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April 06, 2011

On innovation: How to make trouble productively

by Josh Bernoff

Impish There are a lot of reasons not to make trouble in your job. Do what you boss asks you to do. Be part of the team, do what the company strategy says to do. Go ahead, if that makes you happy.

But what if you want something more? What if you really want to make a difference? What if you want to do something different?

You could always quit and start your own business. But your company has resources that can help you. And if you feel some loyalty (even in this day and age, such a thing exists), maybe you want to help your company. I know a little about this, since I have interviewed a lot of HEROes.

Look, I like to make trouble. Productively. I like to ask if things could be different. I like to start stuff. Poke the box, you might say. In case you are like me, here are the things I think you need if you'd like to make trouble, productively.

1. You need friends. You can't get far on your own. You'll need to reach out to people in other places in the company, not just the people you work with. IT. Sales. Support. Marketing. Finance (yes Finance). So take every opportunity to reach out to these people and understand what they're after. This will allow you to connect for mutual benefit in the future. It really helps to have friends in high places -- if you get a chance to work with a senior manager, put extra effort into it. Do something for them, not just something that shows how great you are.

2. Develop a reputation for excellence. A reputation for excellence is a huge help. Given the chance, work on high profile projects. Be the one that sends out emails to the whole marketing department, or the whole company, if that's part of the project. Ask a question at the company meeting. This takes years to build up. Look at the people who became respected within your company -- take them to lunch and ask them how they did it. Build a foundation. By the way, you can do this by rising through management, but it's independent of any promotions.

3. Don't whine, fix things. Your company does stupid things and has stupid polices. All organizations do. Whining about what's wrong may make you feel good, but it doesn't actually change things. On the other hand, coming up with ideas to fix things, and taking on projects that improve things -- that's will get you noticed. Whining will just get you pegged as a troublemaker. Resist the temptation.

4. Ask why. Asking questions is a great way to get noticed. It also is a great way to identify the places to make trouble, productively. You can't figure out what needs fixing -- you can't get inspired -- unless you ask questions. Especially questions of the form "Why couldn't we?" You'll identify the limitations (which will inspire more questions) or, you just might get the answer "I guess we could."

5. Work extra hours on the right things. I know, your job is a 50+ hour a week job just like the rest of us. Working an extra 10 hours a week on the same stuff you do all the time will just get your managers to think you're a hard worker. That might get you a raise, but it won't change things. Working those same 10 hours on your own project to make things different, that will change things and will get you noticed.

6. Develop a peer relationship with your managers. You can't do this if your boss thinks you're a loser. But you can't do it if she thinks you're a peon, either. I have gone into all my management relationships with the idea that I have something unique to contribute, and generally, my bosses have accepted that. You have to listen to your manager and meet her goals for your work, but if she's smart she'll let you spend a little time learning about and contributing to something more interesting -- as long as you get your work done. And don't embarass her with those activities -- if your boss hates you, you typically don't get the chance to innovate.

7. Get good at apologizing. If you push hard enough, you're going to make mistakes. But as the Jesuits say, it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. When I make a mistake that causes a problem for someone, I always apologize -- and I do it sincerely. Fear of offending will block your ideas -- ideas often offend. But be aware of those feelings, and say you're sorry.

8. Don't touch the third rails. There are things you just can't do. Your accounting department has rules for a reason -- don't break them. If your corporate counsel or legal department has a problem with what you're doing, you're going to have to stop. If you're affecting the company image, PR will want to know about it. These are boundaries to be aware of. You can't innovate very well if you've been electrocuted.

9. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Know what you're good at use it to your advantage. I'm good at writing and idea development. Maybe you have great client relationships, or you're good at training and speeches. Ask how you can use those skills in service of your innvoation. And the skills you don't have -- take every possible chance to develop them. I was once a terrible public speaker, before I got training and coaching. Some things you'll never be good at -- that's where your friends, who have those skills, can help you.

10. Don't be afraid to put your job on the line. If you're worried you'll lose your job, you'll never challenge anything. A lot more people lose their jobs for incompetence than innovation. People rarely get fired for trying something new and failing. On the other hand, people who live in fear don't have the guts to make change happen.

All these things will simply put you in a position to get the chance to innovate. It's going to be work. But you're going to love it. And once you get the reputation as an innovator, things get easier the next time.

This post is brought to you by HEROes everywhere and by me. In case you are wondering, here are some of the things I helped to start at Forrester. Some of these things failed -- that's going to happen, too:

  • Launch of electronic delivery of research vs. print (yes, there was a time in the mid 90s when this was an innovation)
  • First consumer surveys
  • Consumer segmentation research (Technographics)
  • Highly visible focus on television technology and new devices.
  • TV-focused client event
  • Syndicated research just for cable operators (never launched)
  • Universal technology forecasting methodology (Techpotential, failed)
  • Analyst blogging and tweeting (Charlene Li did it first, but I climbed on soon after)
  • First Forrester book in 10 years (Groundswell)
  • Creating process to ease publication of more books

There's lot more coming, too.

Photo by Paul Woods via Flickr.



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"Fear of offending will block ideas" - I can't emphasize how true this statement is. Censorship works pretty much the same way. But if you're putting out an idea that's bound to offend people, you had better make sure that it's brilliant and worth forgiving.

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Thanks for the useful points, Josh. I liked the line, "And if you feel some loyalty (even in this day and age, such a thing exists)."

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My personal favorite - "5. Work extra hours on the right things."

This is reminiscent of the 80/20 principal. The trick, as far as I'm concerned, is to find the 20%. Putting in the longer hours is the easy part. The real challenge is identifying what to work on. Nice write-up.

John from Web Design Melbourne

Hi Josh

I love the line "if your boss hates you, you typically don't get the chance to innovate" - it is 100% Particle.
very interesting post

Thanks for sharing this post with us

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