Bouncing Cows and Three Rules to Create Innovation

Stephanie Millner - 07.08.2021

I shared a cartoon on my LinkedIn newsfeed recently because it illustrated a point about innovation that I often hear. It shows a group of ‘cavemen’ bouncing a cow on an improvised trampoline, attempting to make a milkshake. The implication is that nobody is allowed to try any new ways to make a milkshake. If the boss doesn’t allow any new ideas then you will carry on making the same old mistakes. 

If you have read Clayton Christensen’s ‘Jobs to be done’ theory then you will know that milkshake innovation is actually pretty interesting and even McDonald’s once needed advice.

But aside from the cartoon, this message about innovation is really interesting to me because I think there are three basic rules - and they all need to be addressed for it to work:

1.     Innovation needs mistakes

2.     Innovation needs diversity

3.     Innovation needs ideas

Rule 1

Managers often ask for innovation. They quote Steve Jobs and ask their team to think outside the box. They ask for ideas, but what they are really saying is ‘bring me new project ideas that are guaranteed to work.’ They are not really talking about innovation.

Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, is one of the wealthiest people in the entire world. Amazon is considered to be a very innovative company that is always launching new products and ideas, yet it’s easy to find a long list of failed Amazon products. What’s the lesson? Amazon creates a lot of successful innovation because they try out so many ideas and they know how to shut them down quickly if they don’t work. You don’t know which are the great ideas until you test them.

Managers need to adopt this approach if they want genuine innovation. Don’t make your team believe they will be fired for failure. Make sure they know that they will be supported in closing a failing project AND THEN LEARNING FROM THAT.

Rule 2

June was Pride month so every big company was talking about diversity. Forbes recently ranked Teleperformance as one of the most diverse companies in the USA, so I’m pleased to be a part of a diverse team, but leaders need to understand the true importance of diversity to business results.

Diversity makes a company more attractive to millennial and Gen Z employees so that’s already a great start - you become a more attractive employer and can attract the best talent - but there are also genuine hard economic measures too. The Boston Consulting Group has conducted research showing the average innovation revenue from companies with higher than average diversity is almost double that of companies with lower than average diversity.

Rule 3

Where do the best ideas for a business come from? It’s not always the boardroom. Sometimes the best ideas for change and innovation come from people on the frontline, but how often are your leaders out there really learning how your products and services are delivered? How often do they meet the customers?

When Alan Mulally took over as CEO of the Ford Motor Company in 2006 he didn’t know he was about to lead the company through the most turbulent period in history for the entire automative industry, but Mulally didn’t try leading Ford through the financial crisis from the boardroom. He visited factories and had lunch with random engineers. He asked how they would improve production. He visited dealers and actually sold cars to people - people who had no idea that the nice sales guy was actually the Ford CEO. 

The example of Mulally at Ford shows that when a CEO is receptive to ideas, he or she knows that they can come from anyone inside the business.

This all comes back to the bouncing cow cartoon that I shared. Companies can only innovate when leaders are prepared to try new paths and ideas. If the team is penalized for trying anything unusual then you will never create innovation. Learn from your team and give people a chance to learn from mistakes because you will never hit pay dirt with wildly successful products unless you also launch a few mistakes - ask Jeff Bezos that one.



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