Tag Archive for: Adaptation


You’ve got to fight for your right to innovate

If reaching optimal brain function requires longer than an hour-long meeting, we must schedule time for innovation, argues Adam Kingl.

Written by
Adam Kingl, author, keynote speaker and advisor

15 Jul 2020

In my many conversations with organisations about their quest to be more creative, the challenge that I hear more than any other is, ‘We just don’t have enough time.’ Yet these same organisations complain that their relevance is declining daily because they are not as innovative as they need to be, governed by the tyranny of the daily schedule, the hundred emails, the endless conference calls.

So I offer one hack for individuals and organisations to be more creative that has little to do with bringing in jugglers, sticky notes on the wall, or foosball tables – be disciplined about carving out time to dream, brainstorm, prototype and look outside your immediate silo. After advising companies whose very existence depends on their creative capacity, such as Disney and Pixar, I found one crystal clear distinction in their daily habits versus those in organisations from just about any other industry. Companies who depend on innovation prioritise it in their daily activities. I know – shocking idea, right?

But I’m not asking you to trust my own experience or instinct. Let’s look to the neuroscience as to why this advice may be mission critical. We cannot trust that only hurried, captured moments of precious time for creativity will yield anything but paltry results. Our brains can’t turn on the creative magic for such short, unsustained periods of time.

It’s a state of mind

There are several brain states from deep sleep to normal consciousness to deep focus and peak performance. The higher the performing brain, the higher the brain wave frequency, hence Hertz is the degree of measurement. Our typical brain state during a normal work day is beta (14-30 Hz). You might disagree and suggest it’s theta (4-8 Hz), which is light sleep, and I would neither agree or disagree with you until I experienced your employer! But beta is probably our normal state and theta when we’re in committee meetings, agreed? Beta is what we require of our brains to accomplish our normal tasks of answering emails and solving our workaday problems.

Neuroscientific research has revealed that our brains can stay in beta for a long time and in fact are conditioned to stay there. As a result, if we crank the mental engine to get up to gamma (30-70 Hz) for peak performance and creative thinking the brain through habit easily and proactively usually drags us back to beta. Therefore, if we need our brains to be in gamma in order to be truly innovative, genuinely adding previously unheard of insight and exponentially big ideas, our brains would struggle to do that in, say, a one-hour meeting once a week, no doubt in the creative committee meeting! Beta state is like a constant and familiar noise; it’s the ever-present static of our work lives that can block gamma state. I compare it to how it’s hard for me to think when I’m eating an apple because I have this magnified constant crunching noise in the echo chamber of my skull.

We can’t shut off the laundry list of actions and decisions we have to make, even if we’re completely confident in our ability to make them. Beta is our habit, our rhythm, our tyranny. Because we don’t have balance between the mundane and the creative, we can’t achieve innovation even if we give ourselves those fleeting thirty minutes a week to do so. We have to fight for our right to be innovators.



Should We Focus On Our Strengths Or Our Weaknesses?

Perspectives: Should we focus on our strengths or our weaknesses?
Written by
Adam Kingl, author, keynote speaker and advisor

04 Nov 2019

Our willingness to focus on negatives has persisted since the post-war era, and this includes our approach to talent management. Shifting emphasis from weakness to strengths can help transform personal development, argues Adam Kingl.

The ways in which we consider and develop talent are still largely derived from military influence on leadership in the wake of the Second World War, as imported into the business world from generations entering the workforce upon their release from service, and the “delete all errors” foundations of scientific management.

Our talent experiences these foundations as a two-pronged pincer assault on their weaknesses. The implications are that they are never good enough, always wary of slipping up, and their fleeting moments of pride and job satisfaction are quickly subsumed by frequent reminders of their own inadequacies.

Assessing strengths vs weaknesses

Consider your own experience of talent-assessment reports in the organisations in which you have worked; 99% of you will probably recall an almost universal way in which these reports are organised: your strengths and your weaknesses.

Now remember how you read and reflected on this assessment. For most of us it went something like this:

Strengths: “Oh, I’m pleased that I have done well here. I know that I’m good at these things.”

Reader now dismisses and forgets this section entirely. Similarly, their manager opens a development conversation with these strengths for all of five minutes, then never mentions them again.

Weaknesses: “Oh no, I’m not good enough. I’m a terrible colleague and an embarrassment to my family. I’m wholly inadequate. And who was that traitor who gave me ones across the board in my 360?!”

Reader obsesses about this section for the next eight months, and their manager is similarly obsessed, beginning every conversation with a progress report and feedback on how well the weaknesses are being addressed.

The positive effect of building on strengths
This is a deficits-based approach to talent assessment. It implies that the best way for our people to develop is to focus on and improve those things at which they are terrible. There’s a massive and obvious problem with this philosophy. Allow me to explain with a personal story.

When I was about 12 years old, my parents took me on holiday to a ski resort. I was hopeless on skis; ragingly atrocious. I was holding onto a rope (my only job was to hang onto the rope quietly and do nothing else) that would drag me up the kiddy slope…and I fell over. Since no one behind me could ski either, and I couldn’t navigate out of the way, everyone fell on top of me – a novice skier puppy pile. My nose met my tonsils, as I was squashed into the bottom of a Black Forest Gateau of helmets, scarves and skis, a tartiflette of flattened bodies and egos.

Now, here’s the point: imagine I’d spent the rest of my life attempting to be a world-class professional skier. That was never going to happen, and I don’t regret it. I pursued hobbies that I enjoyed and academic topics about which I was either curious or had some natural aptitude.

I’m sure that for most people this is completely normal and ‘commonsensical’. Yet in most companies today, incredibly, we assess and spend our development resources as if we want to turn our ‘worst skiers’ into ‘average skiers’.

Developing world-class qualities

Wouldn’t our organisations be stronger and our people more fulfilled and successful if we identified their strongest skills and invested in turning those great attributes into absolutely world-class skills?

The shift we are just beginning to experience is from deficit-focused performance management (improving one’s weaknesses) to a focus on strengths. If we work on our weaknesses, most likely we can at best hope to improve those areas from ‘weak’ to ‘mediocre’ or ‘barely passable’ and only after an unconscionable amount of unfulfilling graft and attention.

If we work on our strengths, we have at least some chance, maybe even a reasonable one, of improving those qualities to ‘world class’, which will have a stronger impact on us individually and on the success of our organisations.

What do you want to tell your customers?

“Everyone in our company is world class at something, and we’ve worked hard on that.”

Or: “Everyone in our company is at least average in everything, and we’ve worked hard on that.”

Generational shifts
This shift from weakness-based assessment to strength-based assessment will only accelerate as generation Y (millennials) grow in numbers to become the majority of the global working population. As one typical way in which a generation develops its attitudes is its reaction to previous generation(s), gen Y is clearly embracing a healthier approach to self-regard, celebrating what colleagues can bring to the table.

Positive psychology is also a harbour from the ceaseless economic and socio-political breakers crashing into generation Y’s already justifiably shaky sense of security and confidence.

Adam Kingl is the author of Next Generation Leadership and a keynote speaker, educator and advisor. He was previously the regional managing director, Europe, for Duke Corporate Education (Duke University), and the executive director of Thought Leadership and Learning Solutions at London Business School.


Next Generation Leadership

London Business School

How To Fail Successfully

How to fail successfully
The most innovative companies embed experimentation in their strategy and extract maximum learning from their mistakes.

27 MARCH 2020

Everything has shifted – and it continues to shift. Being able to adapt quickly could make the difference between staying afloat and foundering. Most fundamentally, says Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School, business leaders and managers should reevaluate and think afresh about risk, uncertainty and failure.

“Many organisations have highly structured ‘stage-gate’ processes for managing innovation, as a way of keeping things as orderly and predictable as possible,” he says. “But the reality is that innovation is messy and requires an acceptance of high failure rates. And never more so than in these unprecedented times.”

Many businesses will struggle to embrace this new reality. They might know in theory that failure is meant to be valued, but they’ve not quite put this into practice. Old habits die hard: bosses used to holding postmortems when projects or products fail are now going to need to focus on genuine learning.

“I have seen several companies adopt a zero-tolerance approach to failure,” says Professor Birkinshaw. “The person who failed gets fired, the failure gets swept under the carpet and everyone gets the message that this must not happen again. This creates a fear culture – people follow the rules, whether they make sense or not, and no-one dares try anything new. Not a recipe for success in this world where the context is changing daily.”

Experimentation takes courage
Fortunately, there are some lessons we can all learn from businesses that have taken learning from failure seriously. Tim Harford, author of Adapt, said there were three essential steps: try new things, in the expectation that some will fail; make failure survivable, because it will be common; and make sure that you know when you’ve failed.

Professor Birkinshaw advocates an essential strategic shift for business leaders: fail methodically, through robust experimentation – and learn to maximise your return on failure. This sounds like an excellent plan. So why don’t more people do it?

“When you actually take a business person with responsibilities and a budget and sit them down and say, why don’t you do this as an experiment? They’ll say, ‘No, that won’t work: let’s pilot it or do some more research’,” says Professor Birkinshaw. “Experimentation is beautiful in concept but it’s very difficult for people to have the guts to follow through. An experiment says, let’s run two different pilots. You have to admit that you don’t know the right way forward – and nobody likes to admit that.”

Rajesh Chandy, Professor of Marketing and Academic Director, Wheeler Institute for Business and Development at London Business School, has studied how innovative companies incorporate failure in their corporate culture. He says: “Innovative companies often have asymmetric incentives for enterprise. Enterprising employees in these companies understand that the rewards for success will be much higher than any punishment for failure.”

“It’s not the case that failure has no negative consequences in these companies,” he points out. “Those responsible for failure may get their wings clipped, or may face higher burdens of justification the next time they propose something. But the incentive structure is such that if they succeed, the rewards will be disproportionately higher than any negative consequences should they fail.”

“Moreover, innovative companies manage risk by having a diverse portfolio of innovation projects – some that are quite risky, and many others that are quite safe. They also look outside and capitalise on the risks that others are taking. By letting the ecosystem do some of the risk-taking, they reduce the risks to themselves.”

Professor Birkinshaw recommends drawing up a balance sheet to assess a project’s return on failure. On one side, consider your ‘assets’. These might include: What have you learned about your customers’ needs and preferences? Do you need to change any of your assumptions? What insights have you gained into future trends? What have you discovered about how you work as a team? On the other side, look at your ‘liabilities’: costs, both financial and less tangible costs such as damage to reputation or morale. Bottom line: What are the key insights and takeaways for your business?

Costas Markides, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at LBS, agrees that experiments are crucial in identifying which of your ideas will fly, especially if you’re trying (or indeed forced) to innovate in a company that’s resistant to your big ideas.
“How do you select the good ideas? Try them out. Get the data and then you can say, ‘Look, what do you think about it now?’ Design clever little experiments to try your ideas. Small-scale, low-cost experiments, that get results quickly.”

Great idea – now prove it

This is the tricky part. “You have to bring the learning into the workplace,” says Adam Kingl, an executive education programme director at London Business School. “Realigning our position on failure, risk and experimentation is key. Aim to build a capability throughout the whole organisation so that as many people as possible have a chance to spot and respond to what’s coming in the distance. Leadership is about enabling your team continually to respond, experiment and get in front. If you experiment, by definition you will be more agile.

“Aristotle said, if you want to be a braver person, find a brave person and imitate them. Just by imitating ‘brave’, you will automatically be braver. That’s what experiments are. They give you the opportunity to try or even just imitate ‘agility’. In so doing, you will be more agile in a year’s time. Why do you need to be agile? Because, as one CEO put it, business used to be like trying to spot trends and opportunities when you’re on a swing – you’re are always moving but you can still keep an eye out. Today, it’s like trying to do so while you’re on a rollercoaster. So you need to experiment to build your agility muscles.”

Here is a four-step risk-mitigation framework Professor Birkinshaw suggests you keep in mind when you’re designing experiments:

1. Make your hypotheses explicit – a good experiment is designed so that whatever the outcome, you’ve learned something new. It’s much better to be able to say your hypothesis wasn’t supported than to say the project failed.

2. Limit the scope of the experiment. In the world of IT, the ‘sandbox’ is the offline testing environment where you try out new code. The same concept applies in business more generally – try the experiment in a limited way and make sure to run the new in parallel with the old.

3. Start at home. You want to stay under the radar during the early days of your experiment, while you figure out if it’s really a good idea. So this means trying it out in your own department or business first, and using volunteers to help you. You don’t want to expose yourself to formal review until you’re well down the track.

4. Iterate. You never get everything right first time. So learn the power of iteration and continuous improvement. James Dyson famously tried more than 5,000 prototypes before his bagless vacuum cleaner worked. Hopefully you won’t need quite that many.

Ultimately, what’s required is a shift in mindset. Kingl carried out a survey asking more than 100 UK HR directors about their company’s reaction to failure. Answers ranged from “A: Anyone who fails is quickly fired” through “B: We never speak of it – it’s shameful”, “C: ‘Good’ failure is tolerated but not shared” and “D: Failure is shared to a point, but there’s a stigma” to, finally, “E: Failure is shared and even celebrated”. Only 3% of the HR directors said their company’s attitude was an E.

The attitude you want to emulate is that of Tom Watson, CEO of IBM, in the company’s 1960s and 70s heyday. When a top salesman lost US$5 million on a project, Watson didn’t fire him. “Why would l fire you?” he said. “I’ve just spent five million dollars on your education.”