Innovation, Safety and Spaghetti

September 26, 2021
Written by
Isabelle Perreault
Founder and CEO

The last 50 years of industrialization and resulting institutions have raised us and taught us to follow the rules. Do as we are told to succeed and advance. Our education system and our company operating models are all designed to uphold the rules at scale via bureaucracy. 

However, doing things how they’ve always been done rarely creates breakthrough ideas. We need to unlearn as much as learn, take risks and try new things. This is different than doing the same things better. 

Better vs. New

Iteration - doing the same things better - has its place. For example, we digitize a process making things more automated for the business or our customers. We take a product and make it better and better. 

Innovation on the other hand is doing NEW things. Creating net new value for the end-user. Finding a new way of doing something that wasn’t there before. Pursuing a new idea. 

Disruption combines both of these things by doing new things that make the old ones obsolete. Often creating a business model that causes established players to fall. Uber is often used here as the example of the last decade. 

However, not all innovation is disruptive. There are many examples of innovation that simply create a new space such as the Cirque du Soleil did or the Coaching Business did over a decade ago. They did not displace a whole industry, they just created a new one. 

What does it take to try something new? 

According to Daniel Coyle the author of the Culture Code,  the most critical and overlooked ingredient in creating a culture of innovation is safety.   

Daniel recounts one of the best stories I’ve heard on the importance of safety: a design contest created by an engineer called Peter Skillman, who wanted to uncover the secrets of high-performing teams. He created what’s now known as the Marshmallow challenge. 

  • 20 yards of spaghetti, a yard of scotch tape and a single standard size marshmallow. 
  • The challenge was to build the highest structure possible. The only rule was that the marshmallow had to be on the top. 
  • He created teams of four, from groups of CEOs, lawyers, MBA students and kindergarten kids. 

Here’s how it played out time and time again:  The team of adults start by talking. Talking, followed by planning. Some of them sketch out their plans. It is a well-thought-out process. 

The kids on the other hand eat all the marshmallows except for one. Then, they just start. They tape things together in a very chaotic way.  

And if we had to bet who wins, most of us would say the adults. But what Peter Skiller discovered was that the kids win. Every time. The towers are taller by a significant amount. Why is that? 

Status Management and Safety

What Coyle, Skillman and many others who pioneered scrum and iterative design realized, is that our mental models of group performance have been all wrong. It left out the 2 most important factors: status management and safety. 

Adults look like they are cooperating but in fact, they are worrying about status. This is subconscious. Apparently, as adults, we can’t help it. We think about who’s in charge and our ego takes up energy wrestling with status. As a result, we get less creative, we don’t give honest feedback and performance declines. 

The kids don’t care about who is the CEO of Spaghetti Company. They just jam stuff together, it falls, they pick it up and start again differently, figuring it out shoulder to shoulder. 

What better way to build and create? The experiment proved that it's not so much the level of intelligence but rather how safe we can be together. 

Within our organizations, we must make it encouraged and celebrated to suggest new ways of doing things. We must create a structure for ideation and a process that routinely evaluates the value of new approaches / initiatives against our vision of the future.  This in turn, creates safety in bringing forth new ideas and in making mistakes along the way.

The key is to celebrate and share the lessons learned from one spaghetti tower to the next. 

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