experimentation process at work but not everyone organizes that process to invite innovation.”

In their Harvard Business Review article The Discipline of Business Experimentation, Stefan Thomke and Jim Manzi provide a set of question that can serve as a pre-flight checklist for running any type of organizational experimentation:

  • Does The Experiment Have A Clear Purpose?
  • Have Stakeholders Made A Commitment To Abide By The Results?
  • Is The Experiment Doable?
  • How Can We Ensure Reliable Results?
  • Have We Gotten The Most Value Out Of The Experiment?

Just remember, experimentation is not easy and it is often accompanied by fear; a fear of failure, a fear of the unknown, a fear of stepping out the status quo and the pushback that it will create, as well as the fear of the changes and course adjustments it might require as it creates new data, new learning, and new knowledge that will eventually lead to new behaviors, new ways of thinking and new ways of doing.

Experimentation often shifts not only behaviors, but mindsets.  Especially in its action-orientation.

We are beginning to understand that we live in an exponentially evolving world, a world in the throes of constant change, a world that pushes us to live more and more in a beta-state.  It is that beta-state, that beginners mindset, that allows us to be more open to experimentation and more open to the often unexpected answers it provides and the plethora of new questions it provokes.  It forces us to not predetermine our solutions and answers up front and then make the results fit what we already think we know and have previously decided.  It requires us to be open.

Which can be a heavy leadership lift.

Too often we feed people a false narrative about creativity and innovation, instead of the reality, which is that it is and can be really hard work.  It can be difficult and even a bit scary.  It requires resilience, a willingness to persist, and to consistently practice experimentation that leads to engagement in discovery learning.

For innovation is founded in a constant search for better, which necessitates ongoing bouts of experimentation.  For creating greater value, be that for an individual, a team, or an entire organization, requires ongoing not only greater levels of awareness for today’s leaders, but ongoing cycles of experimentation, discovery, implementation, iteration, adoption, standardization, and disruption.

“Innovation is not driven by a single great idea or the result of magical serendipity; innovation is a process of disciplined exploration and experimentation.”  -Lisa Kay Solomon





Overlays And Stacking

Embed from Getty Images


“You can’t paint a picture on top of a picture on a canvas.  You can’t write a sentence on a page that is filled up with writing.  You can’t create a future when there is already one coming at you.  Before anything is to be created, there has to be a space of nothingness.  The canvas must be empty; the page, blank; and the future that you were living into, somehow emptied out.”  Saffron and Logan The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life

Much of what we do in the present, inevitably sets the stage for the future, and is driven by our past.

If an organization is going to truly transform, it has to begin to redefine the work of its leaders.  It has to teach itself to think different, if we are ever going to get to doing different.  Which means, we have to begin to move ourselves over from the world that we currently reside in, to a world that we talk of wanting to be in…

  • We can’t say we want better questions, when we place more value on coming to easy answers and quick solutions  
  • We can’t tout the benefits of collaboration, when we pit our organization against itself through competing and competitive attitudes
  • We can’t create environments of creativity, when we only celebrate a sense of compliance
  • We can’t see bright spots of innovation, when everyone is constrained to an agenda of implementation
  • We can’t build up towards greater agility and adaptability, when we are mired in bureaucracy
  • We will never get to differentiation, when only focus on standardization
  • We will never learn to enjoy the journey, if we are only determined to the destination
  • We won’t ever transform, when the only thing we ever discuss is reform

Unless we are willing to reflect deeply on our mental models and how they affect our present and future, those mental models will continue to pull and entrench us in practices of the past.  It is only when we are able to unlock ourselves from those mental models, that we are able to approach the present and future with a clean canvas.

Otherwise, much of what we do is based in and o overlays and stacking.

When we are unable to unlock ourselves from our mental models and clean the canvas, we not only continue to pull the past into the future, we spend our time overlaying and stacking upon that past.  Which means that we are often building upon a foundation that is often found to be outdated and irrelevant.

Or as Dalmau and Tideman share, “And with different kinds of problems or issues come different required modes of thinking, different approaches, different mental models.”

And we can say with precision, that we are in a time where we are facing very different problems and a very non-obvious future that will require different thinking, different approaches and definitely different mental models, if we are to face this very different and non-obvious future in a much more relevant, positive and successful manner.

We can no longer believe that we can overlay and stack our way effectively into the future.

In their book, The Three Laws of Performance, Saffron and Logan put forth that there are “three dimensions to this process of “blanking the canvas.”  It is when we are able to effectively move through these “dimensions”that we can begin to truly create the space for the emergence of the new.

  • “The first dimension is seeing that what binds and constrains us isn’t the facts, it’s language – and in particular, descriptive language.”  Far too often, we bind ourselves to the past and limit our possibilities in the present and future by our own language, both in what is said and what is left unsaid.
  • “The second dimension is articulating the default future and asking, “Do we really want this as our future?”  If we want our story of the future to have a different ending than the one that we believe has already been written, then we need to be able to create a new narrative, a narrative that takes us to where we want to go, to a much more desirable future.  This is a choice that is both necessary and required, if we want to change the direction of the future that we are currently moving into.
  • “The third dimension to creating a blank space is the most powerful: completing issues from the past.”  As Zaffron and Logan share, we can’t move into this new future, if we find that we remain tied to the past, a past that continues to exert influence on your present and future.  It is only when we free from that past, that we can begin to live into that new narrative of the future.

Until we are able to break free from our mental models and the pull of the past, we will continue to overlay and stack on a faulty foundation, one that often takes us towards a false future.  Breaking from the pull of the past and the binds that constrain and entrench us in past ways of thinking and doing, allows us to live more fully into that narrative of the future that is being created.

It is only when we break free, that we can live fully into that narrative of the future.

“For every problem, there is a future that’s already been written about it.  This future includes people’s assumptions, hopes, fears, resignation, cynicism, and lessons learned through past experience.  Although this future is almost never talked about, it is the context in which people try to create change.” -Saffron and Logan The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life

Creating The Space For Cognitive Pioneering

Embed from Getty Images


“In today’s dynamic environment, organizations need to be more liquid than static.  Yet many organizations stubbornly cling to outdated control models that will eventually lead to their demise.” -Michael J. Arena Adaptive Space: How GM and Other Companies are Positively Disrupting Themselves and Transforming into Agile Organizations

And disruptive it is…

As Michael J. Arena shares in Adaptive Space, “A study from Washington University shows that an estimated 40 percent of today’s S&P 500 companies will no longer exist a  decade from now.”

While Forbes adds, “At the current churn rate, about half of S&P 500 companies will be replaced over the next ten years. The 33-year average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 in 1964 narrowed to 24 years by 2016 and is forecast to shrink to just 12 by 2027.”

A disruption that requires not only an individual and organizational agility, but individual and organizational adaptability.  At the current rates of change, those entering the workforce in today’s world should plan on, at minimum, to face eleven-plus career restarts over their lifetime.

Adaptability?  Yes.

As Lynda Gratton puts forth in her MITSMR article Who’s Building the Infrastructure for Lifelong Learning?  “The traditional concept of a “three-stage life,” made up of three distinct periods of full-time education, full-time working, and then full-time retirement, is clearly untenable…”  For which she continues, “A more future-proofed concept is a “multi-stage life,” in which learning and education are distributed across the whole of a lifetime.”

Which does not even speak to the explosive rise of the Gig Economy across our society.  As the 2018 Global Human Capital Trends report from Deloitte Talent spotlights the forecast today’s executives for their workforce in 2020, which shows, “37% expect growth in use of contractors,” “33% expect growth in the use of freelancers,” and “28% expect growth in the use of gig workers.”  To give perspective to those numbers, the World Economic Forum shares, “Today, more than 57 million workers – about 36% of the US workforce – freelances.  Based on current workforce growth rates found in Freelancing in America: 2017, the majority of the US workforce will freelance by 2027.”  Or, as the Katz and Krueger study out of Princeton and Harvard relays, “The findings point to a significant rise in the incidence of alternative work arrangements in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015.”  

The volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (vuca) of today’s world is requiring us to think more, not only of the future, but FOR the future.  The accelerated, and often exponential changes we are now and will face means that we have to begin to be more proactive in how we consider what we are doing in the present, that will lead to better outcomes for our students and organizations in the future.

And yet, according to a recent national study conducted by Jane McGonigal, The American Future Gap, for the Institute for the Future (IFTF), relays that “The majority of Americans rarely or never think 30 years into the future, and many rarely even think five years out – a fact that can lead to poor decision-making in peoples daily lives and negative consequences for society.”  For which the study discovered that “more than a quarter (27%) of Americans rarely or never think about their lives five years ahead; more than a third (36%) never think about something that could happen 10 years into the future; and more than half (53%) of Americans rarely or never think about their lives 30 years out.”

Engaging in future thinking must become much more of a leadership ability and skillset, providing awareness and perspective for the decisions that are being made today.  As they will have great effect on the future.

Especially in education…

Especially when we consider the variety of future-casts being made for the year 2030 – a time in which today’s kindergartners will be walking out of our schools and facing the choice between career or college – in a world that many believe will have dramatically changed in many unforeseen ways.

While we cannot predict the future, we cannot either wait to begin to plan and prepare our  students, our educators, and our educational organizations and institutions for what many forecast as extremely dramatic changes to our world and the world of work.  We have to begin to consider what the world may look like for those students walking out into the world in 2030…students who are already enrolled in classes in our schools.

Building our awareness of the societal shifts that have already occurred, are occurring and are predicted to occur, helps us to be more proactive in supporting our students to be more adaptable and agile to these new and changing demands that are coming at them now and in the future.

For example, there are a plethora of sources that are not only providing insight into the effects of automation and artificial intelligence on work in the future, but the types of skills that may be desirable or sought after in the future.  For example, MIT’s Technology Review recently shared their forecast of skills that will be necessary and needed in the year 2030.  For which they have determined the following to be the “top five desirable future work skills” for 2030:

Judgment and decision making: Considering the relative costs and benefits of potential actions to choose the most appropriate one.

Fluency of ideas: The ability to come ups with a number of ideas about a topic.

Active learning: Learning strategies – selecting and using training/instructional methods and procedures appropriate for the situation when learning or teaching new things.

Learning strategies: Understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making

Originality: The ability to come up with unusual or clever ideas about a given topic or situation, or to develop creative ways to solve a problem.

For this is just the tip of the iceberg, as we can find many more of these future-skills lists from such entities as McKinsey & Co, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., MIT, MITSMR, Institute for the Future, and World Economic Forum, just to name a few.

So, while we cannot predict whether or not these will be the desired or sought after skills of the future, we can most likely say and agree that the future will require new and changing skills.  Which will necessitate that the idea of being a lifelong learner has become a required skillset of the future, no matter what occupation or profession you choose.  Constant upgrading, retooling, reskilling, and upskilling will be necessary for the majority of occupations and professions in the future.

Which means that education can no longer place its emphasis on the ongoing accumulation of facts and the memorizing of knowledge as a preferred way forward into this future.  Today’s educational organizations and institutions will need to determine how to best blend not only content and knowledge, but skills into the curriculum.  It cannot remain as an either/or proposition, as it will require a mix of both.

It will require AND…

Building awareness and consideration of the future will necessitate today’s educational leaders to not only engaging individuals and their organization in future thinking, but in creating a new narrative for the future that provides a vision and a way forward in a more meaningful and relevant manner.  This narrative is vital to the future and the idea of creating better outcomes for our students and organizations.  It is the creation of this future narrative that will help avoid, what Steve Saffron and Dave Logan share in their book The Three Laws of Performance as the “default future.”

Or as David Trafford shares in his article Understanding and Improving Your Organization’s Default Future, “We all have a default future.  It’s the place we’ll end up if we continue on the same path and take no action to change that future.  If the default future is a desirable destination, then there’s no need to be concerned, just enjoy the journey.  If the default future is unacceptable, then effort and action is required to create an improved future.”

Today’s leaders need to build in space for that narrative and story to be created.  A space where thinking and ideas can incubate and percolate.  A space where future thinking is perpetuated and supported towards determining a better way forward.  It is no longer enough that we have creative and innovative thinking being supported and spurred forward in our individuals, teams and organizations…we need to create space for cognitive pioneering to be promoted for the benefit of moving into the future with greater awareness and relevance, for our students, our educators, and our educational organizations and institutions.

If we believe that we are moving, both as individuals and organizations, in the right direction for this very uncertain future that is accelerating at us, then we have nothing to do other than remain steady and keep the course.  But if we believe that transformation is necessary to avoid the current “default future” we are hurdling towards, then creating space for cognitive pioneering and engaging the environment that will allow us to move towards a new narrative, and a new story for the future.

As Michael J. Arena shares in his book Adaptive Space, “We are operating in a radically changing world and we are not equipped to respond to it.”  But respond we must, if we want to remain relevant in providing a vision that supports our students for their future.

In other words, this will be the work of organizational leaders, both in the present and for our future.

“Organizations are under assault.  If they don’t adapt, they will die.  We see this happening all around us.  We are in a time of tremendous transformation, unlike anything we have seen in over a century.  In this environment we need to do something that most of us have not been trained to do and our organizations have not been designed for: we must learn to adapt.” -Michael J. Arena Adaptive Space: How GM and Other Companies are Positively Disrupting Themselves and Transforming into Agile Organizations

Facing An Unknown Future

Embed from Getty Images


For years, it has felt as if there has been this quiet undergirding taking hold across our society, as we consider the creep of automation and artificial intelligence upon jobs.  Especially as we begin to consider the possibility of a rather dystopian future, a world in which that same automation, as well as robots and artificial intelligence have left us jobless.  We seem to be facing this pivotal point in time where we are gearing up for an inevitable race against the machines.  For which Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment adds, “Potentially unlimited output can be achieved by systems of machines which will require little cooperation from human beings.  The result would be massive unemployment, soaring inequality, and, ultimately, falling demand for goods and services as consumers increasingly lacked the purchasing power necessary to continue driving economic growth.”  Or as the famous 2013 study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Micael A. Osborne at the University of Oxford have concluded, “occupations amounting to nearly half of US total employment may be vulnerable to automation within roughly the next two decades.”

However, in recent years, there has been a bit of a circling back from that dystopian narrative of a future without jobs.  We hear more and more about the automation and infiltration of artificial intelligence towards tasks, more than entire jobs.  Which is not to say that this coming future will not face severe job losses in the face of automation and artificial intelligence, but the picture now being painted seems more focused on tasks and how work itself will change.  However, with this rising narrative of an augmented future, there is the belief that there will be an increase in new jobs, but jobs that are now requiring new skills and capabilities, where augmentation seems to be the more logical approach in moving forward.  Meaning that it is becoming much less of a race against the machine and more of a race with the machine.  As Erik Brynjolfsson, author of Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy offers, “What can we do to create shared prosperity? The answer is not to try to slow down technology.  Instead of racing against the machine, we need to learn to race with the machine.”  The only problem is that the amount and pace at which these new jobs are being created is being outpaced by the ability of today’s digital disruption to eliminate jobs.  For which he adds, “Technology is always creating jobs.  It’s always destroying jobs.  But right now the pace is accelerating.  It’s faster we think than ever before in history.  So as a consequence, we are not creating jobs at the same pace that we need to.”

Whereas others believe that the fear of a jobless future, one in which automation and artificial intelligence has taken the vast majority of jobs, is nonsense.  Much like other industrial revolutions of the past, we will have to deal with some initial discomfort to the changes that the fourth industrial revolution will place upon us, but much like the past, we will adapt and continue to move forward much like we have done in the past.  As David Autor, MIT Department of Economics and National Bureau of Economic Research shares in his paper, Why Are There Still So Many Jobs?  The History and Future of Workplace Automation is that “employment polarization will not continue indefinitely.  While some of the tasks in many current middle-skill jobs are susceptible to automation, many middle-skill jobs will continue to demand a mixture of tasks from across the skill spectrum.”  However, one thing that he says will continue is the “increased demand for skill workers.”  For which he shares in his paper The Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market, “But since the mid-1970’s, the rise in U.S. education levels has not kept up with the rising demand for skilled workers.”

So, with that said, whatever narrative you tend to agree lean towards, there are some trends or ideas that bridge across all three narratives that will be vital for some semblance of moving forward successfully in this very non-obvious future we are facing.

Continually prepare yourself and your organization for a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) World:  We live in times of constant change, but what makes it different for today’s world is the speed, pace and turbulence at which change is now occurring.  We live in accelerated times.  Which is why VUCA thinking and a VUCA mindset allows an individual and an organization to prepare for volatility of change, uncertainty of the future, complexity of systems, and ambiguity of next steps.  As Lisa Kay Solomon shares, “VUCA isn’t going away.  Change promises to speed up, not slow down.  To thrive in a world where change is the only constant, leaders need to replace old thinking with a new framework.”  Or as Marilyn Ferguson, American Futurist adds, “It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear…It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.”

Continually prepare yourself and your organization for a future of perpetual learning:  As Kevin Kelly editor of Wired Magazine and author of The Inevitable shares is that we are “newbies” in today’s world and “You will be a newbie forever.”  As he shared in The Creativity Post, “In this new world, we are always in a state of becoming.  We live in the age of the present participle – words ending in -ing that mean the action is in process.  Everything is in a flowing, changing state.  This flux turns us into continuous learners.”  We are quickly moving out of a time where the ability to “know” is giving over to the ability to “learn.”  In a world that is changing at an accelerated rate, while knowledge is vital, the ability to learn and remain a perpetual learner is key to remaining relevant.  For which McKinsey and Company puts forth, “For workers of the future, the ability to adapt their skills to the changing needs of the workplace will be critical.  Lifelong learning must become the norm – and at the moment, the reality falls fare short of the necessity.”

Continually prepare yourself and your organization to remain adaptable and agile to the profound shifts that are to be faced now and in the future:  Our world has tilted.  We are now facing fewer and fewer technical problems and more and more adaptive challenges and dilemmas.  Challenges and dilemmas that do not have ready made answer or solutions, even if they have an answer or solution at all.  In a world of accelerated change, inability to remain adaptable and agile often leads to irrelevance.  As Bob Kegan shares, “Work will increasingly be about adaptive challenges, the ones that artificial intelligence and robots will be less good at meeting. There’s going to be employment for people with growth mind-sets, but fixed mind-sets are going to be more and more replaceable by machines”

Continually prepare yourself and your organization for AND:  It is an AND world…It requires both knowledge and skills to navigate more effectively now and in the future. Especially in a world that is unfolding, evolving and exponentially changing at a much more accelerated and turbulent rate.  Understanding the importance of both knowledge, skills, as well as continual upskilling and reskilling as well as perpetual learning, this weighing of AND, will allow individuals and organizations to remain relevant for the future.  As the OECD adds, “Ensuring that everyone has the right skills for an increasingly digital and globalized world is essential to promote inclusive labor markets and to spur innovation, productivity, and growth.”

Today’s world not only requires our ability to face these VUCA challenges and dilemmas, and it not only requires us to remain perpetual learners and “newbies” towards these challenges and dilemmas to better engage the questions and thinking that leads to better solutions, it also requires the collaborative environments, based in trust and psychological safety, that will move us, as individuals, teams, and organizations, forward more effectively and relevantly into this very different and non-obvious future.

Understanding and recognizing today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) World reminds us how quickly things are changing around us.  But it is our ability to learn, in the face of this VUCA, that we are able, both as individuals and organizations, to remain adaptable and agile to these new demands and dilemmas we are now and will face.

If we are not engaging the future thinking necessary to at least try and imagine what the world will be like for today’s kindergartener by the time they graduate…then it will be incredibly difficult for us to even consider how to begin to prepare them for a non-obvious future and an exponentially changing world.

Hootenanny #CUEBOOM

I was privileged to be able to attend the CUE Hootenanny at the San Diego Maritime Museum with 50 incredibly dedicated and awesome educators.  Jon Corippo, the Executive Director of CUE had mentioned that at the end of the day they would be giving away “golden” clickers to the best #CUEBOOM.  While I did not get a chance to participate in the #CUEBOOM, earlier in the week I had a flash of inspiration and thirty minutes later this spoken word piece rolled out.  So, while I did not participate in the #CUEBOOM, I thought I would share the result of that flash of inspiration (even though it is a bit raw and unfinished)…


Embed from Getty Images



What’s that you say?

You can be anything you want to be, I hear.

Just follow my passion, move forward without any fear.

Yet, all I see when look around is chaos, crisis and fear?

A world encased in…





I still hear that the future is so bright that I’m going to need sunglasses,

but I don’t always see the skills I’m going to need taught in many of my classes.

Worksheets continue to overshadow time for moonshots,

And I’ve noticed that rows still take precedence over circles

But wait, should I be worried that my passion for what I want to be may be stolen by robots?

A world consumed by…




And Eliminate

What am I facing, what will be left

Are we gambling with the highest level of future theft?

What are we facing, exponential possibilities, or a dystopian future,

Or will UBI and colonization of Mars eventually serve as our 21st century suture?

Artificial this

Artificial that

As Friedman has said, we live in a hyper-connected world that is officially flat

Give you a device and teach you a few lines of code

Uh-oh, didn’t teach you how to think different, so you never broke out of the mold.

How do I gain access to this new world?

Where’s my entry point to a better future?

Design is no longer just about products and couture,

It is in providing me a variety of opportunities,

Not just cognitive left-overs that take me towards a bleak future.




Don’t be afraid to tap my soul,

I am still trying to find out who I am, what is my role?

Take a chance, be vulnerable, be a model, be the one that helps me discover my goal.

Don’t ground me down in days filled with rote, please

When today’s world is demanding a much better understanding of the 4Cs.

Yes, things are much different today

Finding it much harder to find the signals, to see the way


Hold on

Sorry, too late, your chance is gone.




Help me discover and hone the skills that Silicon Valley cannot replicate.

Equality may be great,

But equity is what we need.

We count on you because Superman is VR and only Artificial Intelligence is coming,

We hope that you can help us prepare for a world that is difficult to determine,

What it is, and what it is becoming.



5C’s For Focusing Organizational Innovation

Embed from Getty Images


“Your primary job as a leader is not to innovate; it is to become an innovation architect, creating a work environment that helps your people engage in the key innovation behaviors as part of their daily work.”  -Miller, Wedell-Wedellsborg via Innovation As Usual: How To Help Your People Bring Great Ideas To Life

Far too often, we approach the idea of innovation as this nebulous concept, in much the same manner as we might consider the existence of a distant planet.  We know its there, we know its size, we know its distance from us, we even know its atmosphere and what it is made up of, and yet, we still wonder how much do we really know about it?

For many, innovation is that distant planet in their organization.  There is this acknowledgement that it exists, both internally and externally, as well as inside and outside of their profession.  There also may have even been opportunities to attend “innovative” conferences, read up on the research around it, as well as learn of the myths that still tend to surround it.

And yet, it still seems to exist as this nebulous concept, this distant planet that we don’t truly understand or know enough about to feel comfortable in exploring. 

So what often happens is that we approach it in our organizations and institutions with these broad stroke statements and platitudes.  We talk about being innovative, taking risks, moving quickly to failure, pushing the envelope, being disruptive, thinking different, without truly defining what that means, what that sounds like, or what that even looks like, for individuals, teams or the organization as a whole.

Most of the time, we approach it with a hope that we will get “innovatively lucky.”  If we keep it as a nebulous concept and allow it to exist as this distant, far-away planet in our organization, maybe people will be willing to step up and provide some new, imaginative and creative ideas and thinking that will push us forward in some dynamic fashion or manner.

We approach it with strategic hope.

In many instances, we don’t want to scare people away from being creative or innovative, so we keep the rhetoric light, easy and safe.  Often using “innovatively lucky” and “hope” as the strategic plan in moving forward.  We try and get people to go play in the safety of the “innovation sandbox,” hoping they will provide some new insight, until we can truly wrap our heads around what innovation really means for the individuals and teams working in our organization or institution.

On the other hand, while we know that innovation will be vital to moving forward more relevantly as individuals, teams and organizations, we also tend to fear that invoking terms like accountability, constraints, focus, metrics, and standardization would end up diminishing and depleting our willingness to pursue and engage in any innovative efforts or pursuits.  Instead, we rely on “hope” that the innovative efforts will, for some reason, be tightly aligned to the work of our teams and the organization or institution.

Which, more often than not, will not be the case. 

Too often, when there are no constraints or focus for innovation, the innovative efforts of people are not always closely aligned to the vision of the organization.  So instead of terms like accountability, metrics and standardization diminishing and squelching people’s innovative efforts, what really happens is that the lack of innovative focus or alignment to a north star, more often than not, extinguishes the innovative spark as the organization finds itself unwilling, unwanting, or unable to pursue those innovative efforts and outcomes.

The inability or unwillingness of the organization or its leadership to focus the innovative efforts on the front end, ultimately leads to frustration and disinclination, especially as people’s innovative efforts are not only not “lucky,” more often than not, they do not lead to or come to fruition on the back end.

Today’s organizations and institutions need to approach innovation in a much more transparent, focused, and  systemic way across the entirety of the organization. 

There needs to be a north star, a direction and a vision conveyed transparently throughout the organization of what is trying to be accomplished.  A direction of how people’s innovative efforts, if they are to provide the greatest value for our individuals, teams, and those that the organization serve, need to be aligned to this north star.

As Paul Plsek shares in the book Accelerating Health Care Transformation with Lean and Innovation, “If we are going to innovate, where are the areas and what are the big dots we are trying to move?” 

Otherwise, innovation without a vision or north star to serve as a guide, becomes little more than a discovery game of trying to find the new, rather than a deeply empathic process of searching for value creation that leads to both individual and collective impact.

Or, as Eric Ries shares in The Lean Startup, “Success is not delivering a feature; success is learning how to solve the customer’s problem.”

In fact, when innovation is not creating authentic value or a better way forward for those it serves, it is often found to be unnecessary or unwanted.  Which is often the case in many organizations, as we find ourselves caught up in the chase for the shiny and new becoming the real value proposition.

We find that our focus becomes bent on creating the next breakthrough product, service, support, or program…rather than focusing in on and considering how our innovative efforts are creating an experience of improvement and value.

It is within that mindset, that people are intrigued and drawn to the new, as they see the benefits and the value proposition that is being provided and offered over what currently exists.

Unfortunately, if we continue to approach innovation as this vague and ambiguous concept of how we change our way forward, we will continue to see diminished efforts from our individuals, teams, and organizations.

For continuous improvement and innovative efforts to be engaged across our systems, there needs to be an understanding and focus of what we are trying to achieve, what we are trying to improve, and what we innovating towards.

Especially when our improvement and innovation efforts necessitate people working their way collaboratively through and iterating cycles of experimentation, discovery, learning, spread, scale, and ultimately standardization, which are not only necessary, but ongoing, iterative and repeating.

To better support the innovative efforts of our individuals, teams and organizations, as well as shifting away from the nebulous concept of “hope” and “innovatively lucky” serving as our way forward, there are 5C’s that can be considered for focusing the efforts of the organization in a more strategic manner to better engage and improve the innovative efforts of its people and teams:

  • Clarity – How are leaders and the organization creating a deeper understanding of the vision and north star?  How are innovative efforts playing into and aligning with that vision and north star?  Providing clarity and coherence on the front end, keeps people from being frustrated on the back end.  It keeps the leaders, the organization, as well as individuals and teams from being at odds with each other as they find that their innovative efforts are in vain, as they are misaligned to moving the organization forward towards the determined vision.
  • Capacity – Platitudes and permission are not enough to support people in their innovative efforts.  If we are going to expect our individuals and teams to be more innovative, if we are going to be transparent in how we focus and align our innovative efforts, then we also have to be prepared to provide the opportunities to build capacity and capability to engage in innovative work, at all levels of the organization.  Otherwise, we move our people and teams towards organizational frustration when we provide capacity without autonomy, or autonomy without capacity.  This is not an either/or proposition, rather it is one of AND.
  • Constraints – Providing flexible constraints does more to engage, than diminish the creative and innovative efforts of individuals and teams.  Too often, the question we start and stay with is, “What can we do?”  But we can’t be afraid to also ask ourselves, “What should we do?”  Just because we can do something does not mean that it should be done.  Understanding the design of what you are trying to accomplish through your innovative efforts better allows for creating the constraints that drive people and teams towards those outcomes.  Once we have determined “What we should do?” we can then begin to consider and ask “How might we?”
  • Collision – Impact, impact, impact.  Innovation is most easily adopted when it has individual and collective impact.  Innovation should be solving a problem or problems, not adding to them.  It is vital to not only keep focused on the organizational north star, but just as much on the value proposition of what these innovative efforts will provide to the individuals and teams within the organization.
  • Challenge – While innovation can be both incremental and disruptive, it should be invested in reaching challenging targets.  If it is easily accomplished, attained and accepted, then how truly innovative was it?  We have to understand that with any innovative effort, the change that often accompanies it will be met with some form of pushback.  Understanding that will allow us to not be inhibited by the willingness to set challenging targets for our innovative efforts.

Consideration of these 5Cs, especially in a time when words like “creativity” and “innovation” are often thrown around in platitudes, allows an organization to focus their innovative efforts in providing real problem solving power and new value propositions for their people and teams.

“The starting point lies in realizing something important: innovation may seem to be an elusive phenomenon, but the possibility of innovation permeates our lives.  Just think about it: every single day, people face the opportunity to try something new, to do something different from how they did it yesterday.  -Miller, Wedell-Wedellsborg via Innovation As Usual: How To Help Your People Bring Great Ideas To Life


Positive Deviance: A Bright Spot Intervention

Embed from Getty Images


“At the core of a Positive Deviance intervention is the recognition that significant innovation cannot come through reliance on outside experts who, from their hierarchical command and control position, tell the insiders what to do.  Such a tactic in no way evokes the natural capabilities of the system in leveraging the already effective practices of positive deviants within the system.”  -Goldstein, Hazy, Lichtenstein Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership

While the term “familiarity breeds contempt” may be too strong an example for the purpose it is trying to provide here, in some ways it most fitting.  We have this tendency not to honor and value the thinking and work of those closest in proximity to us.  We are often unable or unwilling to see the expertise sitting amongst us.  We like to believe that the answers to the most difficult problems we are trying to solve, are always beyond us and our current circumstances.  We don’t like to believe that those among us are able to solve the issues that we ourselves seem to find unsolvable, at least in our current circumstances.  It is an issue that we see playing out all the time, all around us in our teams, organizations, systems, and work…

  • We have a problem in our organization, let’s hire an external expert.
  • We need to build more capacity and engage in professional learning, hire a consultant.
  • We’re having a conference, we need to find an outside keynote.

Which is not to say that we don’t need to be tapping into external networks for greater, more expansive learning and idea flows, but not at the cost of continually devaluing the ideas and expertise that surrounds us in our teams and organizations.  Especially when that outside expertise does not come equipped with the same understanding of the context and access to which these problems have arisen and continue to preside and plague us and our organizations.

Unfortunately, for this very reason, we continue to fail to spread and scale the insights and ideas that can actually lead to solving the most difficult, stubborn and often intractable problems that afflict our leadership and organizations.  By remaining aligned in our thinking to an attitude that “no one can be a prophet in their own land,” we constrain the capacity for our own people and organizations to solve our own problems, in ways that are already working.

And yet, it is that very thinking which keeps us from noticing the positive deviants or bright spots that exist, often unnoticed and unrecognized in our organizations.  Those individuals who have access to the same resources and supports as everyone else, but who are actually pushing the needle, moving those mountains, and getting positive results towards those very problems that the organization has found to be too difficult to solve.

While they may not be prophets per se, for they often don’t even recognize or even notice how their actions and behaviors are progressing them positively against the odds, they are our greatest resource for solving many of the adaptive challenges we are facing.  In recognizing these bright spots, and in taking the time to watch and learn from them with a much more empathetic lens to determine what they are doing differently, we gather better solutions to moving forward in a much more positive manner.  In fact, we not only increase our own learning and capacity, but create the opportunity to scale and spread those ideas and thinking across our organizations.  As Richard Pascale and Jerry Sternin share in the Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, “Invisible in plain sight is the community’s latent potential to self-organize, tap its own wisdom, and address problems long regarded with fatalistic acceptance.”

For which Pascale and Sternin add, “Positive deviance is founded on the premise that at least one person in a community, working with the same resources as everyone else, has already licked the problem that confounds others. This individual is an outlier in the statistical sense – an exception, someone whose outcome deviates in a positive way from the norm.  In most cases this person does not know he or she is doing anything unusual.  Yet once the unique solution is discovered and understood, it can be adopted by the wider community and transform many lives.”

Positive deviance is both an intentional and internal approach to solving our organizational problems, issues, and challenges, which inevitably pushes back against the idea that “no one is a prophet in their own land” and “familiarity breeds contempt.”   It works on the belief that there are bright spots within our organizations, positive deviants that are having real success towards those problems we’ve deemed intractable, even though they have the exact same access, training, and resources.  The same everything as everyone else in our organization, and yet, they are finding success and achieving positive outcomes.  Instead of moving towards an external source of expertise to solve these challenges, positive deviance intentionally turns towards engaging an internal problem-solving approach.

What Pascale and Sternin share in regards to positive deviance is that, “The basic premise is this: (1) Solutions to seemingly intractable problems already exist, (2) they have been discovered by members of the community itself, and (3) these innovators (individual positive deviants) have succeeded even though they share the same constraints and barriers as others.”

Which makes the spread and scale of these ideas and thinking easier and quicker to assimilate within the organization, as long as we move past the no prophet and familiarity mindset and stance.  Seeing that these solutions are being provided by those within the organizational group and community working with the same resources as everyone else, provides the ability to moving past excuses, to the understanding that we can solve our own problems and challenges, and in fact, we already are.

This intervention of positive deviance pushes progress forward in two very meaningful ways, (1) by moving from a knowledge to a behavior focus.  It engages these bright spot ideas and solutions not by telling and providing the knowledge, but through doing and learning new behaviors and practices.  Positive deviance focuses on learning by doing to scale and spread those bright spot solutions, and (2) there is a shift from putting the focus on what’s wrong in the system that we need to fix, to one of what’s right and how to engage, scale, and spread those positive solutions across the entirety of the organization.

However, before an organization or system can fully tap into what these positive deviants or bright spots are doing different, we must first define and identify what are the common practices that already exist within the organization and system.  Without identifying the common practices and behaviors that already exist, it will be very difficult to truly determine what these positive deviants are doing differently and why it is leading to successful progress and outcomes.  The ability to determine what a positive deviant is doing differently that leads to better outcomes, then allows a leader, an organization, or a system to begin to engage and amplify those practices and behaviors across the ecosystem.  As Pascale and Sternin share in Positive Deviance, “Until we determine what everybody is doing today, we can’t spot the exceptional and successful strategies.”

In Fast Company’s 2000 article Positive Deviant by David Dorsey, Jerry Sternin shares that there are eight “steps toward adopting positive deviance as your change program”

  1. Don’t Presume That You Have The Answer – too often, believing we have the answer to the problem closes us off to a diversity of thinking and ideas, keeping us from truly seeing the how and why positive deviants are having success in solving the problem.
  2. Don’t Think Of It As A Dinner Party – As Sternin shares in the the article, “Everyone in the group that you want to help change must identify with the others in the group.  Everyone must face the same challenges and rely on the same set of resources to come up with answers.  If group members don’t see themselves as working on identical challenges with identical sets of resources, then positive deviance won’t work.”
  3. Let Them Do It Themselves – This is not a top down process, but rather one of discovery and testing out of these solutions within the group to see how those processes and behaviors work for them in their group.
  4. Identify Conventional Wisdom – As Sternin adds in the article, “Before you can recognize how the positive deviants stray from conventional wisdom, you first have to understand clearly what the accepted behavior is.  Establish what it is that most group members do.”  It is difficult to truly determine what is different, if you don’t have a baseline for what is the same.
  5. Identify And Analyze The Deviants – It is in defining the conventional wisdom of the group, that the positive deviants will emerge.  It is in defining the common that the uncommon begins to become more apparent.  It is in this process that the invisible become visible.
  6. Let The Deviants Adopt Deviations On Their Own – Sternin defines this step as critical, “Once you find deviant behaviors, don’t tell people about them.  It’s not a transfer of knowledge.  It’s not about importing best practices from somewhere else.  It’s about changing behavior.  You design an intervention that requires and enables people to access and to act on these new premises.  You enable people to practice a new behavior not to sit in class learning about it.”
  7. Track Results And Publicize Them – Provide a space for results to be shown, let people see how results are achieved, which will allow the group to become interested and curious about them and how doing things differently led to these results.  Then celebrate success.
  8. Repeat Steps One Through Seven – For which Sternin adds, “Make the whole process cyclical.  Once people discover effective ways to deviate from the norm, and once the methods have become common practice, it’s time to do another study to find out how the best performers in the group are operating now.  Chances are that they’ve discovered new deviations from the new norm.”

In simpler terms, Pascale and Sternin in their book, Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, share how the following 4 steps are important in moving towards the Positive Deviance process:

  1. Define the problem and desired outcome.
  2. Determine common practices.
  3. Discover uncommon but successful behaviors and strategies through inquiry and observation.
  4. Design an action learning initiative based on findings.

For which they also provide 4 characteristics of the Positive Deviance process:

  1. It is generative.
  2. It is based on strengths and assets.
  3. It is not expert driven. Community members provide culturally appropriate expertise.
  4. It is embedded in the social context of the community.

Ultimately, finding the positive deviants and bright spots in the system is both an unconventional and intentional act.  It requires moving past conventional wisdom of the day, past the external experts, and truly determining what is happening successfully (already) within the organization or system, why is it happening, how it is happening, and in what ways can we scale and spread it across our teams, our groups, the community, and eventually, the entire organizational ecosystem.

Or as Pascale and Sternin share, “Positive deviance?  An awkward, oxymoronic term.  The concept is simple: look for the outliers who succeed against all odds.”