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!



Entrepreneurs: Learn to Delegate to Capable Employees


The “take charge” attitude that permeates a builder’s very makeup is easily channeled and tempered with proper direction and focus. Avoiding “one man rule” tendencies is as easy as one word: delegation. The effective executive delegates rather than performing all critical tasks. However, successful delegation requires that responsibility and authority also be delegated. Herein lies a problem for the executive–“hands off” management.

An experienced founder’s abilities and characteristics relate to starting and preserving a good business idea. Chief among those abilities would be creating a vision for the company, which is usually unstated but somehow understood. While it may seem a chore for others in the company, projecting a confident and self-assured image that appeals to prospective buyers  comes naturally to the experienced executive.

Additionally, identification of market opportunities and provision of top notch service to meet customer needs are focal points of the founder’s vision. Unfortunately, the ability to create a workable organization to achieve company goals and objectives may prove more elusive. The business owner who possesses the innate skill to attract others to pursue an unwritten vision may lack the skill to build an efficient organization.


Clearly, employees are critical to the success of profit maximization in any business; it is their effort that keeps the wheels of progress turning. Most employees have spent careers in similarly sized (small) companies in the same industry setting–be that white collar or blue collar–with limited exposure to alternate environments. Consequently, their frame of reference in employer/employee relationships amounts  to that which the founder and, where applicable, previous employers have provided.  With limited cross-training in other professional disciplines, these members of the team have the least job flexibility and therefore generally welcome changes in work flow patterns that can make their jobs appreciably easier and more effective.

Job Specialization

While cross training or shared skill sets occur as a matter of necessity, job specialization is a focus of many small businesses. A certain “pride of ownership” can arise from this high degree of specialization. Fiercely loyal, most employees would rather sacrifice some temporary perks rather than leave a benevolent employer “high and dry” in a time of financial duress. Since the employees tend to be skill-oriented, they require a great deal of direction in defining work assignments. At the same time, they spend a lot of time observing the founder and mimicking his or her efforts; if the entrepreneur is a go-getter, they will learn to hustle on the job in order to meet production requirements. In short, employees can be extremely valuable in performing the legwork that makes the business optimization a reality.

Employee Responsibilities

Employees are required to adhere to schedules, commit to the strategic plan, be willing to work long hours, and be brand ambassadors of the company in the community. Schedules governing production, documentation, and reporting must be religiously followed to ensure optimal work efficiencies. Time, budget, and administration constraints are to be respected and emphasized among employees and their  supervisors.

Mindful of how they represent the company, your people are the “front line” experience that others have with your brand. Whether buying from suppliers, meeting with customers, or serving in a local non-profit, they have an opportunity to make you look great–or not.

When company plans cause inconveniences for employees, it should be up to the employees themselves to raise the issue with their superiors. Once they have been given the right to voice their opinions and concerns, they should be expected to fall in line with the plan. Failure to follow established guidelines should not be tolerated. Without respect of your core values, your employees should be replaced by those who can carry your banner proudly!


How Successful Businesses Maintain Organizational Morale



Organizational morale builds quality products (and services). Employees who are well-paid, well-trained, and appreciated work harder than those who are merely trying to earn a living. Giving employees more and more responsibility as they develop skills and gain experience makes them feel wanted and valuable. training employees to do their jobs expertly teaches them the value of quality performance. Finally, rewarding an employee for continuing contributions to company profitability reinforces the company’s goals, mission, and objectives.

Some of the benefits to organizational morale include the following:

  • Employees are willing to work longer hours to ensure that a job is done correctly.
  • Customer service and sales are carried out with positive attitudes. As the company makes more money from these quick and repeat sales, the business can afford to hire the cream of the crop in employees. The appearance to anyone outside the operation is that of a well-oiled machine.
  • Rather than fending off mercenary plots and complaints all day long, management can plan for upcoming projects, ensuring the best use of employees’  talents.
  • Striving and bitter rivalries are easily ended when all employees are treated impartially and fairly.
  • Quality control is much easier to enforce with a group of hard-working, motivated workers than with uncaring employees who are simply filling a slot.


Truly effective training and development programs make good employees out of average employees, and great employees out of good ones. When an employer takes the time and effort to teach employees how to perform their jobs better, employees usually respond with increased effort on the job.  Bonds between management and employees are created as an employee gains a greater sense of self worth. The employee begins to feel that his or her contribution to the overall business matters and is important.


Employees in successful companies have two types of responsibility–to their peers and to their bosses. Each is important to a smooth-running company. However, responsibility can prove an albatross around the neck of the employee who lacks the corresponding authority to make decisions. Good employers will therefore not only be creative in assigning work to employees, but also in providing the best possible environment for them–including adequate authority where appropriate–to help them succeed. Reporting to management helps employees feel they must do a good job and that someone is around who can help them if the going gets rough. Being accountable to peers in addition to bosses teaches employees to respect one another’s work and to learn how to work together to reach common goals.

Motivation and Reward

Bonus and incentive compensation programs are the rewards of excellent employee performance. Rather than threatening to discipline or even dismiss a problem employee, it is often better to motivate employees through encouragement. Fear of failing will not lead to successful work attitudes and performance–it will only lead to ultimate failure. On the other hand, building up an employee’s confidence has proven much more effective than criticism in raising performance levels. 

Once an employee has performed at or beyond the established level, successful management teams find a way to reward the employee. Not rewarding someone who has done everything requested and more makes the employee wonder a.) whether he/she has indeed done a good job, b.) whether the supervisor is a good enough manager to recognize the employee’s contributions, and c.) whether a “change of scenery” may be preferable. However, bonuses and incentives must reflect current and projected financial performance. A company experiencing financial loss must have a flexible plan to adjust employee compensation as necessary. 

A successful company becomes a self-perpetuating entity–the more successful it becomes, the more successful it can become. Executive teams who maintain high organizational morale and plan for growth will create positive cash flow from efficient operations. While your business may not be in a position to always do what larger businesses do, remember to run your organization in a professional manner any you will meet with greater success!


Delegating By Degrees is Effective Leadership

In advising private businesses, I am frequently trying to help owners delegate more effectively to their teams. It is hard to get the executives to give up making all the decisions. Making fewer decisions is part of the challenge; influencing less decisions is even harder.

Sergio Zyman, the former Chief Marketing Officer at Coca-Cola, in his book “The End of Marketing As We Know It,” wrote about the decision making process he used with his team, broken down into 5 levels:

  • Level 1 – His decision with no input from the team
  • Level 2 – His decision with input from the team
  • Level 3 – Consensus decision
  • Level 4 – A team member’s decision with his input
  • Level 5 – A team member’s decision with no input or influence from him

When other organizations have experimented with processes similar to Zyman’s, some employees found the five level decision making process difficult. Others perceived it as freeing because the knew in advance what was required to keep an initiative going.

Many organizations have a disproportionate number of Level 2 and Level 3 decisions. Level 5 is the least common. A critical success factor seems to be selectively choosing what to care about (not to be confused with apathy.) The evolution needs to be towards a focus on being involved personally only in decisions that are strategic in nature and require knowledge or experience unique to your role. What is likely to ensue is a new paradigm in which the executive’s willingness to let go creates unexpected, but still very positive outcomes. It may not look the way it would have with your hand print, but can still “work out.”



Lead Me – Don’t Manage Me!


“People don’t want to be managed. They want to be led. Whoever heard of a world manager? World leader, yes. Educational leader. Political leader. Religious leader. Community leader. Labor leader. Business leader. They lead. They don’t manage. The carrot always wins over the stick. Ask your horse. You can lead your horse to water but you can’t manage him to drink. If you want to manage somebody, manage yourself. Do that well and you’ll be read to stop managing. And start leading.”

-Printed by United Technologies Corporation in the Wall Street Journal

One of the most heated conversations we had in the MBA program at Elon (ranked #1 part-time program in the USA) was over the value of management versus leadership. One of our courses was in organizational leadership and many of the younger students did not enjoy the finesse and nuances of the subject matter. They wanted to stay in the realm of concrete, numbers driven topics wherein there is a clear cut “right” answer. Leadership, for people who have not held positions with substantial responsibility, is challenging to describe, pursue, evaluate, and articulate. Management, on the other hand, was easier for the cohort to articulate in terms of metrics and definitions that met with consensus.

Whether in class or on the job, very few people want to be managed per se, they would prefer to be led. Managing is a process better applied to resources rather than individual people. Even in our home lives, when we are trying to get our children to do the right thing, it is incumbent upon us as parents to inspire them to make good choices. Inspiration is one of the key results of leadership.

Cynthia Stewart, writing for the Lead Change Group’s website last week, made some keen observations about the dichotomy between management and leadership:

“One specific example of what I am talking about comes to mind that illustrates this perfectly.  In fact, I was speaking with a President of a company today and she mentioned the same example.  Most of us have been part of a United Way campaign.  In the early days, these campaigns were delegated to management to run.  Typically management would take the tact of talking to their employees about the importance of being a good citizen and helping to fund helping agencies so their patrons could have a hand up (effectively trying not to appear to strong arm you into giving so that the company goals could be met.)

Then, one year things changed.  The leaders asked for employee volunteers to lead the campaigns. Everyone couldn’t wait to show up to the next new event, and attendance and giving doubled and tripled.  You saw people showing their true talents, coming alive, doing things you had no idea they could do.  The fun quotient spiked, the giving exceeded goals, employee morale improved, and the new office stories were accompanied with more laughter.   Hmmm – no management in the picture.”

Stewart’s commentary reveals a gap in thought leadership. Many Millenials are misunderstood because Boomers think that they are too revolutionary and almost insubordinate. That’s because many in management are not leading them; they are trying to only tell them what to do. My experience with the younger generation is that they are in search of authentic leadership.

How can we individually and collectively make a commitment to leadership?