We are what we do. If we make thinking and acting two separate things, we are much more likely to fail. We have to figure out how to do both simultaneously. Here are some thoughts on how to do this. Related Stories - The Case for Dual Innovation - ...


Innovation Leadership Network

Talk – Action = 0

We are what we do

Do stuff

“We need to get better at executing strategy.”

I heard something like this from about five different speakers at the Global Peter Drucker Forum last month. I hate statements like this – at best they’re half-truths, but mostly they are dangerous myths.

This was my response:

Do stuff

“We have to stop talking about strategy development and execution as two different things. What you do IS your strategy – so do more experiments to build a better strategy.”

When we try to separate thinking from action, both suffer. They must be integrated. This creates a management problem. “Thinking” jobs are often higher status and better paid than “doing” jobs – so telling the “thinkers” that they must “do” as well doesn’t go over very well.

But they must.

In fact, I think that if we’re not doing, we’re not thinking. We’re just fantasising.

This has some practical implications.

ideas without actions are fantasies

  • Innovation is executing new ideas to create value. If we skip the execution part, we just have fantasies – a common innovation mistake. The solution is to get the people coming up with ideas involved in validating the value they create, and in the execution.
  • When you’re launching something new (a new product, a startup, or a piece of research), the normal way to do things is to work out the idea first, then the business model. However, you can double your chances of success if you build your idea and your business model simultaneously, not in sequence. Lean startup tools help with this.
  • A brand is not a slogan or a positioning statement, your brand is what you do. It’s the sum total of your organisation’s interactions with your stakeholders. If you want to change your brand, you have to change how you act.
  • An organisational culture is not a vision statement plus some corporate values, it’s what everyone in the organisation does every day. once again, it’s a sum total of interactions. If you want to change your culture, you have to change how you act.

If you look at those four examples, in the flawed versions, thinking and acting are separate, while in the better versions, thinking emerges from acting.

As Jerry Sternin says:

It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.

This has one critical implication – our organisations need to be more participative, with shared responsibility and opportunity to both think and do. In the area of strategy, Nilofer Merchant says:

The same few problems crop up, over and over again. We limit participation in strategy creation based on title and rank rather than relevant insight. We insist on lobbing strategy over the wall to the execution team without creating a shared understanding of what matters and why. And we reward individual accomplishment because it is easier than rewarding co-ownership of the ultimate outcomes.

If you want to get better at executing strategy, thinking and executing need to merge. If we treat them as two separate activities, we’re much more likely to fail.

Note: I’ve swiped the title for this post from DOA – the third band I ever saw play live.


We Don’t Need More Mousetraps!

Imagine an island country where the only industry is making mousetraps – let’s call it Mousetrapia. And the people that live there are incredibly creative. Consequently, they invent new mousetraps constantly, and they patent them as well. They patent so many mousetraps that the number of patents per capita for Mousetrapians is among the best in the world.

This high level of creativity is due in part to the fantastic higher education system in Mousetrapia. The academics there are the world leaders in researching and publishing work on mousetraps. Just as in patents, their publications per capita rank among the best.

Since startups are an important part of any innovation ecosystem, last year the federal government provided money to start the world’s first MouseTech Accelerator, called The Cheese. On demo day, there were two outstanding teams that got funded. One built the first mousetrap that connects to the Internet of Things, with an app that lets you set your mousetrap from your smartphone, even if you’re nowhere near home. Of course, the MVP version still requires you to load the cheese manually, but it’s a start. The other startup is described as Uber for Mousetraps. It’s a platform that connects people with mousetraps but no mice with those that have mice but no mousetraps. So the startup scene is thriving.

The innovation ecosystem in Mousetrapia looks great!

Except when you look for an impact from all this activity in the Mousetrapian economy. No one is buying any of their mousetraps. They’re building tons of better mousetraps, but the world is definitely not beating a path to their door.

If you ask people what’s wrong, they’ll say: “We’re punching way above our weight in patents, papers and startups. We just need to get better at commercialising things.”

This is not a commercialisation problem.

Could it be that they’re building the wrong things?

The fact of the matter is that the mousetrap problem is pretty comprehensively solved, and it has been since 1894.

All of the Mousetrapian innovation is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Australia is a bit like Mousetrapia. We just had yet another report on the performance of the innovation ecosystem, which, like all the others, concludes that the country is excellent at generating new ideas, but not so good at commercialising them.

This reflects a flawed model of innovation – that it is a linear process. We have the idea, we build it, we sell it. This doesn’t work, and we’ve known this for more than fifty years. Yet still, when we try to make our countries, firms or startups more effective, we fall back on the linear model.

The fact of the matter is that Mousetrapia is not innovative at all. Every bit of their creative energy is going into solving problems that aren’t problems. They’re executing lots of new ideas – they’re awesome at that. But they’re not creating value.

To innovate, we must do all three things: have great ideas, make them real, and create value in doing so.

This is really hard to do if we try to follow a linear model. It’s much better to think of innovation as circular and iterative. We talk to people a bit to understand what problems they’re struggling with, then build something that might help with that to see if it works. And we do this repeatedly until we’ve got something that solves actual problems for real people. This is what is built into the lean startup approach, which is a good method for breaking out of the linear model problems.

When I see stats that show a group of people whose innovation system looks like Mousetrapia’s, I don’t see a commercialisation problem – I see a bunch of people solving the wrong problems.


Here’s a short video that I made that talks about this a bit for an online short course called Ideas to Impact:


Also, it’s an honour to be included on this list of the World’s Most Influential Innovation Blogs. It’s a terrific list, filled with great resources for those of us interested in innovation.


If You Want to Be Innovative, Innovate

act not think

Too many people want to make their organisations more innovative without going through the pain of actually changing anything.

This does not work.

In an interview on Tim Ferriss’ podcast, Jocko Willink says:

If you want to tougher mentally, it is simple: be tougher. Don’t meditate on it.

It’s the same with innovation. If you want to be innovative, it is simple: innovate.

Here are some things that don’t work:

  • Buying the magic innovation software.
  • Bringing someone (like me) in to give an “inspirational talk” on innovation (which is why I don’t do these anymore). A one-day workshop doesn’t work either.
  • Buying a smaller, innovative company to kick-start internal innovation.
  • Building a corporate accelerator that brings in startups to do innovative stuff that’s related to your core business.
  • Outsourcing new product development, customer development, or any of the work that connects what you want to sell to the problem that people need solved.

Ultimately, all of these end up being innovation theatre.

Here is one thing that does work:

  • Try out lots of new ideas to see which ones create value, then scale those.

The problem is that to do this, you have to change the way you act. Which, of course, you must, if you want to be innovative.

There’s no shortcut. That’s why so few organisations are genuinely innovative. To be innovative, you have to innovate.


Here’s Your License to Innovate!

All the Permission You Need

Your Innovation License

The most common barrier to innovation that I hear about in my classes and talks is “But my boss won’t let me.”

Here’s a solution. Print this out, fill it in, and carry it with you at all times. Problem solved!

Your Innovation License

Actually, you don’t even need my permission to innovate – you just need permission from yourself. That’s all you’ve ever needed.

I’m working on an Innovation Decoder Ring and Secret Handshake, but for now, this will do.

Please start trying new stuff.

(Idea swiped from How to Be An Explorer of The World by Keri Smith)


Solvitur ambulando – A Great Creativity Hack

Solvitur ambulando – it is solved by walking.

That’s the slogan for Keri Smith’s wonderful book The Wander Society (and here).

Her book is a manifesto for getting out and directly experiencing life through unplanned, mindful wandering.

The Wander Society Manifesto

It’s a great idea.

We need slack in order to have great ideasWandering creates slack – unstructured time in our day. That’s where ideas come from.

Physical activity helps us think better. This study outlines the benefits of walking. That’s just the physical part of it. Smith focuses on not so much on the exercise part, but on engaging directly with your environment as you walk. But in both cases, your thinking improves.

We need to experiment – the second use of Solitur ambulando is: “the problem is solved by a practical experiment.” When we try new things, we often rely on logic to figure out if our idea will work. This usually misguides us. It’s better to test the idea through experiments.

There’s an interesting tension between these two definitions – walking/wandering is open, and not task-based. It’s an oblique approach to engaging with your problem, which is the most effective way to deal with complex systems. Experimenting, on the other hand, is more direct.

To make our ideas work, we need both parts. The open, oblique wandering helps us have the great idea in the first place. The experiments help us figure out how to make the idea work in practice.

In both cases, Solvitur ambulando is a pretty useful creativity hack.

Let’s start walking.

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