An introvert’s guide to innovation and collaboration workshops

You are maybe awash with extrovert Ted talk types in your innovation and collaboration teams but every group needs an introvert to get it done.

Every group of people from a nursery to an old age home will have a division of introverts and extroverts. You can walk into a pre-school and see a range of children either swinging from the wall fittings or quietly sitting reading a book. At some point these kids point themselves at jobs which more or less suit their personalities and off they go.

Historically, you can line up the expected jobs with the personalities of the children and make a good guess of what they might like doing. The same type of people bunch around the same kind of job and therein is created a circle of reinforcement. A fascinating by-product of the digital age is that the types of job and the types of personality for those jobs is changing and the front-line for this fight is in collaboration and innovation.

An extrovert’s world

In most organisations, the lead of ‘innovation’ or the lead facilitator tends to always be an extrovert with an innate extroversion and imagination.  The core concepts of trying new things or being imaginative are naturally suited to people for whom these things come easily. The thing I hate most in the whole world of workshop delivery is the process where people are asked to come up with loads of ideas, put them on post-its and then make an arbitrary ranking of said ideas.  There is a major presumption on this that everyone can easily come up with those ideas, at speed, with other people there, with a facilitator driving speed….. This is fundamentally not for everyone.

There is also the frequent discussion that you have with clients who say a variant of ‘let’s get Jill from operations, she’ll ‘be great at this’.’ This is usually code for “Jill is pretty outspoken and likes to talk a lot’. Aggregated, you get a group of people who typically have a good conversation but you always question whether they are the most representative of the organisation.

This translates even to the concept of bringing in ‘diverse thinkers’ from outside the organisation. It is always the intent to get ‘an artist’ or a ‘musician’ (not noted introverts) and it is rare that the suggestion is made to bring in ‘an accountant’ for some new thinking. There is an implicit bias towards the extrovert type.

How you set-up your teams always tends to include people in this mould for which their experience in ‘having good ideas’ or being ‘creative’ trumps experience or expertise in grinding out results or delivering outcomes. There are typically few completer finishers in these areas and even fewer with the aspiration to get involved.

An Introvert’s world

However, putting introverts in charge of collaboration and innovation is probably exactly what you need. At the stage most companies are at, it’s about building out a new model for working with new methods and approaches. This means that the structures, the PMO and the operating model are at least as important as pretty graphics, a lovely design centre and ‘hipster ideas circles’.  It is easy to hide behind Agile and Design Thinking say as an application of a ‘method’ where the principles and the approach alone are seemingly enough to make a difference. They are not.


For your innovation and collaboration teams please consider;

1)   Picking deliberately the most introverted competent person you find and unleash them on the ‘special ideas’ people. The imagination lot will probably hate it but they need them. Ideas however great, uncontrolled and unrealised are not very helpful. The idea is not reward enough itself. (much as this pains me to say)

2)   Pick your workshop groups and attendees like a jury– make sure you have a real cross section and plan accordingly. The defence lawyer (introverts) should probably be allowed a few vetoes. When you have picked the teams, make sure the assignments you set, match the people best. A session on ‘blue sky thinking’ is almost never a good idea and categorically not for everyone. Time for personal reflection, some specificity and time to investigate things properly might actually be better.

3)   Think end to end– improving the innovation journey from idea to execution is exactly where companies need to invest. This brings together the ideas people with the design people, with the data people, and the engineering people and the dev people.  These are all people who at their own personal job crossroads went their separate ways and have now been thrust together. You can make your own judgement but there is a spectrum of personality there which might not be always best served by focussing on the Shoreditch latte brigade.

4)   Be boring– the fun bit isn’t always the most important bit, having some rigour in how set up the function, how you design, plan and run events and even how you select people for the team is well served by thinking of the boring bits. Having a solid PMO and resource and finance management approach might not set the heather on fire, but it might make the difference between a flash-in-the-pan and a sustainable solution which works.

The beauty of collaboration and the explicit goal of innovation is to do new things you haven’t done before. The power of diversity is not in a range of extroverts outdoing each other with crazy new things, it is in harnessing the value of everyone – especially the introverts.

Cultural Determinism – A guide to Corporate predestination from the Scotland and England football teams

If you are unaware, there is a particularly joyless thread of religion known as Calvinism where everyone’s future status in the afterlife is predestined and essentially, regardless of what you do you will be end up in the same state.

For a lot of corporations, the history of culture, leadership and approach means that there is an inbuilt expectation of what will happen based on past experience and behaviours will reinforce this expectation. The best way to think about it is to consider what happens when someone new joins your own organisation. They will typically look to create new things based on their previous experience but will eventually ‘go native’ and slow down as the unspoken power of cultural predestination wears them down.

The living embodiment of this was borne out over the past few weeks in the football world cup where not only did Scotland snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, England managed to lose on penalties, in a semi-final. Again.

As a Scot myself, watching as Scotland were smashing Argentina all over the field as we took our lead to 3-0 with 15 minutes to play gave me an unusual feeling.  Watching the referee give a penalty to England with 5 minutes to go was a similarly novel experience. Fortunately for the cosmic order of things, normal service was very quickly resumed as Scotland lost 3 quick goals (including a retake of a saved penalty) and England missed their 3rdpenalty out of 4 in the tournament to ultimately stagger and fall just short of the line.

Now, if you are aware of the history of the Scotland football team, we have historically been the living embodiment of glorious failure. For example, we remain the only team to have gone out the world cup on a coin toss!! The emotional journey of watching England is no less consistent; expectation raised to fever pitch, emotional outpourings of how the tournament ‘has brought the country together’, singing of songs regarding how they were going to win the tournament. Then…a missed penalty leading to national outpouring of grief.

However, for Scotland in particular there was a big difference this time.

1)   It was the Scotland women playing in their first world cup (with no history to live up (or down) to)

2)   They are a great team who beat Brazil and drew with world champions US in the build-up to the tournament and who won their qualifying group (a recent record of success)

3)   Their players play for teams like Arsenal and Man City (no issue with quality of resource

They nonetheless managed to collapse as they got close to a great achievement. When the possibility for something different was there, they found a way to do exactly what you would have expected them too.

Which brings me to considering the corporate world.

Your culture ‘muscle memory’– what you’ve done in the past has the power to override any changes in personal, any training or any strategy you might put in place. You might be known for a particular style or approach that the company takes which continues to influence how everyone approaches change. You might try and introduce new ways of working like agile or design thinking but having a mindset that says ‘we’ve tried this in past and it hasn’t worked’ however unspoken or implied, will tend to strangle the idea of change before it gets a chance. 

You need to consider how you get a few wins first to change the dynamic a little. 

Overcompensation – you see a lot of organisations who are known for a particular style or approach try to go completely in the other direction. They recognise what challenges they have so they try too hard. They have a reputation of being a bit old fashioned and boring so they ‘buy a Ferrari’ at which point they are just look a bit sad and end up driving the car like a 1992 Ford Sierra. You can’t outspend a culture problem. You might hire a team of expert designers and a brand new innovation centre (and then use them to make documents pretty and invite clients in to show them some very fancy videos).

You need to think about the mechanism you us to get from old to new and it doesn’t have to be big-bang all the time.

It’s the hope that kills you – to mis-quote John Cleese. The failure you can cope with, it’s the hope that kills you. Setting a target and an expectation for change is great only if it is achieved. If you promise people something which isn’t delivered then the next time you try, that inbuild hope and expectation is eroded to a point where the buy-in and commitment to change isn’t there. Even then at a point of achieving something great, the memory of failure is enough to introduce doubtwhich then brings the whole thing down.

You need to not send grandiose targets which you don’t end up meeting, or even worse set some new principles with nothing behind them.

So what

Scotland were brilliant even to get to the world cup and they should be proud, England were even better and very almost made it to the final. However, was there a big hand of predestiny on their shoulders when it came to the crunch?When a new strategy appears in your inbox about changing ways of working or improving the culture. Do you work through to the natural conclusion that it’s no different from any other time?

When the Scotland goalkeeper was standing on her line waiting for her saved penalty to be retaken, she barely moved an inch to save the second attempt. It’s possible that she simply didn’t know what to do to please the ref but it’s also possible; that unable to escape the natural fate of things, she came to embrace her destiny and simply watched the ball sail past her to seal another preordained exit.

When the promise of something better comes up, do you yourself sit on the line expecting the goal to go in?

Darth Vader’s approach to a two speed Digital corporate culture

‎Say what you like about Darth Vader, he ran a tight ship. He was consistently results driven and he delivered feedback (usually fatal) in a timely manner rather than wait for the Death Star half yearly appraisals. I also never saw him punish a stormtrooper, not one single lower level employee, Darth reserved his ire for the senior members of the team, make changes quickly to improve performance and always, always promoted from within. I’m sure he was seen as a wonderfully charismatic figure by the rank and file and he was always diligent in applying the wishes of the Emperor. He is therefore, a fine example of a CXO in modern corporate business.

‎He is a strong symbol externally to the market, he works his leadership hard but never seeks to micro-manage. It is also impossible to challenge the remarkable political and technological achievements made by the ‘Empire’. The creation of a seriously killer app (literally) and the subvention of the entire system of government without military intervention.,

‎This year perhaps more than in the past 10 years; conversations about moving corporate culture have been more prevalent. There is a general realisation in the power of the force (culture) being required to adapt to a digital, customer centric world as a pathway to Digital Transformation. If you add the technology of the empire and the scale of managing the galaxy without getting the people right. You’ll never defeat the rebellion.

‎However, with all the will in world you aren’t going to change everyone to the right culture in the time available before the next wave of innovation and progress arrives; so do we have to take advice from Darth?

Your clone army

‎You need to respect your clones – the basis of the stormtroopers was a clone army which was superior to the robot equivalent as the power to think creatively was preferred. These clones are easy to manage due to training, repeated performance and a strict adherence to orders. All due respect to them, they aren’t going to progress up the ranks and actually, you don’t need them to. You need to keep them focussed on tasks, reward them well for performance (shore leave on Naiboo maybe). You want them to focussed on details, rigorous and engaged. Success is commonly it’s own reward and pride at every level in the organisation’s performance is hugely powerful.

Your leaders and your leading edge

‎You also need some charisma and some fun as you live your values – All of the lead bad guys in Star Wars are gloriously compelling – gravel voiced with masks, red spiky faces and cool double lightsabres, giant worm things or Christopher Lee. They all have their gimmicks, their specialist skills and they all have charisma and people willing to fight for them. Perhaps even more importantly, the top, top guys all have a messianic pursuit of a single corporate value – the force. Every action is set and measured against the instinct and the strength which comes from this single unifying spirit.

‎Allow Darth and the bosses to lead the way but where you need to put the money is in the culture is in the ideas people? The person with the crazy idea for the Death Star would have had some challenging early steering group meetings in the concept phase. How much steel? How much power? How many special explosive crystal things? How long? There needed to be the culture in place to allow for such an idea to be brought up in the first place and then to get the support behind the project…… There is also the remarkable autonomy given to the lead engineers so that such a creation could be made even when it has a major design flaw (single shot to the exhaust vent blows it up – even though it’s probably not, and goes into Beta testing when it’s not finished (Return of the Jedi – geeky reference this one).

‎So, perhaps it’s time to accept that a balanced utopia in the your corporate culture is not what you need in the first instance. You need to create a 2 speed culture which allows one group to focus on what they are good at and another group to be the (Death) Star team. In time perhaps you can move everyone, but success brings it’s own challenges. Don’t believe me – look at how Google has split their business into the money making bit and the ideas bit and their corporate motto was just one word away from the Empire’s – Do(n’t) be evil!