Don’t Make a Monkey Out of Innovation



The story is told of five monkeys who were a part of an experiment studying group theory. Inside the cage wherein they were placed, a ladder led to a bunch of tantalizing bananas. What the test subjects initially did not know was that a high-pressure water hose was attached to the ladder.

One eager monkey raced up the ladder, reaching for one of the tasty bananas, only to cause the entire cage to be deluged with water. Undeterred, another monkey made her own attempt to reach the top. When she ascended the ladder, all the monkeys were again treated to a downpour. The lesson began to sink in–if any one of us tries to reach for the banana bunch, we are all going to get soaked, and that is unpleasant.

As the original test group was substituted out for individual newcomers, one by one the new arrival would make an effort to scale the ladder for the tasty treat. However, the existing group, fearing the dousing, would beat the newcomer down before he could make it to the top. The cycle was repeated, with the same result, until all the original monkeys had been replaced.

When the water hose was removed, it didn’t affect the curiosity of the monkeys–they had learned to avoid the bananas.

In most organizations, there is a built-in resistance to trying new things–particularly if hard lessons had been learned that discourage innovation. It is as though the expectation of risk bringing failure or reprimand begins to thwart spontaneity and creativity, until “group think” has overtaken individual expression. As you think about your own organization, to what degree does this thought process embed itself in your company culture?

Organizations who want to improve their organizational culture need to go to work on the four dynamics above. Perspective, defined as the way we look at the future and the problems we are trying to solve, determines destiny. If it is one’s approach to always be logical, for instance, that is a matter of perspective–not necessarily a reality for all player’s in a niche market. Lou Gerstner, in speaking about his turnaround of IBM, said, “I came to see in my time at IBM that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game–it is the game.” Some of the changes he made seemed like semantics, but his commitment to them made a huge difference:

  • Shift the focus from product to customer
  • Shift from “value me” (silo) to “value us” (the whole)
  • Shift from analysis paralysis to making decisions with 80% knowledge and moving forward

Experimental failure means creating a safe environment in which ideas can be tested and allowed to fail without the idea person being labeled a failure. Instead of making minor adjustments to what exists today, we need to foster an attitude that looks for tomorrow’s breakthroughs. Often, complacency is the doom of a department, division, or business. It has been said that we grow most in the valleys. If you are a part of an organization that only wants to play “king of the hill” through entrenchment, you should look for your next opportunity today!

Disruptive innovation begins with a deep understanding of the needs of your target audience. Customer obsession is an intentional effort to connect and engage..especially on an emotional level. When the connection is made, your product or service resonates with the customer in such a way that she cannot imagine a world without your offering as a part of her life.

Breaking down worn-out structures and processes that hinder our vision of market dynamics allows us to adapt effectively. Intentional destruction challenges the assumption that a strong titular leader makes an organization high-performing. Instead, ideology becomes the unifying factor. Empowered employees can react more quickly and build greater team capabilities that those languishing under an unwieldy reporting structure.

As you look at these recommended area to improve your organizational culture (thanks, by the way, to Jeremy Gutsche, again, for articulating many of these ideas in his writings), determine one thing you can obtain buy-in to change this week and do it!



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