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Monday, March 16, 2009

You Can’t Squeeze Innovation from a Cardboard Box

Have you ever tried to squeeze blood from a stone? It sure seems like a silly thing to try. Stones don’t even have blood in them! Unless, of course, it’s some sort of igneous lava rock in someone’s bloody hands, but who’d be crazy enough to squash a stone in their hands for hours on end? So I wonder, who conjured this asinine proverb? My guess is that a musty old king, centuries ago, thought he’d cleverly comment on how fruitless it was to try to collect tax revenue from his peons. Elitist, sarcastic and equivocal; it certainly sounds like something an antiquated king might say. Little did this king know that his proverb would also apply to 21st century corporate America.

Many of today’s organizations demand more and more productivity from their employees while simultaneously lacing them in with restrictive policies and structures. For many of these companies, though, the state of affairs should not be all that surprising. Rigid companies with rigid structures and rigid policies foster a culture of stiffs who too often become so focused on staying within the established boundaries that they forget how to loosen up and be creative at work. If companies want their employees to think outside the box, maybe these companies ought to take a look at the cardboard boxes they’ve created to contain their employees. After all, the organization’s structure is a critical determinate of the organization’s performance.

Notice I didn’t say that structure determines success. Heaven’s no! There are way too many successful cardboard box companies out there. Just look at Wal-Mart: incredibly successful with more than $350 billion (yes, billion with a “B”) in revenues last year, but with so many stores and employees to keep hemmed in, the Wal-Mart policy manual must be twice as thick as a phone book and half as fun to read. You might argue that for a company as large as Wal-Mart, rigid structures and policies are a must, and you might be right. Otherwise they’d either fall apart or be litigated into oblivion. Yet if you argued that many (or any) Wal-Mart employees are innovative thinkers who think outside the box, you might find yourself alone on your soapbox. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not bashing the ingenuity of the millions (literally) of Wal-Mart employees out there. Nor am I discounting Wal-Mart’s revolutionary efficient distribution system and massive market leverage. I’m simply saying that you probably wouldn’t get a job at a local Wal-Mart store to exercise the right side of your brain.

So what’s any of this have to do with squeezing blood from a stone? Ah, I’m glad you asked! It’s all about getting out what you’ve put in. If you need a pint of blood, you won’t find it in a stone. Likewise, if you want a dynamic and innovative company, you won’t find it in a cardboard box. It’s simply a matter of human nature. Even if you explicitly tell cardboard box employees that you want them to be innovative, they won’t be. Cardboard box employees may in fact willingly be in a cardboard box, but they aren’t stupid. They realize that they’re in a cardboard box, and they also understand how to be successful in that box. They’ve seen that if they stick to the rules and tow the line, they get promoted. They’ve also seen that if they propose a crazy new idea, they might get hung out to dry. If you haven’t noticed already, we humans really don’t like feeling alone, so if innovation isn’t encouraged, recognized and rewarded on a consistent basis, no one will see innovation as the path to a successful career.

What then, does an innovative company look like? Don’t ask me! I’m just some MBA wonk who also runs a small engineering consulting firm. Heck, I might not be able to spot an innovative company even if I was standing in on its board meetings. What I can guess, however, is what an innovative company does not look like. It certainly does not look like a cardboard box. As soon as you start erecting structure, you’ve already put up boundaries to innovation. Also, it’s probably a safe bet to assume that no two innovative companies look alike; that wouldn’t be too innovative, would it?

In the end, innovation should be about avoiding cardboard boxes and finding new and better ways to do things. Just be careful. If you think outside the box long enough, you just might find you’ve erected a new cardboard of your own box next door. But that may not be a bad thing. If structure determines performance, isn’t it possible that no structure could mean no performance? Elitist, sarcastic and equivocal; sounds like something I might say!

I guess it’s too bad that musty old king didn’t predict the application of his proverb to 21st century corporate America. He could have written a book and made a fortune.

Nate Barber is a student in the EMBA program at UTSA and is Vice-President of Barber and Barber Associates, Inc. You can reach Nate at or by calling (210) 782-8912.

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