Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Airports, Innovation and Go Fever

I don't spend much time in airports anymore, and I admit to being grateful for that. For me, air travel has degenerated into an unpleasant and frustrating series of annoying experiences, end to end. Parking, baggage, security, boarding, being on board--all aggravating and uncomfortable, but hard to avoid when you need to travel long distances quickly.

I was walking through BWI airport after a flight a few weeks ago, studying the crowd flowing past me, and I realized I was surrounded by miserable, unhappy people--people in transit--apprehensively winding their way through a noisy, competitive obstacle course bristling with deadlines, pressures and uncertainties. Kids wailing, wishing they were somewhere else. Teenagers with eyes fixed on their phones, or scanning the baseboards looking for electrical outlets for a quick charge. Flushed, exasperated travelers. Grimacing, arguing, whining, snarling into phones and at airline personnel and at each other. Some dutifully playing the role of designated navigational obstacles, bumbling and shuffling along, blocking the walkways and standing in the wrong lines. Others speed walking, aggressively bobbing and weaving, dragging companions and kids and enormous wheeled bags behind them, while glaring at the elite priority platinum business travelers pirouetting to the front of the line. All these poor souls desperately trying to do one thing: escape from the airport, either in a plane (departures) or out the front door (arrivals.) I quickened my pace toward the exit.

Outside, I stood near a family with a talkative and curious child, about 7, who was interrogating his father:

Q: Why are we standing here?
A: We are waiting for our ride home.
Q: Do we have to?
A: Yes.
Q: I'm hot. Why can't we wait inside where it is cool?
A: We are waiting here.
Q: Why?
A: Because I said so, that's why.

The child let it drop. Is it any wonder we learn to stop asking questions when we are young? Even if we didn't have mind-shrinking conversations like that with our parents, in school we quickly learned that doing well involved answering questions, not asking them. Asking questions is an integral part of learning, creating, and innovating, however, so there's a cost. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman described it this way in their Newsweek article: The Creativity Crisis

Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Why, why, why—sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they've pretty much stopped asking. It’s no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet. They didn't stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.

Sir Ken Robinson, in his wildly popular (over 27 million views) TED talk Do Schools Kill Creativity?, makes the point that while young children are usually not frightened of trying new things and they have no worries about being wrong, by the time they become adults most have learned it is safer to avoid taking chances, to limit the possibility of making mistakes. Schools, by stigmatizing mistakes, educate people out of their creative capabilities. Companies are run that way, too, says Robinson: "If you are not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original."

I think it is fair to say that most of the large, bureaucratic companies I have worked with over the years valued compliance much more than they valued innovation or creativity. Employees were rewarded for knowing and following the company's policies and procedures, and reprimanded for making mistakes, particularly if the mistakes involved deviating from established company best practices. Rethinking processes, imagining new products or services, experimenting with new approaches--these activities were rare because they were potentially dangerous to an individual's career (penalties for failure) and it was just easier and safer to stick with established protocols. If something really needed to change, the smart move was to call in a consulting firm and have them make the change recommendations. This dynamic is probably what Rosabeth Moss Kanter was thinking about when she penned the line: "Mindless habitual behavior is the enemy of innovation.”

Yet innovation isn't frightening just because it involves implementing something new—a product, a service, a process, an alliance, a market, or an experience. It is frightening because of the expectation that the new thing will somehow create value and improve results. So while thinking and talking about innovation is easy, innovating demands execution, a commitment to a new course of action, a personal, public leap of faith. There's a steady drumbeat of danger, disruption, and discomfort that accompanies that leap, and given there's never any guarantee of success, innovation looks just like the sort of thing we learned to avoid back in elementary school. Innovation may be a popular discussion topic these days, but not much of it seems to be happening in the property casualty business. (See Innovate or Die. Really?)

Every once in a while, though, circumstances conspire to create a high urgency insurance company version of a "go fever" situation, pushing innovation and transformation to center stage. This can happen for many reasons, like when a new CEO makes lofty promises to investors about expense containment or growth, or when a company is not competing effectively and needs to hit the reset button to get back in the game.

The "go fever" scenario adds another level of risk to any innovation/transformation effort. Even though Jack Welch says innovation ought to be everyone's job, all the time, in a "go fever" situation someone is usually chosen to drive the innovation/transformation process and deliver the anticipated benefits, quickly. Under pressure to deliver, to get things done, there is a huge temptation to take short cuts, to start the change process without first becoming sufficiently familiar with the realities and constraints of the system being evaluated. I suppose it's a bit like starting surgery without first getting the patient's medical history, working up a diagnosis, and preparing a surgical plan. Without a baseline understanding and appreciation of the rules and regulations and intricacies and dependencies of whatever it is that needs to improve, even the best plans and intentions will be shaken and undermined by unintended consequences, unforeseen obstacles, false assumptions and unanticipated collateral damage.

Of course unintended consequences, unforeseen obstacles, false assumptions and unanticipated collateral damage look and sound a lot like undesirable outcomes, and they can derail and/or kill an innovation project and the career of the person driving it. Sure, there's no guarantee that better preparation would help avoid such outcomes, but a more informed and enlightened innovation approach arguably would at least put the risks on the radar screen.

So if you are tapped to run a high profile innovation/transformation project, job one should be to get yourself familiar with the realities and constraints of the system. By all means, ask questions of the people actively involved in managing the work, but don't demonize or penalize them for pointing out obstacles or risks or dependencies no one had considered previously. Gather the facts, and don't fall into the trap of accepting any single point of view as definitive, even if it is the CEO's; seek insight and understanding instead. Remember philosopher Marshall McLuhan's cryptic admonition: “A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.”

For an entertaining and informative look at failure, the costs of failure avoidance, and "go fever", check out the Freakonomics podcast Failure is Your Friend.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, CIC is a retired Chief Claims Officer and an expert and advisor on Property Casualty insurance claims and operations. He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter.

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