Copying Einstein: Innovation is within our reach

Dreams onlyIn 1904 Albert Einstein was working at the Patent office in Bern, Switzerland because he could not find a position at a University.  He took the job for one really important reason, because he needed it to feed his young family.

Because of his background, his director gave him the job of evaluating electro-magnetic transmissions. New electronic systems were needed to help synchronize long distance rail lines that were spreading out across the globe. Everyone knew the earth was divided into time zones, but the speed of railroads greatly elevated the importance of local time vs. universal time.

Can you imagine this? Even Einstein, one of the greatest intellects of all times, felt trapped by a dead-end job. He would fit in with today’s US work-force who, according to a 2012 Gallup poll, feel overwhelmingly the same way.   So many of us feel we are not in the right job where we can use our talents and skills to really make a difference. Many of us have ideas and dreams we would like to pursue but either feel we need to be in a different role to do so, or are too overworked to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, a 2013 Accenture survey showed that 93% of all CEO’s said innovation was vital to future existence and they worry where it will come from.

Despite having business leaders desperate to see more innovation and our personal desire to do something new, to build that new process, new business or invention, we don’t find time to innovate. And so we sit, sometimes for years, waiting for the right thing to happen to us, the right chance to spread our wings with our new ideas.

What we fail to recognize as business owners is that innovation is within our reach. And as individuals we lose sight of the fact that we don’t need to quit our jobs to do something fantastic with our careers.

Einstein found a way to stay innovative in his dead-end job. In fact, it was from his position at the patent office, not a university hall, that he first conceived of and penned his famous theory of relativity!

By looking at Einstein’s time at the patent office we can see 3 distinct ways in which he kept his innovative spirit alive in less than ideal circumstances.

1. Approach Each Day Differently

Einstein most likely approached each day’s problems differently. No doubt he put took a philosophical approach to considering local time vs. universal time for controlling train traffic. The prolific notes he took while on the job bear out the fact that his theories came from thinking about problems from different angles. For me, a chance to emulate this came when I first moved to Atlanta. We needed to create new relationships with a customer and were struggling to do so. I decided to stop sending emails and leaving phone messages and rather try to meet new contacts on social channels.  This method worked and propelled us forward many more steps than we ever could have imagined.  Whatever the work is that needs to be done, we can breed innovation by approaching the mundane in new ways, interesting ways, creative ways.

2. Redefine Your Job

The second strategy is re-defining the jobs we have today so that they might morph into job we one day want to have. An old boss of mine once told me that the best way of getting your dream job is to just begin doing it. Einstein wanted to be a theoretical physicist and he began to do that each day at the patent office. He worked extra hours to put his ideas that were inspired by his daily grind onto paper and to think about his theories. Life-balance is a huge problem in America. I am certainly a fan of late nights, but I believe that companies can do more to encourage the innovation they want by allowing employees time to experiment and change their current job titles. Many research and development organizations allow employees significant chunks of time to work on projects that they are interested in and that may have little or no commercial value to the company. Innovation can often be found where our hearts leads us and that may not lie inside the strict job definitions we have today.

3 Follow Your Dreams (no matter what!)

Finally, we must never let go of our dreams. Einstein didn’t. This one is very personal to me because I almost gave up about 2 years ago. I was a sales manager in Minnesota and despite the ideas I had, and the things I wanted to do, I was convinced by my sales vice-president that I needed to put all my effort toward improving at my current job. He gave me vivid suggestions of how he my job should be done that varied grealy from how I had been doing it. Once I mastered my current job, he said, I would be given a chance at a promotion where I could pursue my dreams. I walked out of his office and took his advice. This was one of the worst mistakes I have ever made.   Because once my creativity was squelched, I became nothing.  I was going through the motions and this was a disservice to myself and my firm. My team’s results sunk like a rock and I was asked to leave.  The silver lining to this is that once I got a new job I was determined to never, ever stop doing that job in a way that I thought it should be done.

The choice is really ours. Einstein has left us an incredible legacy not just in his opus in physics, but also in how he lived his life. If we are really interested in innovation, we don’t need to build think-tanks or quit our jobs to define, experiment with and live out our dreams. We simply need the right mental attitude. It is certainly within our reach.

Talking ’bout My Generation

Reading Micah Solomon’s column in my inky Atlanta Journal Constitution last Sunday, I quickly skimmed through looking for the letter X. His article was all about what Gen Y’ers want from customer service and as his foil was the Baby Boomers in paragraph two. Micah certainly knows his stuff with customer service, but I was more interested in seeing my generation kicked to curb once more. Would he even mention GenX? (Incidentally, he did mention GenX in a subordinate clause in paragraph 8.)

I am a GenX’er and proud of my tribe. We have had less written about us than any other generation and no one cares about our attitudes towards customer service or anything else. We are too small in comparison to the generations that sandwich us in.

In Douglas Coupland’s book GenX (1991) Andy Palmer, his sister and friends drift through their early 20’s unsure why no one pays any attention to them. Andy recalls at one point being with his father at a Palm Spring’s gas station as a child. When his dad spills some gas on the side of the car, he calls out to Andy, “Smell that? It smells like the future!”  This is just one of the nonsensical messages Andy receives growing up in a generation that no one seems to understand or cares to try to understand.

Before The Replacements and Husker Du entered my life, I was hooked on Baby Boomer music. That wasn’t hard to do with the amount of it out there. The Junior High School dances always included a healthy dose of it too. The Who’s “My Generation” blaring at us on the gym floor is a particularly sharp memory for me. But even back then I was wondering what g-g-geneartion Pete Townsend was talking about. His or mine?

Generational issues are visceral if nothing else. I may not relate to people from my state or town, but by golly don’t mess with my generation. 

I am sure all the attention the GenY folks are getting must be flattering. Entire consultancy practices, training and books galore are being written about them. Meanwhile, Sarah Brokaw’s book “Fortytude” hit the amazon “$2.01-14-copies-used” scrap-heap before anyone had a chance to even read it. If only it was written 15 years ago, or could be saved for a release date 15 years hence?

There is nothing to complain about, though. I think being ignored has shaped my generation and me. Being able to blend in with Baby-Boomers or GenY’er certainly has its advantages too. As for the unleaded gas at the gas station? It still smells like the future to me.

Of Humans and Airports

The day is coming to a close, but still the Virginia sun bakes the tarmac outside the giant windows. CNN blares. A teenager stares blankly, white earbuds draped from her ears connect to a shiny black box in her lap. A man paces in front of the entrance to the restrooms speaking emphatically into a phone.  A man and a woman dressed in business suits exchange niceties.  It is time to board. With extreme alacrity everyone scrambles toward the jetway. The flight has been delayed an hour and there is a worried look on many travelers who need to make connections in Atlanta.

The flight crew hustles us to our seats. The captain comes on and apologizes for the delay due to bad weather in Atlanta. The last thing I do before the door is closed is gaze at my weather aap. There is a huge red blob sitting over Atlanta. We sit for a few minutes and then one of the flight attendants comes over the PA, “Disarm the doors”.  There is a collective groan. A ground agent comes on the PA and informs us we need to exit the plane. There is a ‘ground-hold’ in Atlanta and it will be at least 90 minutes before we can depart.

There is nothing quite as satisfying as walking off an airplane having finished a flight to your destination. Therefore, it stands to reason that there is nothing quite as dissatisfying as getting off an airplane having gone nowhere.  Some business travelers let down their guard, “Do you have a connection?”,  a portly man in a short-sleeve shirt and tie asks his neighbor. It is getting close to 8pm and the crowd heads for the restaurant and bar across from the gate. One by one the seats are taken. I sit one stool down from a man who appears to have been there all day. I order a sandwich and a beer and stare at the TV. It is going to be a long night.

A man with a large Starbucks cup asks me if the seat between me and the drunkest man in county is taken. “It’s all yours”, I say trying to conceal any double meaning.  “Thanks, I’m Jim.” He says.  Jim is lugging a canvas guitar case. His drunk neighbor asks him what kind of music he plays.  Jim politely  converses with him.  Then I suggest half-jokingly that he should play. “Nah”, he says and orders a glass of red wine.  He is friendly and we talk a bit more about the flight problems. He is going home to Austin and needs to make a connecting flight. “Really, you should get out your guitar and play.” I tell him. He is afraid of bothering people. I point out how busy the bar is and that no one should really notice. He looks around and begins to pull out the instrument and then hesitates. “What about security? Airports are funny that way.”  The drunk man erupts, “What are they going to arrest you for? Making people happy?”

Jim looks relieved and confident. He begins to play.   After an initial shock the bar warms up to him. It quickly becomes a sing-along as Jim belts out the Eagles an Jim Croce tunes. We all  laugh when he starts playing a song called “Walking Back to Georgia.”  The kitchen help comes out to enjoy the show and a few people pull out phones to take a picture. Looking around, the crowd has taken on a whole new tenor. People are smiling and some begin to speak with their neighbors. Laptops are closed and earbuds drop. Everyone is clapping and singing along to “Sweet Caroline”.

The PA roars outside the bar and everyone comes to attention. The flight is ready to go. It is almost 9.30. Everyone squares up on their tabs and Jim shoves his guitar back in the case. “Nice talking to you, Jim” I say. We spill out of the bar and walk to the gate. As the tickets ‘beep’ under the laser reader, and we begin to board the plane for a second time, the shroud of anonomynity casts itself over us once more. We fly home in silence and scatter wordlessly like dust.

Kids go to college to get more knowledge…

Corporate America has a problem.  We need more innovation. Thought-leadership is needed to put our businesses in proper position to compete globally. There is a certain fear that possibly we have squelched innovation during the go-go years or by piling too much work on the plate of each manager during these more recent years of scarcity.

Whatever the reason, there is a huge demand to get the innovation tap flowing again and companies are spending money to do so.

Besides relying more on paid consulting enagements from third parties to get new ideas, businesses are seeing the value of using their employees to drive innovation. Who knows the business and landscape better than they do? My company has invested heavily in a ‘crowd source’ platform. On this site employees can develop and collaborate on new ideas. Those ideas are vetted and improved upon by other employees. Ideas that graduate are open to investment with gamified money and later real money by the business unit that could most benefit by the innovation.

This is a great way to drive innovation, but wait a minute! What caused the hibernation of innovation to begin with? It is not as if employees in mid-career are learnig to be innovative. Where did they lose the spark? Was it created by the corporate environment or does the problem begin before that?

I was pondering this as I drove up and down the hills in Ithaca, NY last week. This college town is renowned for creativity of all types including being home to the late Carl Sagan and countless new ideas.  So, it couldn’t be that innovation is being quashed at school. Could it?

There is a lot of change happening in post-secondary education and many sacred cows are being re-examined. Some have begun to ask the question if the very basis of dividing education into disciplines that specialize in narrowly focused fields. Might this be limiting the imagination and capacity for complex adaptation, and therefore needed change, at a macro level?

I would like to see a greater collaboration and discussion between corporations thirsting after innovation and colleges to figure out how to better equip young adults to adapt and lead.  Any corporation willing to partner with a university may not get all the top talent, but imagine how it may improve their chances of snagging ready-made innovators and promote themselves as an innovative company in the market.

Unpacking the customer reaction: “I didn’t know your company did that!”

Lately, my division has been wearing the customer reaction, “I didn’t know your company did that!” as a badge of honor. If someone produces a great marketing piece or a killer slide presentation, the watermark of success comes in the form of this one sentence from the decision-maker audience.

From a marketing perspective, though, I am not sure if this is something to strive for. Could this single sentence imply that as an enterprise the vendor is not doing the right things to get our key messages in front of decision-makers? Worse yet, does it mean that the product set is overly convoluted and that has prevented decision-makers from understanding where that vendor can effectively assist customers?

After considerable contemplation, I think something more complicated is happening when we hear that reaction. I think it is the sound of a burgeoning relationship.

Usually the above reaction occurs right after a anedotal story is told about how a supplier has assisted another client with their business needs. I think the reaction comes from the realization that the supplier is more than a list of services with corresponding prices. That supplier is a group of thinking people who possess the talents to help businesses solve problems.  It is a symbolic beginning to a discussion based on a personal relationship not on information exchange and simple evaluation.


I think the only mistake that can be made at this point is to assume that the potential customer now fully understands our mission and our offerings. I believe this statement is an open door, but nothing more. If we do not choose to enter that door and ask for frank discussion around challenges the potential buyer is facing the excitement quickly dies.

3 lessons Star Trek can teach us about leadership

I took my son to “Into Darkness”, the new Star Trek movie, over the weekend.   In the opening 5 minutes Captain James T. Kirk is already in trouble for breaking Star Fleet’s rules in order to save his first mate, Mr. Spock and Kirk’s insubordination continues from there.  Sitting in my chair munching popcorn I tried to make sense of it. Here is the weekend’s highest grossing movie telling us that a true leader breaks rules, leads with his gut and allows other to have power more willingly than anybody else. This goes against everything we learn in the workplace! Why is it we spend millions in ‘leadership training’ in corporate America to convince management layers everywhere to do just the opposite?

I constantly read blogs and articles about leadership; what makes a good leader, what we need to do to be better leaders and a call for more leaders in business.   Perhaps we need some different training if we are going to get heroes like James T. Kirk to run our call centers, marketing departments and sales teams?

Let’s take a peek at a new 3-day Star Fleet curriculum on leadership:

Day 1: Break all the rules
Most leadership courses tell leaders they must concentrate on fairness. Not this course. Leaders need to thumb their nose at convention. But beware. New leaders will have to pay additional attention to their intentions if they wish to be great leaders. Captain Kirk is willing to break any rule or treat different individuals differently in order to get the most from his team for the greater good of his mission. Certainly there is a danger in telling managers to offer different rewards to different individuals for the same actions as there is a chance they will be viewed as unfair. Likewise, by breaking the rules they can be viewed as uncaring or ‘above the law’. But the key here is to concentrate on the correct motives. If we can convince managers to operate selflessly, breaking the rules is not only recommended, it is necessary if the business is to achieve greatness and defeat mediocrity.

Day 2: Lead with your gut
Being emotionally engaged is often considered a drawback in a manager and I have seen passion for a job ruin more than one trip up the corporate rungs. Perhaps this is why there is such discontent at the growing size of executive salaries? If shareholders and onlookers saw that businesses were being run by smart and gutsy leaders who were ready to fail and face consequences, perhaps there would be a different opinion. Because these leaders would be seen as real risk-takers who were willing to risk it all personally. Most people are Instilling this in leaders is challenging. A distaste for failure is the reason why. I think that a higher sense of purpose is the way to lower this aversion. James T Kirk certainly has that.

Day 3: Giving Power Away
According to Star Trek and our culture at large the way to true power is the willingness to relinquish it to others. So, why do so many leadership classes emphasize control over the organization? It is counter-intuitive. And relinquishing control if the power owner is not viewed as a leader to begin with is a recipe for disaster. But if we have learned anything in day one and two of this course, the third point not only makes sense, it is a key to incredible success. Empowerment in employees is at an abysmal low in many organizations. And empowerment drives morale and productivity. By giving others an ability to show their passions and exhibit the traits in Day one and two of this leadership course, not only are we creating a more productive team, we are also creating future leaders.

Tablet Challenge Week 1

Ok, so it has only been 2 days and not a full week, but this is a good time to reflect on the tablet challenge.

It has been both easier and harder than I expected. The first day was rough. I started working in the lobby space away from my desk to get some new perspective. I got a lot of comments and questions about what I was doing and why wasn’t I working from my desk.  But it only lasted an hour.  I needed to manipulate a Word doc and I didn’t  feel I had the time to download a program to assist me in doing that. So, I went to my desk and worked the rest of the day with two screens open. I felt like I was being torn in two as I whizzed from one device to the other. I found myself pressing the screen of my laptop and wondering why the curser did not move. I think having 2 email apps open created problems and both the laptop and then the tablet stopped responding.  I did my first web conference on the tablet, but then used my laptop for the big preso I needed to make at the end of the day. I rationalized that I needed to run the slide deck and I did not yet have Keynote loaded. I think that was a good rationalization.

Today I decided to take a new tactic.  I tried to concentrate on all the work I could do on my tablet especially the areas where the tablet was just better, easier and faster. The sweet spot I found was using Salesforce Chatter to respond and post internally and posting to LinkedIn and Twitter externally.  It is actually a joy to move files and links onto social and Twitter is effortless. I downloaded the Hootsuite Ipad app and it is fantastic.

Surprisingly, WordPress is easier to manipulate (eg. curser keeps up with typing better and spellcheck works real-time) although as soon as I typed that it froze up on me a bit.

Basically,it is too early to tell how this will go. Printing is going to be impossible, that is already apparent, but if I can get some rudimentary document manipulation apps, I will possibly have everything I need.  I want to get into some of the workplace engineering aspects of this mobile technology challenge, but it is clear I need to sort out a few technical things first and then I will be able to say much more on that.

This week I did Friday Freestyle in the lobby…pretty exotic, eh?  I promise next week my Twitter photo for Freestyle Friday will be more interesting.