For most of American history, the rhythms of everyday life served to facilitate intellectual cross-fertilization. From colonial villages to frontier towns, and from urban tenements to first-ring suburbs, American life was long centered uniquely on what Tocqueville and others termed “townships.” Yes, distinctions like race and ethnicity divided society, but while Europeans defined themselves by social class, Americans were much more focused on the neighbors who lived and worked nearby.

This article beautifully explains the negative impact social engineering, human nature, and the decline of civic institutions has had on innovation.  In the past citizens were deeply involved in civic meetings, church, and community events.  They focused less on finding personal satisfaction through family and friends.  The author cites research that suggests the reverse is now true and it is undermining our collective ability to innovate.  (Nota bene, the image used above is clearly of a European town square.  I could find no equivalent for an American city.)

Using his hometown of Buffalo as an example, he implies that the effort to become a hub for life sciences (e.g., biotechnology and pharmaceuticals) has not yet fulfilled expectations.  The reader is to infer that this could be explained by a lack of professional diversity, as is noted in the quote above.

Very few, if any, of us will ever influence a community the size of Buffalo.  However, we all affect our work community.  When compiling work teams, look for contributors from non-obvious or seemingly unrelated departments.  Create opportunities for employees to interact informally.  The author notes that “many firms allow researchers to spend a portion of their time exploring topics beyond the projects at hand.”  If the past is precedent, innovation will follow.

I’ll close this post with another example from the author.

Detroit, for example, didn’t become the global motor-vehicle mecca by design. Rather, random interactions among engine designers, ship builders, and carriage manufacturers at the turn of the twentieth century created a mashup of ideas on the shores of the Detroit River, and from that intellectual ferment emerged the mass production of automobiles.


Josh Bersin makes a surprisingly bold statement in this article.

Not only should your organization understand the basics of training and development, but you must integrate it with the company’s talent practices (career progression and leadership) and also create a “culture of learning.” As Peter Senge and many others have uncovered, learning culture is perhaps the most important asset a company can build. (emphasis mine)

Think of all the other assets that could have been listed.  Patents, authors or musicians, physical holdings, even its brand.  But a learning culture was ranked higher than all of these.  Why?  There is a direct link between learning and innovation.  Patents are a result of innovation.  A brand is developed and established through innovation.  Knowing what talent or physical asset to pursue is influenced by innovation.  The one thing listed above that cannot be acquired is innovation.  It must be developed and a structured learning program that provides formal learning opportunities and supports informal collaboration is a necessity to support innovation.

Think about the history of companies like Nokia who lost their market to new competitors like Apple, or the many search companies who lost the search market to Google. These companies don’t fail to innovate. They simply fail to learn.

Bersin’s company created a hierarchy for corporate learning.  The model provides a model for companies looking to improve their corporate learning program.  Of course, Bersin would love to send in a team to help you, for a fee.

I want to highlight a few more points from his article.

[W]hen there is no formal training at all, managers and staff tend to coach each other to try to do their jobs more effectively. This form of organizational learning can be effective, but it doesn’t scale well and is dependent on the skills of the senior people.

This is the case even when there is a training program in place.  Nevertheless, this approach is dependent on the skills of supervisors and other management staff.  Even the most conscientious supervisor struggles to balance employee development with his or her regular responsibilities.

Today companies tend to have a lot of level 1 training taking place, even if they have a well run corporate university (Level 2). There is never enough money or resources to take on every training problem, so incidental, manager-led training is going on all the time.

Not only is there never enough money, but there is also a limit to what can be accomplished through formal “training.”  It has to be supported by upline management and tied to organizational goals.


At Level 4, which few organizations have achieved today, companies bring together these formal and informal tools with a laser focus on direct job capabilities. Here the organization should turn itself inside out: rather than thinking about skills and job needs, they look at “audiences” and “audience profiles.”

What, for example, does it take to turn a good sales person into a leading sales person?  What does it take to develop a good engineer into a great engineer? The answer is not some form of “training” – it is a combination of training, coaching, performance support, and employee assessment. And the answer is likely unique to your organization.

The focus of this level of talent development is capability development.  An example Bersin provides for this level is ” is the US Military. As one General put it to me, ‘We have only two missions:  to train and to fight. When we aren’t fighting, we are training. And when we are fighting, we are learning.'”

This is the mindset required to be successful.  It takes the highest level of organizational leadership to make it happen.  Everyone in the organization has to value learning and look beyond their job duties.

I believe most organizations have a vast amount of capacity and capability that is untapped.  Putting the proper learning program in place and supporting it with the right mindset is a key to the getting the most of an organization’s talent.

This article on workforce innovation has worthwhile reminders for identifying opportunities and creating new products and services.  I have posted or shared a lot of the ideas that in the article so I will focus on examples and recommendations that offer a fresh perspective.

What are the prerequisites?

Lay a base of trust. Mix risk-taking with job security. Subtract strict chains-of command and barriers that impede ideas from rising. Add professional development. Separate rewards into two units: excellence in routine activities and efforts to find breakthroughs. Don’t forget a dash of fun. And when trials result in errors? Openly discuss failure to learn from it.

What are the raw ingredients? (emphasis mine)

“Great innovative companies have created the right environment, attracted the right employees who constantly want to learn, and they’ve figured out how to get people highly engaged in innovative processes without fear and without the dominance of quarterly earnings,” says Edward Hess, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

How do you know if its working?

One metric: track how much of a company’s revenue comes from products introduced within the past five years.

What role does learning (not training) play in this?

“Learning is part of the culture,” says Laurie Gilbert, vice president of restaurant innovation at McDonald’s. “Candidly, fun is a big part of the culture.”

Once a quarter, the center has its own version of the Food Network TV show Iron Chef. Upon arrival, a group of employees is given a theme and told to create a lunch for everyone else inspired by the theme, using only ingredients available in a McDonald’s kitchen.

What can you do to promote innovation? (emphasis mine)

Zebra Technologies Corp. has a special banquet for employees who have earned patents in a particular year. The company also offers cash awards, and honorees receive certificates or plaques and are recognized at quarterly meetings broadcast globally. “We do a variety of things to encourage people to take some shots at the basket,” says Michael Terzich, senior vice president of global sales and marketing at Illinois-based Zebra.  Bally Technologies Inc. offers rewards such as iPads to the top-rated inventions posted online and voted on by employees. The slot-machine-maker also honors “inventor of the year” and “inventor of the quarter.”


I listened to a webinar on developing organizational innovation recently.  The excerpts below are from this presentation.  Click here to download the entire 45 minute presentation.

  • The term “innovation” has been used in so many different ways that it has almost lost its meaning.
  • Innovation doesn’t really mean the same as invention.  Its about new things and new approaches but its not the same as invention.
  • Innovation does not mean technology.  Technology is not required for innovation.  Obviously its going to help facilitate but its not the same thing.  It doesn’t mean redefining an industry.
  • Innovation is the creation of something new which when its implemented leads to a positive, measurable outcome.

People: Not all organizations need to have that one legendary innovative leader.  Organizations who have innovation in their DNA have leaders who are discovery driven vs. delivery driven.  The engage in questioning, observing, connecting the dots.  It has to be everybody’s job to maintain that sense of organizational curiosity.  It begins with leadership at all levels of the organization.  This filters down to people who want to be a part of the discovery process.

Process: Operational processes and accountability are the baseline from which an organization can innovate.  Process is essential for maintaining that sense of shared accountability.

Philosophy: How do you take innovation from the mission statement and make it part of how you do business?  You must allow people to take risks and make mistakes.  People learn when they make mistakes in the right places.  The key is to go back and help them understand what went wrong.  Everyone has to understand and be accountable for where  in their job are they allowed to make mistakes and learn from them and where are the critical areas where there is less leeway.

“If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

Kurt Eichenwald, Vanity Fair

The quote above is from an article in the August issue of Vanity Fair (subscription required to read the entire article).  In it Mr. Eichenwald quotes interviews with current and former Microsoft employees who describe a culture that is focused on maintaining the status quo and incapable of innovation.

Apparently the revelations in the article have had a ripple effect across the tech world but I am not surprised.  You don’t have to be a tech junkie or business genius to notice the relative invisibility of Microsoft in recent years.  The only publicity Microsoft has generated has been negative (Vista) or presented in the context of missed opportunities (Surface tablet).

So what’s my point?  Culture matters.  Instead of going on the offensive by creating new markets through innovation Microsoft assumed a defensive posture to protect the ground they had already taken.  According to the employees interviewed by Mr. Eichenwald this led to a nearly cannibalistic culture.  This kind of behavior is not attractive to talented prospects.  Even if an organization can maintain its market share in the short term this kind of culture will eventually impact sales.

This should serve as a warning to leaders.  Be aware of the culture in your organization.  Don’t ignore the warning signs.  Ann Bares makes good points in her assessment of Microsoft’s troubles.  Her recommendation is to develop and adhere to quantifiable performance standards that are consistent with the organization’s goals (my words, not hers).  She also cites and article in Fast Company on motivational synchronicity.  The quotes in her post are interesting so I’ll probably read and post my own thoughts on that article too.

I have no idea if this book is worth reading but the general principles in this four minute video are thought provoking.
If you like the video, get the book.  If you like the book blog about it so everyone can gain from your insights too.