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.

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.

Let the Sunshine in…After 320 Million Years!

fernsBefore there were the Appalachian mountains and before Africa slammed into what is now the Southeastern United States to form them, there were vast, low, swampy flatlands. Few animals were to be found and the ground was littered with oxygen producing ferns of various sizes. Year after year plant matter broke down as sediment and was covered over with more of the same.

I am going to talk about one year in particular. The year is not certain and in the long life of the sun it is not especially important. On this particular year ferns grew much like any year before or after. The ferns lived, prospered, died and were buried in the muck. As the sun shone on them for the last time in the shallow water it seemed certain they would never see the light again.

50 million years later the mountains rose. In the northwest corner of what is now Georgia a lot of fern sediment was crushed into coal by the mountain building forces, but the ferns I am interested in were not destroyed and lay entombed in shale rock. During our very recent era, coal was mined in this part of Georgia and the shale tailings were pushed up into long 15 foot heaps. The heaps channeled water and built stream beds. A hundred years later I was born. Two weeks ago we visited these heaps with permission from the Rome Geological Society and brought back a number of chunks of shale we found under the wet snow and black earth.

Yesterday, I sat on my driveway in the warmth of the Georgia March sun and took a chisel to the seams in the sides of the shale. Carefully I pried apart bits of 300 million year old mud from one another and let the sun shine on the fossil of ferns that grew in that ancient swamp. The leaves shone black, but I could see the life they once had and could imagine them green and swaying in a heavy rain storm. I held the rocks sunward and smiled broadly not only at what I had found, but what I had freed after such an improbable amount of time.

I felt incredibly small and then I wiped a tear from my eye that smudged coal dust from my hands across my face. My wife came out with the dog. She said, ‘you have dirt on your face.’ ‘I know,’ I replied, ‘I know.’

What do you want to be when you grow up?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

That is a question that sounds pretty fresh even though it has probably not been posed to me in over 25 years. If you had asked me that on the day I graduated high school I would have told you the same thing as when I graduated from college: I want to be a writer.For me college was just a buffer zone between high school and the real world which promptly swallowed me whole the minute I graduated from Duke with my Classical Studies degree. I sucked it up and did what I needed to. I did my time working as a sales person in Chicago and diligently pounded away at the great American novel in the evenings and weekends. I found new purpose after I got married and was putting my wife through law school. I figured if I could just make it until she graduated, I could finally sign off of this merry-go-round and get down to the business of being a writer while she made the money. I also figured I could put my novel and writing away until I had more time to work on it. I counted down to the day my wife graduated. There was nobody happier than me as we drove the Ryder van up I-94 from Chicago to St Paul, MN to begin her clerkship job there. I announced with glee to my boss that I was leaving. When he asked where I was going, I said St Paul. In retrospect, I think that what he meant was what was I planning to do next? “No idea,” would have been the answer.

I took a job at Bruegger’s bagels in St Paul for something to do and waited for the money to role in. It didn’t work that way, and getting paid minimum wage to be bossed about by a 17-year-old store manager was insulting. I cold make a lot more than that and get insulted just the same. I signed on to AT&T in Minneapolis and never looked back. That was 1994. By the end of 2010 I had been rewarded as the best, worked overseas, promoted, made the boss and then talked-about, abused and sent back to back of the line. Something had to be done.

So, I started writing. I wrote a screenplay that still needs revision. I also started looking for a way to start over. We moved to Atlanta in late 2011. I found another AT&T job that had more promise but initially did not have a very bright outlook. And, I kept writing. I volunteered to blog for AT&T and I started blogging for myself here on WordPress. I joined toastmasters and began writing engaging speeches. Last Friday as I drove home, I realized I was finally a writer. I didn’t go back to journalism school, I didn’t go back to square one. I also did not write the great American novel and rocket out of my current life. I just evolved in the direction I had always wanted to go. I think I am just at the beginning of my new career. Maybe I will look back and find another true tipping point in my metamorphosis. But it has been in the past week, that I have felt that I am truly now a writer and nothing else.