Archive | June 2014

A Humorous Poke…into some serious issues

Today’s example helps illustrate “how to break the mold,” carefully selected to follow the “Weird Ideas” innovation series.

By now, you might have come across the story about how a group of four Canadian professors at the University of Alberta satirized the high salary of their outgoing university president (read it here and here). And the group of four rapidly grew into new groups comprising 56 professors. (Quick, how many groups are there?)

In responding to the job opening for the president of the University of Alberta, Kathy Cawsey and three other professors decided to use the opportunity to poke some fun, while also highlighting the overpaid bloated university administration. The four professors submitted their joint application for the position of president, arguing that the university would get a “bargain” with “four real academics for the price of one job,” and they would even throw in as a bonus, sharing just one academic robe. The tongue-in-cheek application letter has spread like wildfire, and 52 of Cawsey’s friends decided to join the “crusade.”

One got highlighted.

One got highlighted.

It is difficult to imagine that one university president would be working more hours than four professors’ hours added together. Yet, these days, many “university president” positions fetch a nice million-dollar salary package, including all the perks and benefits (example: CUNY chancellor’s free apartment worth $18,000/month). Indeed, the university president job must be stressful, what with all the fund raising, taking blame for university misadventures, and all that…I guess. Still, a million? Or, six million, in the case of the retirement package for the outdoing president of Ohio State University, who by the way, left in disgrace. By comparison, the outgoing UofA president’s salary is paltry at just under-half-of-a-million.

The two lessons I draw from the UofA presidential application stunt are: 1. Cawsey and company must have good job security, and 2. we have collectively lost, or abandoned, the spirit of “service.”

The “job security” point is self-evident. By “spirit of service” I mean the sense of “serving” people. I don’t advocate cheap labor, and insist that we should all be properly compensated for our work and our hard-earned education, experience, and reputation. However, don’t people go into certain sectors because of some belief in “serving others?” like university presidents? Since when have we accepted that university presidents are CEOs and belong in the same ridiculous salary ranges? For that matter, hospital presidents? bishops? art museum directors? When I was an intern in the planning office of a major metropolitan hospital decades ago, the incoming hospital president wanted to redecorate his office. Sure, but to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars?! What was equally appalling was that my bosses did not see anything wrong with it.

Yup, everything is done by corporate standards these days. Since when has private industry’s standard become the gold standard? How many disasters, cheating schemes, disgraceful and deceitful practices, or downright illegal activities in for-profit organizations must we suffer before we accept that there are just as much rotten fruit in the private basket, and maybe more, as in the not-for-profit basket? For goodness sake, these days the media pundits are even portraying ISIS (the brutal Sunni organization that’s currently leaving corpses all over Syria and Iraq) as possessing shrewd “business acumen.” For instance, ISIS deliberately underpays their fighters so as to recruit those who are truly committed in the ideology. I guess they have indeed learned from the west’s corporate experience.

Back to university presidents. Is it ironic that many of these over-bloated university administrators are from universities that have driven large tuition increases, created a substantial portfolio of student debt and a growing body of poorly-paid adjunct professors, and become loud advocates for austerity measures for others? Don’t get me wrong, there are legitimate administrative functions and roles. The helpful administration people are angels. I have been lucky to have met quite a few such.

Omen, or prelude, for a good monsoon?  Would $1 million buy a good monsoon?

Omen, or prelude, for a good monsoon? Would $1 million buy a good monsoon?

People will argue that we need to provide incentives to attract “talented” people for the top posts. What are these talents? In the case of UofA, the ad for the president includes the ability “…to interact effectively with the highest level of business, government and public bodies.” I’d be the first person to admit that cultivating relationships, especially at such “high” levels, is a very demanding and daunting task. However, if these institutions so value relationships, why don’t they also attend to the relationships with their customers and employees (actually, aren’t all CEOs and presidents employees too?), the relationships among all the employees, and the relationships of relationships? Kenwyn Smith defines organization this way: “Without a system of relations to draw the parts together into a whole, there is no organization, just free-floating parts. Hence, to talk about organization is to talk about relationship, relations among parts and relations among relations.”

I think these UofA professors’ idea and action were brilliant. It’s “outside the box” thinking; it’s non-confrontational while sending a clear and strong message, and it was done in the spirit of “service.” I hope more people with good job security will create similar outlets on behalf of those who cannot risk being heard.

Do you have similar ideas or stories to share?

A birthday celebration trip is coming up for this household. I will resume in this space on 7/13. Safe travels and a wonderful holiday to all. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Managing Weirdness…

…is as weird as “programming creativity.”

Throughout the book “Weird Ideas That Work,” there are a lot of “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” pieces of advice. While Mr. Sutton provides many examples and bullet points, there are no 12-step programs for managing weird ideas for creativity and innovation. There are general principles, frameworks, cautions regarding measures to avoid, and so forth. By the time a manager finishes the book, she is not necessarily better off than when she started reading. Ultimately, it’s what Sutton and his colleague, Jeff Pfeffer advise in their well-known book, “The Knowing-Doing Gap:” Just act on an idea, then you’ll learn. So, I’d say, just focus on any one of the “weird ideas” Sutton proposes in the book, and act on it.

I contend that given the chance, plenty of people in all organizations are more than happy to dream a little, try something crazy, be innovative and creative. Even some managers are creative people…they just don’t get to express creativity in their jobs. However, to foster a creative atmosphere in an organization is management’s responsibility. The biggest paradox of managing for innovation and creativity is that they cannot be managed. The manager who would manage for creativity should stay out of people’s way and manage as little as possible. This is not to suggest that managers should not provide parameters, define problems, or offer guidelines. But, is it so very terrible for managers to admit that they might not really know what the problems are, or, how the perimeters should be delineated? A little humility may open up a lot of space for others to explore.

Most of us would feel guilty for “not doing much,” which is actually part of the creative process. For instance, for any creative process, there is an incubation period during which little seems to take place. So, this is not the time for managers to demand progress reports. What managers could do instead is to provide support, perhaps create a “safe” environment for people to experiment, tinker, or fail. Managers need to be the champions of people’s ability to develop ideas, and when the time comes, of the ideas themselves – selling the ideas to upper management, locating and connecting to financial resources, removing “speed bumps” such as “milestone reports” or meetings. Managers also have to act the “cheerleader” role at times and create the self-prophetic cycle of success. Personally, I think the toughest aspects in “managing for innovation” are: (1) Dealing with (i.e. accepting) failures, and (2) Recognizing talents (i.e. give talents a chance).

Now there is one weird (and toothy) machine, "Spike Wheel Applicator" is used for fertilization.

Now, here is one weird (and tooth) machine, “Spike Wheel Applicator” is used for fertilization.

As I mentioned in the previous post, how do we define “failures?” What are acceptable failures? And what are the “stupid” ones that ought to be punished or censured? (John Cleese, in a speech referenced in my 4/14/2013 post, suggested “spelling ‘rabbit’ with three M’s” as an example of a failure that meets the stupid bar.) And for how long should we allow failures to keep piling up? Few managers or CEOs have the strength or the vision to live in such an uncertain environment.

Talent comes in all shapes, sizes, colors or educational backgrounds. The usual “selection committee,” which haunts the selection of candidates for professional ranks, is more than likely to choke off the variances (see last post) and go for the impressive resumes, sparkling presentations, or energetic self-promoters. (Sidebar: Ironically, the selected candidate often is the one who best meets the conventional expectations. Why not do a study on some successful introverts, especially in managerial ranks, and understand how they have overcome the conventional yardsticks? Introverts are not the best self-promoters.) To actually hire some of those people who make you uncomfortable – per Sutton’s weird idea #11&1/2 (on my list) – would require people on the “selection committee” to be willing to be weird themselves. But when the “selection committee” members converge on a conventional choice, how many managers would defy the committee, veto the conventional choice, and go for that “weird” candidate who might (or might not) bring about innovation?

A closer look at those "teeth."

A closer look at those “teeth.”

Most management responsibilities actually involve imperfectly defined tasks, messy emotions, wide ranges of personalities, or tangled relationships. These grey zones require the ability to appreciate nuanced dynamics and make judgment calls, more than methodical plodding, planning, and execution. But these days, we really don’t allow people to make judgment calls. We “create” procedures for every task and hide behind “due processes.” So innovation and creativity fly in the face of conventional managerial practices. Sutton suggests that there should be no superstar, such as “employee of the month,” and punishing “inaction” but rewarding “failures.” Allowing an employee to sleep under the desk would be beyond “weird” for the majority of managers.

None of what’s listed as “weird” in Sutton’s book is impossible to do. He certainly cites enough examples to make me feel almost hopeful. And he definitely would disabuse the notion that one can attain some of his principles and goals just by happening to read his book, agreeing with his teaching, and immediately acting upon it. It’s an easy-read-but-hard-to-act-on book. In the end, I still yearn for something more fundamental and perhaps philosophical that can be used to build a foundation for innovation. Ever since management as a profession was created, e.g. Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management,” organizational life and operation have grown ever more linear. Do A, B, & C then, and you will get X, Y, & Z. Yet, the creative and innovative processes have not changed much since time immemorial; they’re messy circulatory processes full of unknowns, the unexpected, accidents (good and bad), and frequent unproductive periods. It’s both risky and exciting; it’s paradoxical in nature.

So, for managers who cannot tolerate paradoxes, I would say, “Be content with flat performance, mediocre profits, and a conventional personnel pool with which to work.” As for those who would like exciting breakthroughs every so often, think about how to foster a culture in which give-and-take is standard operating procedure, trust is emphasized, playfulness is encouraged, and failures are permitted. Creativity starts with an attitude and a philosophy.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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To Be Normal, Or To Be Weird? That is NOT the question.

The questions should be: How weird is weird? For how long should weirdness be allowed to go on? Of course, what I really should put in the title is “To have normal ideas or to have weird ideas…” Kind of boring, isn’t? In order to catch people’s attention, I have to step beyond the normal boundary. This is the same rationale with which Robert Sutton begins his book, Weird Ideas That Work, published in 2002.

To be innovative, or to be creative, is all about operating outside the norm.

No till drill was a big-deal innovation for farming...saving soil and moisture.

No till drill was a big-deal innovation for farming…saving soil and moisture.

Mr. Sutton breaks down the organizing principles for innovative work into these three:

  1. Increase variance, which means generating a wider range of ideas
  2. Examine old practices in new perspectives
  3. Break from the past cleanly.

Like the featured lecturer of my last post, Bill Bennett, Mr. Sutton (both men are professors at Stanford Business School) also uses James March’s work on “exploitation and exploration” as the foundation to discuss innovation. As I have mentioned a few times, March’s “Technology of Foolishness” is a seminal work.

The aforementioned three principles would fall under “exploration,” and organizations using these principles must be willing to wait for a while for the potential profits. The opposite, eliminating variance, sticking to the old ways, and “honoring” tradition, gives the organizations profit now. In other words, exploiting the current technology involves less cost and brings in more cash.

My last entry largely focused on the first principle, increasing variance. For the second principle — seeing old ways in new perspective – Grace of my dissertation case provides just the example. After revamping her little eatery, she still offers many similar items to other Chinese restaurants, such as, stir-fried noodles or dumplings, but she presents them on non-traditional plates, which seem to take on different flavoring. Her menu is modern, clean, and offers only about 1/5 of what typical Chinatown eateries offer. And Grace seals her signature coffee by using a siphon system that’s more common in Taiwan, but not in the States.


Drilling, seeding, fertilizing in one swoop…yet some farmers are still resisting.

To break away from the past is more an attitude than a tactic. Sutton gives us the example of tea bags. For 34 years, tea bags were all flat square pouches. Then, Tetley tested on consumers and found that overwhelming response favored round bags. In January, 1990, Tetley launched round tea bags and gained 5% more market share. PG Tips pushed further and came up with Pyramid bags, which is supposed to “mirror” the actual brewing process. These days, many high-end teas use Pyramid bags.

None of these principles would necessarily be easy to adopt, and no one is advocating that all organizations should constantly seek weird ideas, break new grounds, and the like. It is risky and costly. And often, there are valid reasons for old ways that should not be ignored, or discarded willy-nilly. However, for organizations that aim to increase their innovation rates, it behooves them to keep these principles in mind.

So, what are Sutton’s “weird ideas?” He lists 11&1/2:

  1. “Forget the past, especially your company’s success”
  2. “Don’t try to learn anything from people who seem to have solved the problems you face”
  3. “Avoid, distract, and bore customers, critics, and anyone who just wants to talk about money”
  4. “Think of some ridiculous or impractical things to do, then plan to do them”
  5. “Decide to do something that will probably fail, then convince yourself and everyone else that success is certain”
  6. “Reward success and failure, punish inaction”
  7. “Find some happy people and get them to fight”
  8. “Encourage people to ignore and defy superiors and peers”
  9. “Use job interviews to get ideas, not to screen candidates”
  10. “Hire people you (probably) don’t need” – (only for organizations flush with cash. Don’t expect non-profit and government agencies to do this.)
  11. “Hire ‘slow learners’ (people who are slow to adopt to the organizational code)”
  12. (it’s really 11&1/2.)  “Hire people who make you uncomfortable, even those you dislike.”

I reverse the order just to be “weird.” Today, I will briefly touch on #5.

Good looking spring wheat, but rain is still needed.

Good looking spring wheat, but rain is still needed.

Successfully launching a new idea is rare, and successfully launching a new idea into a new market is even rarer, by some accounts on the order of 1/3,000. And “experts” aren’t at all good at predicting which idea will succeed; what the experts have resigned themselves to accomplishing, is to label the strategic sector of investment in new ideas for new markets the “suicide square.” More from the experts: “…the difference between visionary genius and delusional madness is much clearer in history books than in experience.” Often, the ultimate success has much to do with this self-fulfilling prophecy: If an organization “believes” in an idea, significantly commits to it, then that idea has a better probability of actually succeeding than otherwise. But if the idea looks like it’s heading for “failure” – however it is defined – pay attention to the reasons and learn something from the process. As Sutton states, “Forgive and Remember,” not “Forgive and Forget.” After all, “failure rate” is one indicator of successful innovation process.

Philosophically, I get this principle and like it. Realistically, how many organizations, CEOs, and managers are willing to make such commitments AND allow people to actualize them? Our attention-deficit culture so prefers short-term gains that it will challenge even the ordinary managers while squelching the visionary ones. So, whenever you come across a remarkable leader, work harder to realize your imagination while still under the umbrella of her/his leadership. There may not be much time.

The innovation journey continues. Till next time,

 Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Messiness: Creativity = Neatness: Organization

How to be messy and neat at the same time? Can organizations foster the often haphazard and unpredictable creative or innovative process? I have known many individuals who are both messy (in certain areas) and organized (in other areas), or, who are both creative, especially in outcomes, and methodical in their minds. However, it is much tougher for organizations, especially of large size, to incorporate both flow-chart orderliness and trial-and-error playfulness.

Bill Barnett, a professor of the Business School at Stanford University gives this telling example: Singapore is a nation known for its planning and order. Not much public display is accidental, yet the government wants to promote the appearance that people live in the moment. So, they created the impression of improvisation and spontaneity on the streets by hiring and placing street performers strategically. Copying what other businesses do is easy, but surely not innovative. Even though we can sometimes learn from copying — copying a master’s artwork can be a valuable lesson if one is mindful — the key is in the “mind.”

Professor Barnett comments on Singapore example, “We manage away variance. Management system is aiming for the means.” The following graph says it all:


The red curve, representing the normal distribution, may contain many foolish acts on the left side while the right side may bear genius. But management is by and large interested in the abnormal distribution represented by the blue curve, into which they can herd their people or at least drive their behavior.

No mistakes, no breakthroughs. No foolishness, no genius. This is essentially what James March lays out clearly in his seminal article, “The Technology of Foolishness” which I summarized before. An organization exploits existing technology to make profits. For example, the term “cash cow” conjures the image of a product or technology in high demand, and if patented, protected as a monopoly for which profits can soar. However, in the long run, an organization that does not encourage exploration sooner or later loses advantage. Yet, exploration is costly, so, most organizations hesitate to invest. What’s more, management is inherently risk-averse. Managers hate “waste” and “mistakes.” Barnett points out the fundamental paradox, “If we know in advance what idea is right, or is wrong, then it’s not an innovative idea.”

Aida is our weird cat.

Aida is our weird cat.

Most organizations claim that they want innovation, but don’t know how to encourage those “variances” that would lead to innovative or creative breakthroughs. By and large, managers frown upon outliers. Indeed, for a large system to function smoothly, it needs uniformity, for measuring performance, for control, for prediction, etc. That’s why it’s a “system.”

In Professor Barnett’s talk, he does encourage organizations to set aside areas in their system to allow some “playfulness,” “mistakes,” “failures,” etc. In fact, “failure rate” is a good prediction for organization innovation efforts. The challenge for the organization is how to structure for failure allowance, particular in performance evaluation, reward and promotion. A two-track system is one logical solution: people on innovation track are evaluated by different criteria from those whose tasks are to execute planned activities. Still, this begs the questions: (1) whether people can accept being judged by different sets of criteria? and (2) whether such practice will result in animosity?

And then, there is the challenge for a manager in supporting people’s innovative work. How much playfulness is allowed? More importantly, how long should the manager keep faith in the innovation track individual: six months of failures? two years? This is where leadership is called for and truly tested.

Some well-known R&D labs have gone south over the past decades because the companies have traded high cost exploration for the assurance of Six-Sigma safety record. A manager comments on a chemistry lab, “It’s rather messy and there’s a lot of chemicals.” What do you say to that? Nowadays, executives and managers of R&D organizations and national science labs are the custodians of safety standards and records, performance milestones, manuals of procedures. How do we expect discoveries in such a rigid system? If a science lab reaches 100% safety record (which, by the way, is an impossibility to perpetuate, according to the third law of thermodynamics), the innovation rate is probably close to ZERO.

Sometimes uniformity has its value.

Sometimes uniformity has its value.

Of course, certain areas probably cannot tolerate many accidents, failures, or foolish plays, such as nuclear power plants, airplanes, skyscrapers. Still, when we reflect a little, we have to realize that even these technologies had accidents and failures in their early days. The evidence is that as we “advance,” our minds and senses grow duller, as well as our willingness to take some risks.

So, we need to mess up things a little. Coming up next, Robert Sutton has some “weird ideas” to offer. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Counter Culture, Counter Intuition: Sometimes it makes sense


One of the cases in my dissertation study offers two important lessons, or principles: 1. the weakness of strong ties, and 2. the competitive advantage of being the first deviant. “First move advantage” is easy to understand, but conceiving that “first” isn’t so easy. Some people undertake an unconventional move out of desperation, and many who strategically create something new bear the “high risks” to hopefully gain that “high reward.” But “first move advantage” is not guaranteed; we award the “advantage” label in retrospective rationalization of those attempts which succeed.

The particular case in my study was about how a single Chinese mother, Yien, who revamped her ordinary little eatery in a major metropolitan Chinatown to become one of the best cafes, not just in the Chinatown but in the city. Yien’s endeavors did not start with a clear vision, strategic planning, methodical plotting, or neat execution. She had ideas that gradually unfolded as she learned from experience. Along the way, there were strong forces in her Chinese family and social network that made her life more difficult rather than being helpful.

The barista always makes such coffee art look easy.

The barista always makes such coffee art look easy.

Yien was compelled to turn around her restaurant, which was a hole in a wall on the edge of this city’s Chinatown. It could seat about 40 people, and served three meals a day with equal emphasis on coffee between mealtimes. A few years before I stumbled upon her café, she went through a divorce, and her then husband was the only cook. The end result of her divorce was that she gained the custody of her three young children, but lost her cook. What’s more (or, rather, less), her ex-husband couldn’t provide much alimony. The restaurant at that point was a typical decent Chinatown restaurant. On her own, Yien had to do something dramatic to increase her income. Her history degree from a Taiwan university was not likely to be of much help and her English was just adequate.

First, Yien had to secure a chef, a perennial headache for all restaurant owners, but particularly thorny in Chinatown owing to fierce competition. Once she managed to hire a good chef, she had turning-point in her thinking. She said, “When I looked around at the Chinatown restaurants, all menus looked alike, busy and confusing, with more than 100 dishes to offer! I decided that I wanted to simplify the menu, make fewer but good dishes, and offer something unique. I wanted to make the coffee stand out. I also decided to replace all the ugly serving ware.”

chow mifenShe bought a coffee system from Taiwan that’s based on an elaborate siphon system. She invested in Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee and exquisite teas for the new menu. The replacement serving ware was simple but elegant, and all teas and coffees were served with a bite-size sweet, all presented on a personal-size tray. The food menu combined Taiwanese and mainstay Chinese dishes (such as dumplings), with some elements of Japanese flavoring and presentation.

Most importantly, she doubled her prices. I dimly remember that the Blue Mountain coffee was $7 a cup. 90% of her Chinese customers disappeared. However, her American customer base grew and younger Chinese became some of her regulars.

For a few years, all her three children helped in the café, but as they grew up and moved on, Yien had to find alternatives for help. In the fiercely competitive Chinatown environment, her counter-cultural practice was initially the target of tongue wagging, scorn, sabotage, and eventually, envy. Some people mistook her quiet and reserved mien as weakness. While Yien might not speak much about her strong feelings, she was determined and steadfast (or, stubborn).

My dissertation topic focuses on networking, and Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties” provided a foundation for my research approach. As his title implies, we gain considerable insight and assistance, whether for job hunting or innovation work, from the weak network ties that connect us to others who might not have otherwise been available. When we hang out with similar others – and the majority of us do all the time – we don’t easily get many wildly different ideas and perspectives. Those in our network whose shoulders we only tap occasionally, the weak ties, have vastly different networks than our own. And sometimes, these “weak ties” connect us to the right people at the right time and at the right place for the “ah Ha!” breakthrough.

Most Chinese immigrant entrepreneurs, by default, have to rely on their relatives and best friends to establish their starting businesses. And often, they stay on the same track for decades, copying each other’s business practices. Yien broke away from that tradition, paid a social price in the Chinese community circle, but gained respect elsewhere. However, it was particularly disheartening for me to learn the negative impact on her business and social life inflicted by some family members and other Chinese. Her own mother’s insatiable material demands alone caused years of financial struggle for Yien. Her children did not always appreciate the challenges she faced. After she established the reputation for her café, and managed to stabilize her financial situation with the price increase, many Chinese did come around to welcome her back into their circle, albeit often with hidden agenda.

jiao zi

Yien would be the first to admit that when she began on her new direction, she had no crystal ball to assure herself of the success of this direction. I contend that not only is it difficult to go against the prevailing trends, but also it is especially grueling to proceed counter to the strong bonds in the Chinese community and culture. I considered Yien, then, and still now, to be enormously courageous. Yet, she’d correct me, “I didn’t have much choice. I just had to close my eyes and keep plowing on. It’s not courage; it’s desperation.” Don’t get me wrong; Yien has many flaws, some almost ruinous. I had my “quiet quarrels” with some of her ways (within my internal dialogue; after all, I was doing research), but she taught me many valuable lessons. Besides, were it not for Yien, I might still be searching for that one more Chinese for my study.

Today’s entry begins my journey on “innovation and creativity” that may take the next few weeks.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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