Improvise Your Way to Clarity

The major reason why improvisation works is that the musicians say an implicit yes to each other  – Frank J. Barrett

As with jazz soloists, so it is with organizational leaders. The competent ones hit the right notes, but the great ones are distinguished by how far ahead they are imagining and how they strategize possibilities, shape the contour of ideas, adapt and adjust in the midst of action, and resolve organizational tension.

What we need to add to our list of leadership skills is improvisation — the art of adjusting, flexibly adapting, learning through trial-and-error initiatives, inventing ad hoc responses, and discovering as you go.

Curious about the origin of “improvising,” I found the following in the dictionary:

French improviser, from Italian improvvisare, from improvviso sudden, from Latin improvisus, literally, unforeseen, from in- + provisus, past participle of providēre to see ahead

Sometimes you just have to improvise your way to clarity.

The major reason why improvisation works is that the musicians say an implicit yes to each other.

Because jazz improvisation borders on chaos and incoherence, it begs the question of how order emerges. Unlike other art forms and other forms of organized activity that attempt to rely on a pre-developed plan, improvisation is widely open to transformation, redirection, and unprecedented turns.

So it is with many jobs in organizations. They require fumbling around, experimenting, and patching together an understanding of problems from bits and pieces of experience, improvising with the materials at hand. Few problems provide their own definitive solutions.

Jazz improvisers focus on discovery in times of stress.

This is what improvisational leaders do. They come at challenges from different angles, ask more searching questions, and are born communitarians. They’re not going for easy answers or living off of old routines and stale phrases. Instead of focusing on obstacles (a form of negative self-monitoring), they create openings by asking questions that entertain possibilities.

Critically, too, improvisational leaders assume that the improv will work: that the mess is only a way station on the path to a worthwhile destination.

The message here is powerful: start by asking positive questions; foster dialogues, not monologues; and you can change the whole situation, maybe even your life.


Adapted from Say Yes to the Mess, by Frank J. Barrett

Say Yes to the Mess

8 Lessons on Innovation, Brought to You by Philips and the LED

One of the classic (and most overused) images of innovation is a light bulb:


It’s only fitting, then, to look at 8 lessons in innovation by way of Philips’s 50-year exploration of LEDs – courtesy of the following excerpts from Fast Company’s March 2014 issue, from the article How Philips Altered the Future of Light.


photo by Kelvin Van Aelst

How did Philips take the LED to this point, and where does it go next? Which leads to another question: If the LED happens to be much more than just a better light–that is, if it happens to be an innovation, like the PC or cell phone, that alters the world in a significant way–what can it teach us about how big innovations happen, and why?

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 5.27.45 PMTo understand where the LED is going, it helps to understand where it came from. An LED is not a light bulb, really–it’s a light source, tiny and not much larger than a pencil dot, lodged deep within a larger package of plastic, metal, and glass that has been constructed to resemble a light bulb mainly because consumers still prefer a familiar, time-tested shape.

At the start, it is very difficult to predict whether a breakthrough can evolve into something that will actually change the world.

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 5.27.57 PMIf the LED wasn’t quite an innovation in the early 1990s, then what made it potentially revolutionary a decade later? Early on, the challenge for the LED, as with any fledgling innovation, was straightforward: It must do something either better, or cheaper, than the existing product it is trying to displace.

To look at the future of light in the mid-1990s was to see that the LED did neither. It was expensive, hard to make, dim. Yet even then, a few people saw the early trends and predicted that the technology might be able to achieve astounding gains, given the right amount of research, funding, and time.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 7.13.00 AMIn the early 2000s, Philips believed that the product could only achieve scale or impact–the very definition of an innovation–if its manufacturing costs could be reduced and its quality greatly improved. The only way to get there was to gain one modest step at a time. Thus, Philips had to improve manufacturing processes, experiment with new materials, and make a host of improvements to help the LED surpass existing lighting technologies. And it had to imagine all the possible applications, no matter how small, because of a strategic reality: A radical new product will need to infiltrate markets at the margins before it can claim the center.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 7.13.12 AMHow to bring the cost down further? How to do it faster? With novel hardware, it often requires the resources of a large company to support a product during the long haul preceding its mass manufacture. At the same time, government policy and funding often help push a breakthrough innovation into the market.

Philips demonstrated their LED bulb could now provide light that was just about as good as an incandescent and measurably better than a typical compact fluorescent. But the “cheaper” aspect was still a problem. Even in 2010, the prices of Philips’s 60-watt LED bulbs, at about $40, were still stratospheric.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 7.13.24 AMHuman beings have a tendency to underestimate how long it takes for a ­scientific breakthrough to become a practical innovation. The LED, with origins in the early 1960s, has progressed only slightly faster. But what likewise seems true is that adoption rates can change quickly, just as they did with smartphones. As costs plummet and quality improves, a new technology can suddenly achieve an accelerating, global popularity.

At this point, Philips estimates that LEDs are improving by 15% annually in terms of light output while decreasing about 10% annually in cost. The main question now is whether consumers will refuse such a deal: a lamp that pays for itself in a few years in energy savings and lasts 15 years beyond the payback.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 7.13.36 AMSo efficiency and economics can explain why LEDs will soon infiltrate our homes and offices–but not how the technology might subsequently evolve. The reasons behind the initial appeal of an innovation don’t predict the range of problems it will someday solve. The “second wave” of lighting will involve harnessing the “intelligence” these devices can contain–software and sensors that can allow LEDs to “understand” where light is needed, and at what intensity and color.

On Philips’s Hue LED concept, some light recipes already offer settings so users can “relax,” “concentrate,” and “energize.” The descriptions arise from Philips’s ­research on how settings in schools can improve student concentration, and how particular wavelengths have a relaxation effect. They’re not the whim of an app designer.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 7.13.50 AMListening to Philips executives map out the future can lead to a realization: Older digital technologies–the Internet, for instance, or smartphones–accentuate the impact of newer digital technologies, such as the LED. Internet connectivity makes the product controllable by smart phone, but also endows it with a vast capacity for improvements.

Big data, the buzziest of recent trends, plays into the LED future, too. Because LEDs are controllable and connectable, they can follow instructions from remote sources. But they can also relay data back.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 7.13.59 AMThere is a downside to every innovation, and LEDs are no different. What if your company’s main product is something that effectively never needs replacing? And what if it will soon become a low-cost commodity? Disruptive innovations don’t just disrupt markets or change the way people live; they disrupt old business models, too.

There seems to be a consensus within Philips that the shape, color, price, and functionality will soon make the LED device as common as the incandescent bulb. Yet there also seems to be a consensus that the market for the devices will rise steadily until about 2019 or 2020 and will then level off or drop from saturation.

///   ///   ///

And what if the market isn’t quite ready for this? “You didn’t have an iPhone seven years ago,” Philips’s CEO for Global Lighting Eric Rondolat says. “You didn’t even know you needed one.” Technologies like the Hue LED strike him the same way. Soon everyone will know that a better light has been discovered, and that its benefits are there for the buying. “The world is moving fast,” he says with a shrug. It’s just a matter of time.

inspired by and adapted from How Philips Altered the Future of Light by Jon Gertner

Five Types of Innovators

Gary Hamel, writing in his book What Matters Now, has an intriguing theory on five types of innovators.


Rockets are young companies that have been boosted aloft by wacky new business models. Recent examples include Hulu, which delivers TV shows via the Web and Spotify, a music streaming service. None of these upstarts has yet been challenged to reinvent its business model – a test that history suggests many of them will fail. Like a child star whose fame dims as the years advance, many innovative organizations will become less so as they mature. However, it is worth paying attention to these streakers. While they don’t have much to teach us about how to build systematically innovative organizations, their game-changing strategies often illuminate important new categories of business model innovation.


Laureates are companies that innovate year after year, but in narrow, technologically oriented domains. They spend billions of dollars on R & D and employ thousands of super smart team members. This group is represented by General Electric, Intel, Samsung, Microsoft and Cisco. The laureates show up regularly on “most innovative” lists, and also dominate the rankings for most patents won. Inventive as the are, the laureates are a bit one-dimensional – they’re great at pushing out the frontiers of science, but are not always so good at innovation in other areas. Nevertheless, if you want to learn something about maximizing R&D productivity, the laureates plenty to teach.


The artistes comprise a much smaller category of innovation heroes. These organizations are in the creativity business – innovation is their primary product.  IDEO, BMW DesignWorks, and Grey New York are representative of this group. Everything about them – the way they hire, develop talent, and organize their work spaces – has been designed to provoke lateral leaps of genius. Most companies don’t have the luxury of focusing exclusively on innovation. They have to innovate while taking care of business –  like selling widgets or processing sales transactions. Your company may never be an innovator’s paradise, but you should be able to weave creative thinking into the mix and move the status quo out a little.


Cyborgs are companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple – they seem to have been purpose-built to achieve superhuman feats of innovation. Long ago they left the industrial-age DNA behind, and function on management practices that have been built around principles like freedom, meritocracy, transparency, and experimentation. Cyborgs are innovative on multiple dimensions and are going to be on next year’s “most innovative” list – and the one after that. While cyborgs make most organizations feel like they’re mired in mud, you have to remember that your organization wasn’t built from the ground up to be innovative.

Born-Again Innovators

There are a few geriatrics out there who’ve cracked the innovation code. Known as born-again innovators, they are represented by Procter and Gamble, IBM, and Ford. They have been top-down behemoths who found themselves outmaneuvered time and again by less orthodox upstarts. Eventually, they saw the light and set about reordering their priorities and reassessing lifelong habits. It was not an easy process, requiring a complete retooling of a company’s management processes. To out-innovate the upstarts, a company must reengineer all of the typical management rituals that have been around for decades, replacing them with bold thinking and radical doing.

Is it possible to have innovation in ChurchWorld?

It is not only possible – it will be necessary to survive the tumultuous changes we find ourselves in. Your church may not make a product or provide a service like the organizations listed above, but you should be able to learn from the different types of innovators listed above – and apply that learning to your organization.

inspired by and adapted from What Matters Now by Gary Hamel

What Matters Now

Will the DEO Become Your Organization’s New Hero?

More than rigor, management discipline, integrity, or even vision – successfully navigating an increasingly complex world will require creativity.     – IBM Global CEO Study, 2010

There is no shortage of advice and counsel on how to become “creative” – as a matter of fact, the books and online resources available to today’s eager-to-learn leader are staggering to a fault. So much so that many leaders are tempted to throw in the towel and hope that their inherent traits or some measure of luck will suffice.

Authors Maria Giudice and Christopher Ireland want leaders to take another approach – one that organizations have used many times in the past. In their recent book Rise of the DEO, Giudice and Ireland advocate that leaders identify the strategy and function best suited to these tumultuous times and use it to guide your actions.

In a time where organizations need agility and imagination in addition to analytics, they believe it’s time to turn to Design as a model of leadership.

When we think design, our first association is change: change that responds to need, embodies desire, pursues a stated direction and reflects a shared vision. Those who are designers – either through training or by nature – actively encourage and support collective change.

Enter a new model for future leaders – the Design Executive Officer, or DEO.

Design leaders usually possess characteristics, behaviors, and mindsets that enable them to excel in unpredictable, fast-moving, and value-charged conditions.

Which pretty much describes the world leaders in organizations of all sizes find themselves today.

Giudice and Ireland have developed six defining characteristics of a DEO; do any of these look familiar to you?


Change Agent

DEOs aren’t troubled by change; in fact, they openly promote and encourage it. They understand traditional approaches, but are not dominated by them. As a result, they are comfortable disrupting the status quo if it stands in the way of their dream. They try to think and act differently than others. They recognize this ability as a competitive advantage.

Risk Taker

DEOs embrace risk as an inherent part of life and a key ingredient of creativity. Rather than avoiding or mitigating it, they seek greater ease and command of it as one of the levers they can control. They recast it as experimentation and invite collaborators. A failed risk still produces learning.

Systems Thinkers

Despite their desire to disrupt and take risks, DEOs are systems thinkers who understand the interconnectedness of their world. They know that each part of their organization overlaps and influences another. They know unseen connections surround what’s visible. This helps to give their disruptions intended, rather than chaotic, impact and makes their risk taking more conscious.


DEOs are highly intuitive, either by nature or through experience. They have the ability to feel what’s right, by using their intense perceptual and observational skills or through deep expertise. This doesn’t mean they have a fear of numbers. They know they that intuitively enhanced decision-making doesn’t preclude rational or logical analysis. They use both – and consider each valid and powerful.

Socially Intelligent

DEOs have high social intelligence. They instinctively connect with others and integrate them into well-defined and heavily accessed networks. They prefer spending time with employees, customers, and strangers rather than equipment, plants, or spreadsheets. “Everyday people” are a source of strength, renewal, and new ideas.


DEOs can be defined by a new set of initials: GSD – euphamistically short for “gets stuff done.” They feel an urgency to get personally involved, to understand details through their own interaction, and to lead by example. DEOs make things happen.

Is it time for someone in your organization to move toward becoming a DEO, looking at every organizational challenge as a design problem solvable with the right mixture of imagination and metrics?

inspired by and adapted from Rise of the DEO, by Maria Giudice and Christopher Ireland

Rise of the DEO

Want a Truly Innovative Organization? Think INSIDE the Box…

Stuck in a rut? Facing a deadline to a particularly vexing problem with no solution in sight? Maybe you just want to mix things up to get some new momentum, but you don’t know where or how to start…

Are you tempted to think outside the box?

A very traditional view of innovation and creativity is that it should be unstructured and not follow any patterns or rules. Leaders everywhere are encouraged to “think outside the box.” The problem facing you should be a launching pad for brainstorming ideas, no matter how wild or far-fetched they are. The theory is that moving as far from your problem will help you come up with a breakthrough idea.

Maybe it’s time to think inside the box instead.

I first heard the term “think inside the box” when I became a part of Elevation Church in Charlotte NC over 4 years ago. Elevation’s core values are expressed in what we call The Code – here’s the definition:

We understand what God has done in and through our church is not normal. The only explanation is God’s hand of favor and mercy over a group of people willing to follow Him faithfully. To help maintain our unity, tone, and trajectory, we developed 12 core values as a church that make us unique. We call it The Code.

One of those values is “We think inside the box.”

The Code 6I’ve seen it demonstrated time and time again – from a choreographed dance step illustrating the battle of Elijah and the prophets of Baal to creative videos for worship to innovative partnerships with local groups who serve our community.

Thinking inside the box is now the norm at Elevation.

For many organizations, though, the concept is unknown. Fortunately, that’s about to change.

Authors Jacob Goldenberg and Drew Boyd recently released their new book, Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results. It is the first book to detail their innovation method called Systematic Inventive Thinking – inside the box thinking.

Here’s a quick overview of five techniques Goldenberg and Boyd have discovered after studies of innovation-related phenomena in a variety of contexts.

  • Subtraction: Innovative products and services tend to have had something removed, usually something that was previously thought to be essential to use the product or service. The original Sony Walkman had the recording function subtracted, defying all logic to the idea of a “recorder.” Even Sony’s chairman and inventor of the Walkman, Akio Morita, was surprised by the market’s enthusiastic response.
  • Task Unification: Innovative products and services tend to have had certain tasks brought together and “unified” within one component of the product or service, usually a component that was previously thought to be unrelated to that task. Crowdsourcing, for example, leverages large groups of people by tasking them to generate insights or tasks, sometimes without even realizing it.
  • Multiplication: Innovative products and services tend to have had a component copied but changed in some way, usually in a way that initially seemed unnecessary or redundant. Many innovations in cameras, including the basis of photography itself, are based on copying a component and then changing it. For example, a double flash when snapping a photo reduces the likelihood of “red-eye.”
  • Division: Innovative products and services tend to have had a component divided out of the product or service and placed back somewhere into the usage situation, usually in a way that initially seemed unproductive or unworkable. Dividing out the function of a refrigerator drawer and placing it somewhere else in the kitchen creates a cooling drawer.
  • Attribute Dependency: Innovative products and services tend to have had two attributes correlated with each other, usually attributes that previously seemed unrelated. As one attribute changes, another changes. Transition sunglasses, for example, get darker as the outside light gets brighter.

The authors have found that the key to using these five techniques is the starting point. It is an idea called they call “The Closed World.”

We tend to be most surprised with those ideas “right under noses,” that are connected in some way to our current reality or view of the world. This is counterintuitive because most people think you need to get way outside their current domain to be innovative. Methods like brainstorming use random stimulus to push you “outside the box” for new and inventive ideas. Just the opposite is true. The most surprising ideas are right nearby. We have a nickname for The Closed World…we call it Inside the Box.

Are you ready to do some thinking – inside the box?

inspired by Inside the Box, by Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg
Inside the Box

Stop Crying Over Spilt Milk – the Glass is Still Half Full

In addition to being a knowledge addict, I am a horizontal organizer.

This often manifests itself in a cluttered (to some) office, but in actuality it is creative genius in process…

…the problem is, the process almost never finishes.

Or, as someone once said, I would be a procrastinator if I could ever get around to it.

Which leads to “my” garage (in all honesty, my wife will not let me say “our” garage –it’s all on me).

I served for over 23 years on 3 different church staffs. During that time, I accumulated, created, and mostly saved a lot of resources including books, notebooks, workbooks, lesson plans, sermon notes, leadership training materials, etc.

Upon leaving the church staff vocation and becoming a church consultant over 9 years ago, all those resources came home to reside in our garage. They were stored in cataloged (for the most part) boxes – over 40 of them, in case you were wondering.

From time to time, I would venture out into the garage to search for a resource that would help with a consulting project. Over time, those trips became less frequent, and the resources just sat there.

For some reason, at this time and season in my life, I have begun a summer project to reduce a vast amount of the stuff in my garage, with an eventual goal of putting the family car in at night (I’ve read somewhere that’s what garages are for, but I have no actual working knowledge of that in 33+ years of marriage).

A portable storage unit sits in the driveway, and it has become my sorting/storing/waypoint for stuff on the way out of the garage to a final destination – the recycling center, Goodwill, anyone interested in church-type books, or as a last resort, the dump.

Pause that train of thought for a minute; I want to hook up another car and redirect you.

One of the new books I’m reading this week is Red Thread Thinking. As a part of my typical reading regimen, I look at the front and back covers, table of contents, and introduction before I dive into the book. Reading this book’s TOC, I came across a chapter title that stopped me in my tracks:

Don’t Cry Over Spilt Milk Because the Glass is Still Half Full.

photo courtesy

photo courtesy

Going straight to the chapter, the first three sentences had me hooked:

Your last failure may be part of your next success. The fastest, most profitable innovation opportunities could be right in front of you, yet unnoticed. Uncovering your hidden assets unlocks new opportunities because virtually all innovations are linked to other inventions, successful or not. 

On the next page, this:

Seeing new value in old resources just requires a little skill and motivation to gather knowledge from diverse sources, then figure out how it might be put to new uses.

And finally:

It’s time to unearth old notes from previous development projects. Are there innovations or ventures that you started to work on and then abandoned for some reason? Do an “idea audit” and see what’s in the back of your filing cabinet or closet [or garage]. It’s time to reassess – and see what you can uncover that’s worth revisiting.


My summer cleaning project just took on new meaning.

inspired by Red Thread Thinking by Debra Kaye, with Karen Kelly

Red Thread Thinking

Building Innovation – Through People

Here’s the final post of three this week about Tom Kelley’s great book The Ten Faces of Innovation. Previous posts have looked at Learning and Organizing personas. For an overview of all ten, see here.

The four remaining personas are building roles that apply insights from the learning roles and channel the empowerment from the organizing roles to make innovation happen. When people adopt the building personas, they stamp their mark on your organization. People in these roles are highly visible, so you’ll often find them right at the heart of the action.

  • The Experience Architect is that person relentlessly focused on creating remarkable individual experiences. This person facilitates positive encounters with your organization through products, services, digital interactions, spaces, or events. Whether an architect or a sushi chef, the Experience Architect maps out how to turn something ordinary into something distinctive—even delightful—every chance they get.
  • The Set Designer looks at every day as a chance to liven up their workspace. They promote energetic, inspired cultures by creating work environments that celebrate the individual and stimulate creativity. To keep up with shifting needs and foster continuous innovation, the Set Designer makes adjustments to a physical space to balance private and collaborative work opportunities. In doing so, this person makes space itself one of an organization’s most versatile and powerful tools.
  • The Storyteller captures our imagination with compelling narratives of initiative, hard work, and innovation. This person goes beyond oral tradition to work in whatever medium best fits their skills and message: video, narrative, animation, even comic strips. By rooting their stories in authenticity, the Storyteller can spark emotion and action, transmit values and objectives, foster collaboration, create heroes, and lead people and organizations into the future.
  • The Caregiver is the foundation of human-powered innovation. Through empathy, they work to understand each individual customer and create a relationship. Whether a nurse in a hospital, a salesperson in a retail shop, or a teller at an international financial institution, the Caregiver guides the client through the process to provide them with a comfortable, human-centered experience.

What about your organization? Do you have individuals that regularly take on the personas listed above?

Why not?