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Innovative Leadership with Lisa Bodell

Founder & CEO of innovation firm futurethink Lisa Bodell is the bestselling author of Kill the Company, and her latest Why Simple Wins. A leader on simplifying innovation and change management, Lisa is often called upon by global companies to help them eradicate workplace complexity that is killing their ability to innovate and adapt. Simplicity is fast becoming the competitive advantage of our time and Lisa offers tested tools and takeaways to motivate organizations and individuals to action.

A Dynamic Keynote Speaker, Lisa has addressed capacity audiences at Google, Cisco Systems, Accenture, Citigroup, and Merck and is often the highest-rated presenter, as she engages audiences and empowers them with practical tools, tips, and resources that they can use to create immediate and effective change.

One of the things leaders need to do, is communicate that curiosity is a required behavior; what will reigniting curiosity do for the person individually, as well as the company if they behave that way?

SPEAKING.COM: What are some of the ways companies can reignite curiosity and creative problem solving?

BODELL: I think one of the issues around curiosity and creative problem solving is that it uses a part of the brain that people just haven’t exercised. It’s a muscle that they don’t know what to do with anymore, so they are so used to having to follow rules – where being creative and stepping out of line can be difficult.

So, one of the things I talk about is teaching leaders to operate more with “guardrails” and not “handcuffs.” Loosen things up a little bit by giving people the boundaries to operate in, so they can think more creatively versus thinking in terms of process. One of the things leaders need to do, is communicate that curiosity is a required behavior; what will reigniting curiosity do for the person individually, as well as the company if they behave that way?

Then, give them some examples of how to problem-solve creatively, because some people can’t think creatively on demand. One of the things that I suggest is to encourage brainstorming in meetings; help teach people how to do very offbeat or even dramatic things to get them to stretch.

For example, you can ask them a question about how to improve a product or process and then remove “the handcuffs” and get to that “guardrail moment” and ask, “How would you answer that question again if money was no object?” or, “If you could come up with the most wild idea possible…?” or, “If you could only give me ideas that would get you fired…” That really starts to teach people dramatic ways to start thinking big.

Another approach is to go the opposite way, which is rather than coming up with new ideas, ask people to get rid of things that aren’t working. That helps create the space for more. Some people want to come up with new ideas, but with so much on their to-do list already, getting rid of things can be very cathartic and can lead to more new ideas because people have the space to actually think and create change.

SPEAKING.COM: As a follow-up to that, how do companies balance that fine line between defining rules and structure while still allowing that sort of creativity to flow?

BODELL: Well, this is the “guardrail” and “handcuffs” thing, which describes how people usually put structure in place because of the requirement to get into lockstep. But leaders may take this too far, because they don’t trust outliers. Leaders should teach people not to have to follow everything by the letter, instead give them the “guardrails” and the overall destination, but give them enough space to make independent decisions.

So, what’s the balance? You can give people a process, but tell them how to follow the process. Show them the boundaries they can operate in instead of telling them that they have to do everything in a very specific way. That’s actually where a lot of companies fall down.

SPEAKING.COM: Right, so it’s important to have clear communication about where the boundaries are versus where you can roam freely?

BODELL: Yes, that is correct.

If you’re in a risk-averse environment, how do you get management comfortable with at least incremental change?

SPEAKING.COM: You have said that each of us is an agent of change; that change is purposeful and involves a “toolkit.” We’re curious to know, what is the “toolkit?”

BODELL: Everyone is innovative, but people need to know how to innovate and so the “toolkit” is important as it gives people simple things they can use. The tools include techniques that people can use to solve specific challenges. There’s no one-way to innovate and the challenges we face are different every day, so leaders need to give people the right tool for different things.

For example, maybe you’re up against a problem that you just can’t seem to overcome, so as a leader you teach them “barrier busting,” which is how you actually break down barriers and identify what is holding you back. Also, it’s important for leaders to tell people about innovation and why it’s important, and to get in the mindset for change and be open to it.

If you’re in a risk-averse environment, how do you get management comfortable with at least incremental change? We use a technique called “40 New Opportunities,” which is based on a problem-solving tool called “TRIZ”; a Russian acronym that stands for “Theory of Inventive Problem Solving.” Or how do you find new opportunities or new places to play? We call that tool “Hunting Grounds.” We have a tool for helping give people the space for change called “Kill a Stupid Rule,” which is just getting rid of things that have outlived their time, allowing people to actually move forward and focus on what is important.

I give you these examples because they all are really simple things. They’re easy techniques for people to use and remember no matter their tenure or their role and they have different purposes. Some break down barriers, some get rid of rules, some teach incrementals and some teach people how to be disruptive. It depends on the challenge you have and that’s why you have a toolkit.

SPEAKING.COM: How can little changes create a big impact?

BODELL: Well, one of the things I think that holds people back from change is they think of change as this big capital “C” and associate it with complexity. We need to be able to break change down and make it simpler than that. I speak to 100,000 people a year and I ask them, “What do you spend most of your day doing?” Universally, no matter the country, the culture, the function, or the industry I’m talking to, the first two things out of everyone’s mouths are that they spend their day in meetings or replying to emails. So, this is a big deal. Because if that’s where they are spending their time and you’re asking them to make big change, they may say “you’re nuts.”

You have to be able to get down on the level where people are spending most of their time to start to create the impact for change; that’s where little things that can create a big impact can happen. It is even in the language that leaders use.

For example, are you using open-ended questions or closed questions that imply blame? Are you showing that you are open to the positive things about an idea, or are you being a professional skeptic and always shutting down ideas and therefore teaching people to be negative? Are you showing people that it’s okay to get rid of things and kill rules? Are you only showing value in creating more? I think that there are little changes people create on a day-to-day level that start to create that momentum for big impact.

I get very skeptical when people say, “You gotta go ‘big change.’” You have to send the signal for “big change,” but how it happens is through little changes on a day-to-day level to get it going.

Strategic imagination is about leaders who cannot just think how to drive forward your business today, but can actively think about who your company is becoming.

SPEAKING.COM: Can you give us three skills to ensure leadership success?

BODELL: The first one is “strategic imagination” – a catchy little phrase that is a little different than curiosity. At that bigger level, you have to have a strategic initiative but it has to be dreaming with purpose. There are a lot of gurus at the top of organizations that are really good at coming up with big ideas, but they have to have strategic intent. Strategic imagination is about leaders who cannot just think how to drive forward your business today, but can actively think about who your company is becoming.

The second skill to ensure leadership success is being a creative problem solver. Creative problem solvers can attack problems and break down barriers in very creative ways. Their job is to show people how to be creative.

A third skill to ensure leadership success is being the chief simplifier. Their job is to actually be the “weed whacker” not just breaking down barriers, but simplifying things so people can focus on high-value work and not low-value work like meetings and emails.

What transcends all of these – strategic imagination, creative problem solving, and being the chief simplifier – is resilience. We are a culture now that moves on to the next big thing. The problem with that is people think change has to be constant, but sometimes you have to sit with things and see how they pan out; sometimes they evolve over time and they emerge over time and we have to be more resilient about to quickly cutting bait. People that can be resilient and not so impatient, is a great skill as well.

SPEAKING.COM: Resiliency is important, but when do you know it’s time to move on from a project that is not initially successful?

BODELL: Well that’s why we set metrics. I mean to be honest, sometimes you don’t set metrics and then it’s really hard to know. The question to ask is, “When should I let go?” You can look at it financially, of course. You can look at it in terms of: are there other competing things that have become better than that? You have to learn and know when to evolve and go to the next thing rather than sticking with the old thing when something better appears.

What I’m talking about resilience-wise is when something doesn’t take off right away. You have to be true to your strategy and your metrics. I think people have to be more generous with the timeframe. I’m not saying let it go on for years and years, but rather than killing it in six months, maybe you give it a year and reduce the resources that are put towards it.

SPEAKING.COM: Why did you start your firm futurethink?

BODELL: Well, two things:

• I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to have a consulting company. I wanted to have a company that was about futures and could teach change with tools and training. The big driving change was, I wanted to really inspire people. I think I’m good at it and I think that I can inspire people. Just because someone doesn’t sit in the marketing or creative department, it doesn’t mean that they are not innovative and it doesn’t mean that they can’t create change.

• The future is not a straight line; it’s a winding road. You can influence it and there are very simple ways to do that. I want to be the person who teaches and inspires people so that they can create change. I want to give people simple ways to approach change, so they would do it; that they would embrace change, rather than push back on it; that is our mission.

SPEAKING.COM: Can you please describe what a “stupid rule” is?

BODELL: Something that has outlived its time or that creates more work and provides no value is a “stupid rule.” The stupid rule might be in place for an emotional purpose like being afraid of risk, having fear or lacking trust.

It’s usually leaders who create “stupid rules.” Sometimes they’re not stupid rules, but are simply assumptions that people had that have outlived their usefulness. Hopefully, rules should be evolving along with an organization. Too often we don’t do that because we think rules are permanent, but change is not, and there’s the dichotomy.

The ways that we traditionally put things in place to help us change or innovate are frankly the very things that put a chokehold on it.

SPEAKING.COM: In your book Kill the Company you talk about starting an innovation revolution. What does that mean to you?

BODELL: The revolution is really more about igniting passion in the people around you. There is enough hype around innovation and being disruptive, but instead, how can we really start a revolution in terms of how we approach work on a day-to-day basis and how we really approach change? The ways that we traditionally put things in place to help us change or innovate are frankly the very things that put a chokehold on it. So governance structures, policies, procedures, reports, meetings, all those things are really important, but unfortunately they tend to meet the majority of what we do and in many instances they became an excuse in companies not to do anything at all.

I found our approach to change is to give people “little bigs,” – simple tools to create change. Frankly the way to spark innovation is not by doing more, innovation is started by creating space so people can say, “Let’s get rid of the heritage stuff that we’ve built up over the years and realize what we can focus on more important by getting rid of this other crap, so that now we can move forward and create more things.” But we don’t spend enough time spring-cleaning; all we do is add more to our strategic plans and I think that actually creates complexity. We need to revolutionize that.

SPEAKING.COM: You talk about how rules, regulations and bureaucracy can constrict change and creativity. Do you find that policies and procedures can take on a life of their own and become impossible for anyone to change?

BODELL: Yes, they do. In fact, my next book is all about simplicity and I think one of the biggest problems within a company is strategic planning. Our strategic plans are not active living documents or processes. We don’t re-visit and change the plans, because once we’ve got a way of doing it, that’s how we’ve always done it. We don’t want to “rock the boat”, because there’s a lot of fear and mistrust.

So we start to use these processes and these procedures as excuses. It’s very comfortable for leadership to hide behind a strategic plan, a PowerPoint presentation or a process, because we can look at it and feel responsible; we tried to eliminate risk, but that’s the antithesis of taking a risk.

SPEAKING.COM: So, this really has to come from the C-Suite, they need to take a hard look at the organization’s strategic and how the implementation of legacy rules and policies might be stifling innovation.

BODELL: Yes, this is where it starts. Executives like the idea of killing rules and getting rid of things, because they recognize complexity. Although they don’t see it as an end goal to be more innovative, they see strategic planning as an end goal that will let them be more effective and efficient. They like that because those are hard things, meaning hard numbers, hard efficiencies, they’re not soft. So it’s not difficult to get them to buy into it; however to do it on a permanent basis, it is.

They treat strategic planning more like an event than a habit, but I think we are at the beginning of the “Chief Simplification Officer” era. We need more simplicity as a key trait that we teach people. The hard part comes when you’re eliminating a manager’s rules, because that’s their safety net. So it takes a unique leader to be strong enough to eliminate rules they created in the first place.

As soon as we get the work right through simplification you’re going to get the culture right.

SPEAKING.COM: Lisa, did you coin the new phrase “Chief Simplicity Officer”?

BODELL: No, I think that that’s been said before, but I don’t know that it’s become mainstream. In the book I’m currently writing, I’m all about the Chief Simplifier, Chief Simplification Officer and simplification efforts. That is the next big thing.

Things have become so complex; too many resources are dedicated to just managing complexity. So this is not going to be “a simple spring cleaning.” This is becoming a movement. Part of the reason for this is that we have become so complex at the high-level strategic planning stuff that there is no time to think. There is no time to “just do” anymore. We’re just managing PowerPoint crap, reports, policies and procedures.

In addition to owning strategic planning, the Chief Simplification Officer also manages things like efficiencies and efforts. I always say, “if you get the work right, you get the culture right and we have not gotten the work right.”

As soon as we get the work right through simplification you’re going to get the culture right. Therefore one of the big metrics of the Chief Simplification Officer is retention and recruiting because the companies that are the simpler, more focused, efficient ones, will be the ones that will attract people and keep them because they got the work right.

SPEAKING.COM: It is such a simple concept, pun intended, but simplification has profound implications. But, this is difficult to implement in this day and age where our daily lives, government, companies and other organizations have become so complex.

BODELL: Yes and these inhibit choices, or for others, they are a great excuse not to have to make a choice. If you create this really complex process then you don’t have to change, because it’s not up to you. You could change or innovate if only there wasn’t this rule and that regulation.

My favorite clients are the ones that are regulated because I look at them and say, “With all due respect I can give you 50 other people that have it harder than you and they can make change.”

It’s not just about process. I spoke to Oil and Gas Executives last week; the top of the top and they kept saying, “So why do you think people need to simplify processes?” And I said, “That’s interesting you said that. I never said processes. I said it’s beyond processes.” I said, “Frankly where I think change needs to start is at the strategy level.” I think we need to bag strategic planning.

Yes, we need a strategy, but I think we need to move to scenario-planning, living, breathing scenarios of options of what could happen in the future versus what we keep doing developing one big strategic plan each year that’s not living and which places our bets in one place. I mean it’s ridiculous.

So when you do scenarios, simplify and hedge your bets, the organization can take on a whole different life. And it ultimately simplifies the work.

Some companies specifically strive for complexity because they’re being deceitful.

SPEAKING.COM: The concept of the Chief Simplicity Officer and simplifying every aspect of an organization is revolutionary.

BODELL: I think so, too. There are a lot of books that are coming out about this; such as being simply effective. And I’m saying it’s not just about being effective. It’s bigger than that.

People talk about it as being essential and that’s hard. You can’t use that word, “essential” because if you’re going to simplify you have to also be extreme. We need to move into this: being extreme. I’m not quite sure about this yet but my conjecture is you have to be more extreme, because when you say to people, “We’ll only do what is essential.” That’s like saying only do what’s moral. That’s in the eye of the beholder.

I think with simplification, you have to be able to ask questions where there’s very little room for grey area to get people to commit. Kind of like when you’re hiring somebody and ask, “Would you hire this person?” That’s very different than if I said, “Would you hire this person and have them work for you for the next two years?” The response might be, “Whoa, okay. I don’t know if I would hire them in that instance.” How are you going to actually ask people the more extreme pointed questions that we have to in order to make the decisions that make things very clear?

We are starting to come up with questions like, “What are the skills to be a simplifier? How do you be a simplifier? What is the diagnostic to see if you’re too complex or if you are simple? How do you interview for simplicity?” These are all things that I need to be able to tell people and it’s interesting. When you Google “simplification,” you get very little in terms of research, which is very telling versus if you Google “complexity”, it’s never ending how much stuff there is on that.

I think that there are moral issues around simplicity, as well. For example, some companies specifically strive for complexity because they’re being deceitful. They’re being deceitful to their customers, when they make their contracts too complex or their language difficult or their website not clear, even down to how to unsubscribe from the company’s email newsletter.

SPEAKING.COM: Thank you for this discussion about the crucial need for organizational simplification, Lisa. We are excited to read your upcoming book about the subject; it’s going to have profound implications! What other projects are you currently working on?

BODELL: My passion is also children and I really want to be able to teach creative problem solving to children. I just had the really great opportunity to speak for Google and one of their education groups, their EDU. They just did an online conference to a 100,000 teachers, principals, influencers in education, and I was really honored to be a part of it and to speak around change, and how do you change the classroom from a teacher and principal perspective?

I want to apply some of my corporate tools to education to help teach teachers how they can better disrupt their classroom within the “guardrails” and often “handcuffs,” frankly, that they’re given. So that’s the space I’m really looking to get into more and I’m hoping that we can create change for the leaders of tomorrow.


If you’d like to bring Lisa to your organization to help your team become more innovative and effective, please contact Michael Frick at: Mike@Speaking.com.

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  • Lisa Bodell Founder and CEO of futurethink Lisa Bodell is the bestselling author of Kill the Company, and her latest Why Simple Wins. She is a recognized global leader on innovation foresight and change management, whose keynotes leave audiences inspired with a vision and armed with tools towards action. A dynamic speaker and futurist, Lisa Bodell has ... more

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