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Kill the Company/Change the World

Lisa Bodell is the founder and CEO of FutureThink, an internationally recognized innovation research and training firm. She founded the company on the principle that with the right knowledge and tools, everyone has the power to innovate. Her new book is the provocatively titled Kill the Company (Bibliomotion, 2012). She spoke to AMA recently for an Edgewise podcast. The following has been adapted from that interview.

AMA: The cover of Kill the Company shows a bunch of raised fists in front of a red background, reminiscent of early Soviet revolutionary art. It’s definitely an attention getter.
Lisa Bodell: I’m glad you picked up on that—not just the title but the symbolism. We’re trying to tap into the zeitgeist, and we thought that the timing was perfect. We think it’s an uprising that people want to create positive, not negative, change in their company, and it’s time to let them do it. This book is trying to be a manifesto to let them know how.

AMA: What inspired you to write the book, and how is it different from the other innovation books out there?
LB: A couple of things. What we discovered is two things: how people are approaching innovation is wrong, and how we’re approaching change is wrong. And since innovation is about change, those are two pretty fundamental things we have to take care of.

We’re a training company, and we train midlevel and executive level from all over the world how to think differently. You know: how do you create change, how do you solve the bigger problems better, that kind of stuff. We had been brought in to a group of executives. The CEO said, “Come on in. I want you to teach me and my team how to innovate, because it’s one of our four strategy pillars, and it’s on our annual report and the website,” and blah, blah.

I got there, and basically none of these guys participated. None of them—and this is a major manufacturing company. I thought, what is going on? And I realized that I was giving them experiential exercises to dream about the future, and two things were happening: one, these leaders had become professional skeptics; they did not want to do change. They really wanted to just be able to eliminate risk. And another group, even within that subset, maybe wanted to speak up and create change, but they no longer believed they had the power to do it. So here we had leaders that had just become complacent.

I took a break at lunch and I said, “What am I going to do? I basically came back and told them to throw out their agenda. I said, “We’re going to do an exercise, and it’s called ‘Kill the Company.’ I want you to pretend that you’re the number one competitor, and I want you to figure out what you’re going to do in the next half hour to put yourself out of business.”

You would have thought I was lighting the room on fire. They were talking. I basically gave them permission to attack the problems and not be political. They got an out-of-company experience. We started killer rules; we started asking killer questions. And basically what that said to me was that they needed permission to really attack the hard things, and they needed the tools to actually simplify. We have to create the space for growth, and the first thing we need to do is eliminate, not create. And that’s the opposite of what you think when you think of innovation, right? So that was the cause for change.

AMA: What else has to change within the corporate mindset to encourage innovative thinking?
LB: Because we have to spend so much time doing, thinking has become a daring act. When did thinking become the opposite of being productive? I always use this analogy when I’m talking about the book: You’re a busy guy. Imagine you walk into someone’s office and the guy’s either staring at the wall or looking out the window, and you say, “Hey Bob, what are you doing?” And he says, “Well you know, just thinking.” What’s the first thing that pops in your head? It’s, “Get back to work.” We’ve got to change that paradigm, and frankly I think people do a lot better thinking when they’re alone, when they can turn their brain down. You ask them where they do their best thinking and it’s typically tasks where they’re working out, driving a car, or going for a walk, when they step away from their desk. It’s not necessarily group activities.

AMA: Last fall the Freakonomics blog referenced a multiuniversity study. The title of the blog posting was, “The bias against creativity: why people desire but reject creative ideas.” The idea was that in many ways we’re sabotaging ourselves. We have what the authors describe as almost a stealth bias against some of the great ideas that we come up with. What are your thoughts on that?
LB: You see it all the time. People say they want big ideas, but then when presented with them, they resist. There’s a great quote that we often reference: “I can’t understand why people are afraid of the new ideas. I’m afraid of the old ones.”

The big problem today is that people are just very risk-averse. They’re afraid of change because they haven’t had a positive experience with it in a while. We have to show them that it can be okay. Basically, when it comes to innovation, or creativity, or brainstorming, leaders are giving people a box of crayons and telling them to color within the lines. So you know the picture you’re going to get, which gives them great comfort. But what’s the point? People think new ideas must be wacky, so they can’t be good—and we’ve got to change that.

So people are kind of giving up. They’re saying, “You know what? I’d love to fight the status quo, but maybe what we have is just okay.” And to me, a positive culture’s great, a negative culture’s terrible; but complacency is the worst. And that’s where they’re ending up.

AMA: What one key thought would you like to leave us with?
LB: That innovation is about reaching potential, and no matter what your title, your role, or your function within the organization, you can effect change. You just need to have the tools to know how to do it. Sometimes it can start with simplification, not complication. There is a way forward, so don’t leave it to your boss, or anyone else. You’re empowered to do it, and there are quick ways that it can happen.