The skill that every startup needs (but most don’t have)

Even if you don’t think of yourself as an entrepreneur, you may well be a startup or work with others who qualify for the label. By “startup,” I mean any individual or group that wants to turn an idea into something more than that.

Maybe you work in a big company and want to contribute or develop in some new way. Maybe you’re participating in an innovation program of some kind. Or maybe you're looking to do something on your own.

A skill you’ll need is the ability to build a purposeful network. Here are two reasons why that skill's important, and one way you can get better at it.

Bringing an idea to life

It’s clear that most innovations aren’t the result of lone inventors in garages. They’re the result of connections - between people and ideas - that result in new combinations. Steven Johnson captured this in Where Good Ideas Come From, which surveyed innovations over hundreds of years:

“If you look at history, innovation comes from creating environments where ideas can connect. Innovative environments… expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts and encourage a novel way of recombining those parts.”

For those of you working in large companies, please note that he didn’t write “Innovation comes from the best Powerpoint slides pitched to judges in the innovation program.” You don’t hide your idea until the day of some competition. Instead, as Eric Ries described so well in Lean Startup, you share your ideas and related work early on; you actively solicit feedback that helps you refine and improve upon it; and then you iterate. Along the way, you build relationships with people that can help you in some way, whether it’s with technology, financing, usability, or anything else you might need.

That’s how you bring your idea to life. It’s only after you have a viable prototype that you may want to approach people for funding, permission, or other resources - if you need it.

The HP Garage, also known as "The Birthplace of Silicon Valley," spawned a myth about innovation that's no longer relevant (if it ever was).

The HP Garage, also known as "The Birthplace of Silicon Valley," spawned a myth about innovation that's no longer relevant (if it ever was).

Building a tribe around an idea

Now imagine your idea has been selected or you’ve somehow brought it to the successful prototype stage. At this point you have a different challenge: getting attention. After all, if not enough people know or care about your work, you won’t be able to reach the audience you want to reach, or make the difference you want to make. 

Today, most successful startups don’t rely on traditional marketing to get attention because it’s too expensive and inefficient. Instead, they try to build communities around their idea.

Using the metaphor from Derek Sivers’ popular TED talk, “How to build a movement” (a great way to spend 3 minutes), modern startups actively look to find “their second and third dancers” - early adopters who embrace the idea - by making their offering visible and accessible. Then they equip, empower, and connect those who care about their work to spread the word for them, all the while getting access to valuable feedback, knowledge, and new opportunities. 

An impassioned tribe, connected to an idea and to each other, has much more power than any lone inventor. 

How to teach yourself & others

Building a purposeful network isn’t just an extra task or a nice thing to have. It’s fundamental to the innovation process. And, importantly, it's a skill anyone can develop.

One way to do it, to learn by actually building relationships that matter, is through a Working Out Loud Circle. If your company is trying to increase innovation, you can integrate WOL Circles into your formal programs or corporate learning academy. If you’re on your own, you can form a Circle yourself to deepen relationships with people related to your idea. (You can find Circle members in the WOL groups on Facebook and LinkedIn.) 

Anyone can have an idea. It takes a network to bring your idea to life, and bring it to the world.

What empowerment looks like: Daniella's story

I loved reading Daniella's story for many reasons: her desire to help young children get exposed to science and technology, the photos of her and the “inspired little scientists with shining eyes,” the article in the German newspaper.

I was inspired by how she turned an idea into reality, using her Working Out Loud Circle to create a possibility she hadn’t imagined before. When she started, she had the same doubts and fears we all have. But by taking small steps over time, with feedback and peer support along the way, she made something wonderful emerge.

Here’s the beginning of Daniella’s post on LinkedIn. (You can read it in full by clicking on the image below.) As you read it, think of how empowered you would feel if you could bring ideas to life like that. Think of what your organization would be like if more people approached issues and opportunities like Daniella -  with generosity, creativity, and persistence. It’s an approach you can learn - and spread. 

Click on this image to read the entire article on LinkedIn

Click on this image to read the entire article on LinkedIn

 

 

“The simplest & easiest form of prototyping is a conversation”

That’s a quote from Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, an excellent book that applies design thinking to life decisions, particularly career choices. Yet the quote could actually apply to any step you want to take.

A process for problem-solving

The book is based on a course the authors taught at Stanford University. Bill Burnett was the head of the Stanford Program in Design, and Dave Evans was teaching at UC Berkeley, including a course called “How to Find Your Vocation.” They combined their interests and experience to use design thinking - “a method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions” - to help students design their life after university.

Throughout the book, they advocate the use of prototypes.

“Prototypes should be designed to ask a question and get some data about something you’re interested in. Good prototypes isolate one aspect of a problem and design an experience that allows you to “try out” some version of a potentially interesting future.” 

As an example of what happens when you don’t prototype, they told the story of Elise. 

Don’t do this with your life

After a long career in Human Resources, Elise was ready for something different, and she knew exactly what it would be: an Italian deli and cafe that served “wonderful coffee and authentic Tuscan food.” She had visited Tuscany and loved the food and cafes there, and she dreamed of creating something just like it.

“She had saved enough to get started, collected all the recipes she needed, researched the best place near her home to locate such a business, and did it. She rented a place, totally renovated it, stocked it with the best products, and opened to great fanfare. It was an immense amount of work, and it was a roaring success. Everyone loved it. She was busier than ever. And in no time she was miserable.”

She liked the idea of an Italian deli and cafe, but didn’t know what she didn’t know. She simply never imagined the problems hiring staff, managing inventory, and maintenance of the store. 

Not what, but who!

To help people like Elise avoid making costly mistakes, the authors advocate prototyping instead, trying small experiments that will give you knowledge about your idea before you spend a lot of time and money fully implementing it. “The simplest and easiest form of prototyping,” they wrote, “is a conversation.” They called those conversations “Life Design Interviews.”

“You want to talk to someone who is either doing and living what you’re contemplating, or has real experience and expertise in an area about which you have questions.”

I was struck how this advice relates directly to what people practice in Working Out Loud Circles. In a Circle, people ask themselves three questions:

  1. What am I trying to do?
  2. Who is related to that goal?
  3. How can I contribute to them to deepen the relationship?

I was reading Designing Your Life in Germany, while working with an engineering firm there. We have adapted Circles to help employees develop a prototyping mindset. The company wants more ideas and more efforts to implement them. I’m trying to help them have more conversations and build deeper relationships.

Whether your idea is for a new product, a new process, or a new Italian deli, sometimes the best question isn’t what to do, it’s whom to talk to about it. When you offer your genuine attention and vulnerability in exchange for information, the things you learn can change your idea - and your life.

This group of people from 8 German companies has bold ambitions, and the conversations help them be more effective. (On a bus, no less! Click on the image for the full story.)

This group of people from 8 German companies has bold ambitions, and the conversations help them be more effective. (On a bus, no less! Click on the image for the full story.)

Asking for permission

It may seem odd, but I enjoy working with big companies. More precisely, I enjoy helping the people who work there. Having been an employee in large corporations for decades, I can relate to what employees experience. I know the many slings and arrows they have to face in the workplace, and how they can affect you over time.

One of those things is having to ask for permission.

No good deed…

Not all companies are the same, of course. But there seems to be a mania about control, about the manager having to know and approve of what each of his direct reports (ah, the military language!) is doing.

Sometimes it’s about money. Can I buy pizza for my team to celebrate our milestone? Sometimes it’s about time. I’ve been invited to a free conference to learn from other companies. May I go? Sometimes, it’s just about control.

One time I was invited to give a talk related to my project at another location in my company. My division had announced a travel freeze, so I told the host she would have to pay expenses, which she did. The morning of my talk, though, I received frantic calls and emails from my boss at 7am. It turns out his boss (who, ironically, was traveling) wanted to know why I was in another city. When I explained how the event related to our goals and that there were no expenses involved, the objection they raised was that I hadn’t asked for permission - and that it should never happen again. 

The new normal

At the time, I thought perhaps this was about me or about a dysfunctional organization. But now that I’m working with a wide range of companies, I see that it’s quite normal. 

I see how the very same companies who want more innovative, agile cultures are the ones that systematically rob people of control, either through their policies or through the caprice of managers trying to validate their position in the hierarchy. I see how experienced, talented employees who desperately want to do good work are forced to ask permission for even the simplest of things.

What choice do you have? 

You probably know some exceptions, the kinds of people who would rather ask for forgiveness than permission. I’m thinking of notable examples like Celine Schillinger at Sanofi, Harald Schirmer at Continental, and Katharina Krentz at Bosch. I know that each of them has faced resistance in the pursuit of doing meaningful, important work. Yet they’ve all found a way to do it and lead change. Over time, by working in an open, connected way, they’ve become fantastic ambassadors for their companies.

They are indeed exceptional. But what about everyone else?

If you’re a manager, you might start by asking yourself a question the next time you feel the need for control: Is this necessary? Rules and policies are fine, but stifling creativity and engagement hurts everyone, including managers. 

If you’re an employee trying to do good work despite the constraints, look to people who are already finding a way to do it. Their openness and consistent contributions over time are what provide them with some level of career insurance. After all, it’s harder to punish someone whose contributions are publicly validated by others. Also, their larger personal networks give them options, and thus more control of their own careers.

Several companies I work with are genuinely trying to create corporate cultures that are more innovative, that encourage more experimentation and a bias to action. To achieve that, we’ll need a different kind of permission, the kind that says, “I trust you to do what you think is right. Please go ahead.”

If your innovation program isn’t producing much innovation

Your company almost certainly has an innovation program. They may call it something else, or include it in a culture change or digital transformation effort. But no matter the name, companies are all looking to create a more innovative culture, one where individuals contribute more ideas and, importantly, collaborate to bring those ideas to life.

If you have such a program, it probably isn’t producing the kind of change you want. Why not? Because despite the tools you bought and the events you held and even the exhortations of management, most people simply aren’t sure what to do and how to do it.

Some companies I’m working with are about to try something different.

Is your current innovation program a bad idea?.jpg

Where Good Ideas Come From

Most companies think of their innovation program as a big suggestion box. Sometimes they'll offer a prize in an effort to get more people to deposit their Powerpoint slides into the box, and organize a committee of managers to select the best ones. Unfortunately, this tends to breed competition and hiding of information instead of collaboration, and produces little actual work beyond the slides. Sometimes, companies even set up a special Innovation Group, a creative silo of its own that’s apart from everyday work and forever struggles to be relevant or make an impact.

For a better understanding of how innovation actually happens, Steven Johnson’s oft-cited book, Where Good Ideas Come From, is an excellent primer. Analyzing a wide range examples from over centuries, he showed that innovation isn’t the results of a hidden genius and The One Big Idea, but from the exchange and interaction of many ideas.

“New ideas do not thrive on archipelagos,” he wrote. What he meant was that new ideas typically don’t come from people working in isolation. They come from bits and parts contributed by different people who recombine and reconfigure them till the result is an innovation of a kind.

Barriers to innovation

We know this is true, and there is example after example after example of people working in an open, connected way. to accelerate the pace of innovation. Yet we rarely see it at work. Why? 

After watching yet another TED talk describing how a group made their work visible, connected with other experts, and went on to create something new, I wrote about the barriers I saw most often in the workplace:

"I don’t know how." Despite the large number of examples on the web, the vast majority of people have simply never experienced sharing their work online and collaborating with others as a result. And some may not have a convenient facility for publishing content at work.
"I don’t know if it will be useful." For the minority of people that know what to do and have a way to do it, there’s often an uncertainty as to whether their contributions would be valuable. They also struggle with how to get the attention of relevant people.
"I won’t get credit." A more insidious barrier is when people feel their contributions won’t be recognized. Particularly in a management system of competitive ratings and bonuses, there is a heightened sense of internal competition. Feeling like you’re fighting for your share of a finite pie will grossly inhibit your willingness to contribute and collaborate.

A different approach to innovation

The companies I’m working with now are trying to address these barriers in a novel way. They still have the tools, the events, and the management exhortations. But they are also providing employees with help. 

Together, we’re adapting Working Out Loud Circles to give employees hands-on, practical experience. The peer support groups, using Circle Guides tailored for experimentation, begin with smalls steps such as making an idea visible and searching for individuals and groups related to their idea both inside and outside the company. Over a period of weeks, participants practice outreach and ways to deepen relationships that lead to collaboration while learning how to make more of their thinking, learning, and other work visible in a way that’s useful to others. Throughout the process, managers are paying attention to what’s happening online, providing recognition and support, asking questions, and offering their own contributions

Each individual that participates shapes their reputation while they develop their personal network. As Circles spread, so does a culture of innovation, of “putting more parts on the table” (as Steven Johnson says), and reshaping and recombining them.

Instead of a funnel of ideas leading to a committee, or a beauty contest to see who has the best slides, resources can be allocated based on who has taken an idea, built a tribe around it, prototyped it, and gathered support and evidence.

Innovation isn’t just about an idea or a program, it’s about a practice. 

“Open, inclusive, and at a scale simply not previously possible”

When I heard her use that phrase, my first thought was of all the organizations who have innovation programs and digital programs and culture programs. I thought of the gap between their well-intended aspirations and their actual results.

Except this woman didn’t work in a big company. Her name is Sarah Parcak. She’s the winner of the 2016 TED prize, and an archaeologist whose goal is to protect the world’s cultural heritage. She’s looking for lost civilizations using satellite data, starting with Peru, and her approach is fundamentally different from what you see inside corporations. 

In most organizations, big ideas require a Program with all the traditional management roles that come with it. Perhaps you want to simplify operations, reduce costs, or accelerate innovation. The people contributing would be those specifically assigned or funded to do so. Aside from making suggestions, the only way anyone else might participate would be to apply for a job.

But Sarah wanted and needed more than that. She recognized that tapping into the cognitive surplus around the world could unlock possibilities and accelerate progress. By making things open and inclusive, she could attract the very people who could help her implement, improve, and build on her work.

The first step was sharing information, the satellite images, so that anyone could see them. Sarah’s team of experts is analyzing that data, but they're open to the possibility that others may see what they don’t.

She then goes much further than making data available. She invites contributions. For example, a local Peruvian professor is “helping coordinate and share the data with archaeologists so they can explore these sites on the ground.” It turns out the professor is also responsible for a drone mapping program, able to provide additional imagery that Sarah, “a satellite archaeologist,” may never have included on her own.

She partners with people and groups who can help with education, outreach, and site preservation. One group, for example, “empowers these communities, in particular women, with new economic approaches and business training. So it helps to teach them to create beautiful handicrafts which are then sold on to tourists.” 

Even you or I could contribute. 

“Already I've gotten thousands of emails from people all across the world -- professors, educators, students, and other archaeologists -- who are so excited to help participate.”

Maybe you’ve heard of this kind of effort before. Maybe you think of examples like Wikipedia or you've read articles about Innocentive. But what about inside your organization? Most of your people have never experienced this kind of open, connected way of working. Your management almost certainly hasn’t. So they ask traditional questions about benefits and they cite the lack of time and precedent, unable to see the possibilities unleashed by a way of working they’ve never encountered.

Paraphrasing William Gibson: the future of work is here, it’s just unevenly distributed. Most companies have the business imperative and the tools to make programs “open, inclusive, and at a scale simply not previously possible.” They just don’t have the required behaviors.

One way to help them develop the necessary skills and mindset is to spread Working Out Loud Circles, and you may know of other ways. If your organization wants to thrive or even survive, you must give people the chance to experience a more open, connected way of working. If not now, when?

The Perimeter of Your Potential

He was a medieval scholar, trying to decipher traces of a poem from the Middle Ages. He was looking at the only remaining manuscript, and it was so badly damaged that he was using an ultraviolet lamp to detect the writing. But the document was too burned and faded. Other scholars had already given up.

What he did next is helping to shape our understanding of history. It’s also an example of how small actions you take can expand your knowledge of what’s possible.

The Chess of Love
The Chess of Love

An email that shaped history

Gregory Heyworth is the name of the scholar, and he gave a talk in October on “How I’m discovering the secrets of ancient texts.”

He described what he did when he realized he was stuck:

“And so I did what many people do. I went online, and there I learned about how multispectral imaging had been used to recover two lost treatises of the famed Greek mathematician Archimedes from a 13th-century palimpsest. A palimpsest is a manuscript which has been erased and overwritten.

And so, out of the blue, I decided to write to the lead imaging scientist on the Archimedes palimpsest project, Professor Roger Easton, with a plan and a plea. And to my surprise, he actually wrote back.”

Like a pebble in a pond

The simple set of steps Heyworth took - searching for people who could help him, deciding to reach out, crafting a compelling letter that earned a response - sent out ripples that changed his career.

“With his help, I was able to win a grant from the US government to build a transportable, multispectral imaging lab, And with this lab, I transformed what was a charred and faded mess into a new medieval classic.”

That same lab then went on to “read even the darkest corners of the Dead Sea Scrolls” and make transcriptions from the Codex Vercellensis, a translation of the Christian Gospels from early in the 4th century.

Then he founded the Lazarus Project, a not-for-profit initiative to bring the technology to individual researchers and smaller institutions. That brought him into contact with researchers and precious documents around the world, like the team working on a map from 1491 used by Columbus that was no longer legible.

He took all these facets of his experience and became a professor of a new “hybrid discipline.”

“There's so much of the past, and so few people with the skills to rescue it before these objects disappear forever. That's why I have begun to teach this new hybrid discipline that I call "textual science." Textual science is a marriage of the traditional skills of a literary scholar -- the ability to read old languages and old handwriting, the knowledge of how texts are made in order to be able to place and date them -- with new techniques like imaging science, the chemistry of inks and pigments, computer-aided optical character recognition.”

Expanding the “perimeter of your potential”

In Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, he uses the phrase “the adjacent possible” to describe how, at any point in time, only certain kinds of next steps are feasible. Whether it’s how animals evolve or how technical innovation happens, one given change makes other changes possible. “The history of cultural progress is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.”

Applying it to you individually, an interviewer described the adjacent possible as “the perimeter of your potential” and that you expand the range of your possible next moves by actively bringing yourself into contact with other people and ideas.

When Gregory Heyworth searched for people who could help him and made a meaningful connection, he expanded his adjacent possible and unlocked access to projects, creating a movement, and even a new field of study, things he could never have imagined beforehand when he considered himself “just a medieval scholar.”

What about you and what you’re trying to accomplish? Are you actively looking for people who could help you and trying to build relationships with them?

It’s what people in Working Out Loud circlesaround the world are doing. Learning to take small steps that can gain them access to more possibilities.

You can shape the perimeter of your potential.

***

The island of good ideas

Have you ever been in this situation at work? It occurs when a problem exists that many people, including management, can recognize, but it’s not any one person’s job to fix it. For example, it could be a process that spans a few departments, like on-boarding new employees or customers. How would your firm generate ideas and organize themselves to make things better?

Here are two approaches I see that are notable for both how common and how ineffective they are. There is hope, though, that a new approach is becoming more popular.

The captain of the suggestion box

Perhaps the most common method is that a manager with some authority calls for a meeting about the problem. The boss asks for ideas, and people take turns offering suggestions.

Like the suggestion box, the ideas tend to be individual contributions as people try to demonstrate their own value and intellect. Also, it’s clear that the only person in the room who has the power to do anything with the suggestions is the manager who called the meeting.

Even worse than suggestions in a box, the meeting takes up much more time and very little is written down. After the meeting, there’s no way to build on or connect the ideas, and nothing changes other than attendees growing a bit more cynical.

The stranded crew

A better way, you might think, is that people are empowered to offer suggestions and connect with each other without the need for a boss or a meeting. And in my experience with enterprise social networks, that is both possible and often better.

Leveraging a social network at work makes it easy to surface a broader range of ideas from a much wider audience than any meeting. Since the work is online, it’s also easy to connect people and ideas and to refine proposals.

But, for most problems, the wisdom of crowds is still not enough. Crowds are good at certain tasks (like estimating the number of jelly beans in a jar), but they’re not good at making decisions, particularly when resources are still controlled by managers who aren’t part of the crowd.

Of course, open access to information is good. So is easily contributing and building on knowledge, and connecting people and ideas. They’re all necessary but often not sufficient to get new things done.

How good ideas get implemented

The nautical theme of this post was inspired by a line from Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From.

“New ideas do not thrive on archipelagos.”

What he meant was that new ideas, like those for solving a process problem at work, typically don’t come from people working in isolation. They come from bits and parts contributed by different people, recombined and reconfigured, till the result is an innovation of a kind.

What to do with these good ideas? In his excellent book, Reinventing Organizations. Frederic Laloux describes how evolved organizations increasingly combine the best elements of crowd-based ideation and collaboration (almost all of his examples cite “active internal social networks”) with a new set of communications and decision-making processes.

Laloux describes companies where employees are trained in conflict resolution and nonviolent communication, important skills if the crowd is to avoid becoming a mob. The same companies also implement methods for distributed decision-making and resource allocation, so the crowd is genuinely empowered to act and doesn’t have to wait for a captain to decide.

The next time you see a problem at your firm, think about which approach you use to make work better. How’s it working? What happens to your good ideas?

Photo credit: Don Bayley, Getty Images

The most surprising thing about this list of 25 “exceptional talents building today’s social businesses”

EIU 25 Social Business LeadersThis week, the Economist Intelligence Unit published a list and I was on it. That was one surprise. I was also surprised at the range of contributions represented. There were people who founded companies, created famous social media campaigns, and even a few trying to change their firms from the inside, like me.

The most surprising thing for me, though, was who was missing.

Some of the most significant changes in social business

The list is made up of people “who are successfully applying social technologies, principles and strategies within organisations around the world.” At least 7 of the 25 people are involved with social media and marketing. But the range of contributions goes well beyond that.

“Social business is about much more than social media. A social business is an organisation whose culture and practices encourage networks of people—employees, partners, customers and others—to create business value, and, ultimately, increase revenue and profits.”

There are people on this list who are genuinely reshaping how we think about business.

  • Juliana Rotich is a co-founder of Ushahidi, “a not-for-profit digital platform that connects and gives a voice to communities facing social, political or medical duress in Kenya and beyond.”
  • Tony Hsieh founded Zappos, the online shoe company sold to Amazon for $1 billion, and created an iconic customer service culture.
  • Lin Bin founded Xiaomi, whose radical approach to openness helped the company become China’s third-largest smartphone maker in only four years.

The social media marketers are changing things too. Take a look at this video from TD Bank, where Wendy Arnott is head of social media and digital marketing: Sometimes you just want to say thank you #TDThanksYou. One of the commenters noted: “This is the first time a bank commercial had made me cry.” I watched it 3 times.

My accomplishments are much more modest than Juliana, Tony, or Lin and I’m not marketing to consumers around the world. But I do aspire to help millions of people find meaning and fulfillment at work, starting with the employees of a big German bank.

Why people I admire aren’t on the list

Changing any organization requires passion, persistence, and luck. When I started exploring social business ideas, I met people who were already changing their companies like I hoped to change mine. They were smart and innovative and years ahead of me. But they’re not on this list and that was my biggest surprise in seeing it. They shaped my thinking in so many ways but simply didn't have some of the luck I had.

Their company/division/group was re-organized. 

Their sponsor left.

They were forced to change platforms, derailing their entire effort.

The experiments they tried didn’t work.

They got tired.

The truth is, if you’re trying to change how things work, you probably won’t. So many good people I know simply couldn’t continue on the path they started on. But I hope they try again. My friends involved in creating social businesses have the passion and capabilities to bring about great changes in the world, and we need them to persevere.

The next list

When I think of the challenges facing people trying to change complex, emergent systems like corporations, I think of Margaret Wheatley’s So Far From Home. She writes about persevering in the face of those challenges – not for the ultimate outcomes but for the goodness of the work itself, for the people involved, and for the chance, however slim, of ultimately creating a better future.

“We need to continue to persevere in our radical work, experimenting with how we can work and live together to evoke human creativity and caring. Only time will tell if our efforts contribute to a better future. We can’t know this, and we can’t base our work or find our motivation from expecting to change this world.”

There will be other lists in the future and I hope to see more of my friends on them. By then, I may have helped many more people or I may not appear on lists at all. All I know is I will have tried, and will keep trying.

The Five Monkeys Experiment (with a new lesson)

Consider yourself lucky if you ever get the opportunity to hear Eddie Obeng give a talk. My first introduction to him was a video of his TED talk on “Smart failure for a fast-changing world”. This week at JiveWorld, he gave the keynote speech. With passion and some unorthodox presentation techniques, he walked us a through a range of practical insights about human beings and ways to change behavior. Everyone loved it.

At the end, he closed with a story about five monkeys that captures the state of things in most organizations and that provides hope, indirectly, for how we can make things better.

The Five Monkeys Experiment

An experimenter puts 5 monkeys in a large cage. High up at the top of the cage, well beyond the reach of the monkeys, is a bunch of bananas. Underneath the bananas is a ladder.

The monkeys immediately spot the bananas and one begins to climb the ladder. As he does, however, the experimenter sprays him with a stream of cold water. Then, he proceeds to spray each of the other monkeys.

The monkey on the ladder scrambles off. And all 5 sit for a time on the floor, wet, cold, and bewildered. Soon, though, the temptation of the bananas is too great, and another monkey begins to climb the ladder. Again, the experimenter sprays the ambitious monkey with cold water and all the other monkeys as well. When a third monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys, wanting to avoid the cold spray, pull him off the ladder and beat him.

Now one monkey is removed and a new monkey is introduced to the cage. Spotting the bananas, he naively begins to climb the ladder. The other monkeys pull him off and beat him.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The experimenter removes a second one of the original monkeys from the cage and replaces him with a new monkey. Again, the new monkey begins to climb the ladder and, again, the other monkeys pull him off and beat him - including the monkey who had never been sprayed.

Monkeys at work

By the end of the experiment, none of the original monkeys were left and yet, despite none of them ever experiencing the cold, wet, spray, they had all learned never to try and go for the bananas.

The metaphor and the lessons that apply to work are clear. Despite the exhortations from management to be innovative and collaborative, cold water is poured on people and their ideas whenever someone tries something new. Or, perhaps worse, the other employees suppress innovation, and learned helplessness spreads throughout the firm.

Now what? A modern lesson

As Eddie Obeng finished the story, we all nodded knowingly. And yet two questions sprang to mind:

Did it ever happen?

If so, what can we do about it?

A quick search reveals it did happen though the details are quite different.  In 1967. “Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys” by Stephenson et al. (EDIT: Added the qualifier and updated the link to point directly to the original research paper. See the note below.) I found, like many good stories, the 5 monkeys story has been told elsewhere, though Eddie Obeng’s story-telling brings it to life.

The original lesson seemed to be: “if you’re trapped with a malevolent experimenter, don’t go for the bananas”. Today, though, we can do something that wasn’t possible for those monkeys in 1967: we can change the experiment. That is, instead of just accepting the work environment we happen to be placed in, we can take more control now than ever before.

By working out loud - making our work visible and discoverable - we can create purposeful networks and come in contact with wildly different experiments going on in your own firm and in organizations around the world. Different objectives, different incentives, different management styles, different support systems.

You don’t have to take it any more. If you feel trapped, you can reach through the bars of your current environment and come into contact with possibilities you’d have never known about otherwise by working in a more open, more connected way. Today, whatever experiment you find yourself in, you can make your work and life better.

Note: In the original post I said "It did happen" and that motivated a few people who pointed me to a thorough analysis of the paper I cited and how the lessons in the original research varied from this post. What I meant and should have written was that there was a study that was indeed the basis of the story, not that the research provided proof. After all, It was a small study with a few monkeys. Nevertheless, just as we teach our kids about the Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed so they won't bump their heads, the story above serves as a cautionary tale that can help people be more mindful of what they're doing and why.