A Very Unconventional Approach to Sparking Innovation

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Five Innovations that Could Change the Way We Live, Work and Play

According to conventional wisdom, getting people to "think outside the box" is a great way to spark innovation. Then again, there's probably no more glaring an oxymoron that "innovative conventional wisdom," so maybe getting people to think outside the box isn't such a great idea after all.


That's one piece of my takeaway from a recent conversation I had with Stephen Shapiro, a widely acknowledged expert on innovation and author of the book, "Best Practices are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition." I began the conversation by asking Shapiro if that was just a catchy title for the book, or if he really believes that best practices are stupid. His response:

Well, I really do believe that best practices, when used incorrectly, are stupid. First, anyone who tries to replicate what someone else is doing as a strategic differentiator means they're playing catch-up. The second point is that what works for one company as a best practice may not work for another company because of the culture, the people, the hiring practices. So we need to be very critical about it.

I asked Shapiro what he sees as the single biggest impediment to innovation in corporate America, and he said there are really a couple of things:

One in particular is that we have, inside corporations, become overly-enamored with everybody's opinions. This is causing an avalanche of useless ideas. So if I were to choose one thing, I would say that's a major problem. Part of it is that we've swung the pendulum from not wanting people's ideas to wanting everything, and there really needs to be a good middle ground. The other thing is clearly in large corporations, the heavy focus on quarterly earnings makes it harder to invest in long-term innovation.

I asked Shapiro if he's finding in the lousy economy that employees tend to keep their heads down and avoid risk in order to keep their jobs, and whether this is stifling innovation. He said that in this economy people are definitely scared, so they're going to be more risk-averse:

I think in some respects this creates an opportunity, though, for the people who do want to raise their heads up and do some cool things and take the risk. I think there's definitely truth to what you're saying, that if you stick your head up at this point, it's very possible to get it chopped off. So lying low seems to be the normal mode of operation. Personally, I think that's a mistake for anybody who wants to manage their career, rather than just managing their job.

I also wanted to get his thoughts on how the United States is doing innovation-wise compared to the rest of the world, and where he sees that trend heading. He said this country is still leading the charge when it comes to innovation:

Part of it is cultural-I think that as a culture, we are more attuned to risk-taking than other countries might be. So what we are able to do is rally the troops around things that are a little more novel. The challenge we have is that while we're great at innovation and commercialization, the actual production is certainly being moved elsewhere. Also the reality is that with things like crowdsourcing, the barriers to innovating in other countries are dropping, as is the cost.

Here are some of Shapiro's unconventional tips for making your organization more innovative.


  • Stop asking for ideas. Oftentimes, ideas submitted tend to be impractical, of low value, and end up creating an overwhelming amount of unproductive clutter in the system.
  • Don't ask people to "think outside the box." Instead, give innovators a "better box." Provide well-defined challenges that will guide their efforts.
  • Hire people you don't like. Organizations typically hire based people who "fit the mold," but innovation is predicated on divergent points of view coming together.
  • Stop recognizing people for doing their job. When you recognize people for doing what they are hired to do, it reinforces a culture where the status quo is good enough. Instead, recognize people for going beyond their duties and doing things that are unexpected.
  • Understand that expertise is the enemy of innovation. The more you know about a particular topic, the more difficult it is for you to think about it in a different way. Bring people together from a wide range of disciplines, backgrounds, and experiences to uncover innovative solutions.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Dec 20, 2011 4:39 AM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says:

"Don't ask people to "think outside the box." "

Ironically you must think outside the box to subscribe to his philosophy - way outside the box.  Sounds like the type of policy that would attract more doers than thinkers - which is what you get when you offshore work. 

"Hire people you do not like"

You would have to, because people you like would not like you back for very long under that type of leadership style.  Friend shortage eminent.

Am I misinterpreting?  What I'm interpreting is a leadership style that says "everybody shut up, here's how it's going to be".  Raise you hand, get it slapped.  Is that the wrong interpretation of Shapiro's views?

Dec 20, 2011 6:02 AM Jake_Leone Jake_Leone  says:

Hyperbole is a poor substitute for the time and energy it really takes to create something useful (new or otherwise).  I can agree with the idea to hire people with differing view points.  Does that always work?  No, so be prepared to back-track on even that.

I also agree that corporate (3 month) time-scales are often anathematic to innovation.  Smart corporations recognize this, and try to go with appropriately longer time-scales, what that is though varies and doesn't guarantee success (because nothing does, anymore than you can read minds, but they are working on it).

The most true statement about innovation vs. success, is that they are not typically found together, whether the Eniac or a long line of first comers, the guys who make the profits are usually the imitators.  Probably the strongest argument against copyright and patent, China for example has no respect what-so-ever.  Look China has your job, Look India is in your country taking your job, Posers and imitators shall inherit your innovation.

Dec 20, 2011 6:23 AM jake_leone jake_leone  says:

Wouldn't it be better to just establish a frame of reference?  Innovation is nothing without a frame to hang it in.  And often that frame is a healthy economy, some KNOWLEDGE about what your MARKET is, and having a BUSINESS PLAN, that has a chance of working (but still might not, because the market is chaos, love-it or leave-it).  Innovation is nothing (doesn't suck money in) without this, we've got some of that left in the United States, in other countries, they have less of it (some more).  So, in some other countries, your innovation is widely copied and ripped off (and it even happens here).

And on that, think hard about what your customer wants.  If it clutters your mind, too bad, find another occupation like gas station attendant.  Your job as a products person, is not to flake out, to listen to the customer (Hey, Steve Jobs even took customer service calls), and filter out (through the magical power called thought) what is important (in other words compete, even if you choose to do so on a higher plane through "innovation"). 

As for think in/out of the box that's terminology that self-help gurus invented in order to make money.  There is no one box, and your skin is there for reason, and skin is also quite permeable.

Dec 21, 2011 11:01 AM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says:

There was something seriously missing from Shapiro's points... and I think the video below (which is amazing, you've got to see it) identifies that one thing - SENSE OF PURPOSE.


Dec 21, 2011 11:24 AM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says: in response to R. Lawson

The book has good reviews on Amazon... Alright Shapiro I'll hear you out fully and read the book.

Dec 22, 2011 5:23 AM Jake_Leone Jake_Leone  says: in response to R. Lawson

Excellent video, loved it.  The statement that once a person stops having to worry about money, they want purpose and mastery, really rings true. For me a living wage in computer software is critical to this.  If I couldn't make a living wage at software (and for me being the only earner in my family is around 100k or more) I would have to accept some other job, (like my old job, machining, which really took its toll on my lungs, body, and nerves, and left me too tired to do anything after work).  But instead I can write code (I am involved in a language project, where I use programming to create language videos) in my spare time. 

I like the recent Dilbert cartoon (Dec. 19th 2011), where the kid from Google brags about the 20% time to work on his own projects (I won't spoil it for you).

Dec 22, 2011 6:53 AM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says: in response to Jake_Leone

"The statement that once a person stops having to worry about money, they want purpose and mastery, really rings true. For me a living wage in computer software is critical to this."

Agree also.  There is clearly a point of diminishing returns - and I think this same study would apply to executive staff.  For example, if this research holds true for executives, a CEO paid $100M may perform worse than a CEO paid $1M.  I don't know where the "sweet spot" is so those numbers are probably wrong - but you get the point.

Overall, I think companies would get better results if they increase pay of some people to that "comfort zone" making them more productive and decrease the pay of others who are inflating their value to investors (you'll find many of them in board rooms).

I'm not saying that a good CEO isn't worth his or her weight in gold, but 400 times the average employee's salary?  Please.  And incentives heavily weighted in stock?  Well, that usually results in one thing: lying to investors until the bitter end. 

Actually, I would suggest an increase in salary of many executives and a dramatic decrease in stock options.

Jan 6, 2012 4:20 AM John Woodall John Woodall  says: in response to R. Lawson

Having worked with subsistence farmers and the very poor all over the world, those who barely scratch out the rudiments of survival, my experience would say that it is not the case that one has to have acquired wealth to begin to pursue purpose and mastery.  This sounds true for most WESTERN individuals who live in a culture bound by western traditions and economies.  But, for the poor, their "wealth" is in the value they place on life and the dignity of others.  They eat sleep and breath the pursuit of purpose. This is something that happens as a luxury for the wealthy, and, I might say, to nowhere the degree of true generosity as in those who have suffered the pain of depravation and have come to master a true heart of compassion.  The vast percentage of philanthropic giving does not come from the wealthy, but from the poor giving dimes and dollars sacrifically.   Not being distracted by the trappings of wealth, it is comforting to see that the human spirit alights on true generosity.  This seems to be its "default" position.  A position that the wealthy are often handicapped to find.  But, we shouldn't buy into the concept (a paternalistic concept at that) which says that one has to be wealthy to be concerned with purpose and mastery.


Post a comment





(Maximum characters: 1200). You have 1200 characters left.



Subscribe to our Newsletters

Sign up now and get the best business technology insights direct to your inbox.