Maybe = A Culture of Caution & No Innovation

I had an interesting conversation recently about innovation culture. Comparing notes of various organizations with a friend, one of us remarked about organization X — “they never say yes, they never say no, it’s always…maybe.” We both concluded that maybe is a bad place to be as a culture looking to innovate.

I wrote in a blog post last year about the one question survey to assess innovation culture – Are you having fun?” If I had to ask a second question, it would now be, “Is your organization a Yes, a No, or a Maybe?” The answer is telling.

A Yes organization likes to try new things, is open to ideas and possibilities, and holds back from saying No. Ideas live longer, potentials are prototyped, curiosity abounds and experimentation is common. It’s always a yes, until an idea has proved it’s a no, and even then it’s more like, “yes, we’re agreeing it’s time to stop this project.” There may be downsides to a Yes organization, like, lack of focus, or even conflict avoidance, but the upsides: more ideas get processed, more risks are taken, learning happens — and innovation flourishes.

It’s no accident the most essential rule of improvisation is “Yes, AND.”

A No organization is about ruling things out, not wasting time, goals, focus, and making the business work. No can work — one of the ways Jobs turned Apple around was killing a lot of projects. No organizations are very selective; the upside is clarity. The downside at No organizations is ideas die fast, sometimes prematurely, especially uncomfortable different ideas. Morale can take a beating. Innovation is likely to be “sure-thing” incremental changes. No organizations like proof, and when it comes to breakthrough innovation, proof is rarely available. So, less risks, less rewards. Still, with wise leadership, a No organization can do alright for a long time.

The worst answer to the question is Maybe. Maybe means people are hedging their bets — as contrasted with a Yes, which means a possibility is being actively worked. A Maybe is passive. Maybe lacks any sense of urgency. Maybe cultures are filled with people who are more interested in keeping their jobs than in doing something amazing. A quick yes or a no can get you fired if you’re a manager in a maybe culture. A maybe is ultimately a delay. People delay decisions until it becomes obvious which way the political wind is blowing, or, the choice becomes more obvious with proof. In either instance the ultimate purpose of the organization is subverted. Innovation is least likely in a Maybe group, this is a culture of caution.

If you’re part of a Maybe, the thing to start doing is rewarding risk, and, not punish failures that have you learning. You might also want to look at measuring results. A results focus will force decisions.

Marjorie Scardino, CEO of Pearson, once said ‘have a plan, execute it violently and do it today’. This might be the ultimate advice for a Maybe group!

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Posted in Creative Problem Solving (CPS), Idea Management, Innovation, Leadership