Encouraging Innovation & The Story of the 5 Monkeys

I think we’ve all heard someone say it at one time or another.  Or, we may even have said it ourselves.  It goes something like this.  Someone asks the question, “why?” and the response is “Because that’s just the way it’s done.  We’ve always done it that way”

A statement like that can put the lid on things pretty quickly can’t it?  And often, those who are brave enough to explore further by asking, “Yes, but why has it always been done that way?” never receive a satisfactory answer because the truth is that nobody really knows why.

You’re nodding your head aren’t you?  I’m not surprised.  It is, after all, a fairly common occurrence especially in long established organizations.

It reminds me of the Story of the 5 monkeys.  If you aren’t familiar with the story here it is.

Of course, as human beings we like to think that we have evolved a little more than the monkeys in the story; that we are not so easily manipulated.  But, the story illustrates how we can fall into patterns of behaviour without really understanding why.  In organizations, we can also become so deeply entrenched in our way of doing things, attempts to effect change are often greeted with a metaphorical dousing of cold water almost every time.

I think we all know that in today’s economy, our ability to be flexible, creative and innovative is key to our present and future success. The question is, as leaders, how do we invite innovation and creative thinking into our workplaces?  Well, I’ve been having a bit of a think about that and I have some suggestions for your consideration, just to get you started.

Conduct a review of what you value

We tend to talk a lot about organizational values, sometimes without a second thought.  Taking the time to consider what we value and why we value it provides an opportunity to re-affirm organizational beliefs and also to challenge some that may no longer fit with our current reality.  Sometimes too, our actions and attitudes can get out of sync with what we say we value so looking in the mirror once in a while is not a bad idea.

Invite Challenge

This seems like a simple thing to do but sometimes we can allow our egos to get in the way.  For example, if you are a new leader it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you must have all of the answers. You don’t.  And you won’t.

Allowing others to challenge our thinking does not demean the role of the leader.  Instead, it enhances the possibility of a fresher, more creative and progressive outcome and that kind of leadership places emphasis where it belongs, on the work and the people who do it.

Look at failure as part of the process

Nobody likes to fail.  The thing is there are lessons to be learned from it and while we don’t try new things with the idea of failing, sometimes we have to try, and fail, until we discover what works.  Whether we like it or not, clinging to the familiar or doing things the way we have always done them will eventually lead us to failure anyway.

Acknowledge and Reward Creative thinking

Organizations that value stability over innovation will tend to discourage what they consider to be interference with the way things are and discount the ideas of those who think outside the scope of conventional wisdom.

Finding ways to bring out fresh ideas, no matter how bizarre they may sound, and acknowledging those eager to put them forward, demonstrates a willingness to accept the necessity for ongoing change in a time when change is the only thing we can count on.

In today’s world those of us who value stability must learn to live in environments where the apple cart is constantly being upset. To me, this means we will not always be able to know the “why” of everything but we can also no longer afford to accept things because that’s the way we’ve always done them.

What do you think?  How do you invite innovation and creative thinking into your workplace?  What else can we do to break habits that no longer work for us?



Filed under Change Management, Leadership, Leadership Values, Organizational Effectiveness

10 responses to “Encouraging Innovation & The Story of the 5 Monkeys

  1. I like this, Gwyn. It makes me think that all the points you make could apply as well to me as an individual.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Thanks, Dan. Yes, I see what you mean…me too. And for me, being okay with, or even inviting, constant flux is a big challenge. I expect it is not unlike that in long established companies as well.
      Thank you for coming by. It’s always nice to see you here. 🙂

  2. Good post, Gwyn.

    I think accepting and propagating the status quo has always been a potential failing of entrenched organizations. As someone who was born asking “why,” I’ve had my share of colleagues and managers during the last 20 years tell me because “we’ve always done it that way.” So, I agree this is a challenge, and I’ve learned a couple things that may be worth sharing.

    First, I think it’s vital to do everything you can to understand why something is being done the way it is. Change for the sake of doing something new and different doesn’t always work and can even backfire if you don’t understand the rationale for doing it in the first place. I can’t tell you how many times I discovered there was actually a very good reason at the time something was implemented, something that was forgotten or that hadn’t been passed along to new employees. So find out, understand it completely, communicate to everyone, then go for it if it still makes sense.

    Second, if you’re in a position of leadership, cultivate individual responsibility and innovative thinking by holding people accountable for challenging the status quo – and especially, you. I’ve always made it clear to anyone reporting to me that they had a mandate to ask questions and challenge the status quo, and that if they didn’t do it until after something was launched or failed, I would hold them partly responsible for the results. I’m not sure this is in any management book, but for the record I can’t remember anyone ever NOT telling me what was on their mind. 🙂

    Thanks, Gwyn… keep up the great posts that make us all think!

    Jenifer @jenajean

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Jenifer, You bring two really important thoughts to this discussion. I particularly like the first one simply because I suspect that a lot of babies have gone out with the bathwater unnecessarily. So, really digging deep to understand WHY helps us to know the WHAT.
      As well, when you hold up creativity, innovation and challenging status quo
      as strong values, and then hold yourself and others accountable for being faithful to those values, I, like you think it has a way of not only giving everyone permission to be creative but also demands it.
      Thank you for sharing your experience here. It has added great value to the post. 🙂

  3. Fabulous post, Gwyn. There’s a lot of “we’ve always done it that way” attitudes that keeps the status quo in place. I’d recommend that anyone who wants to challenge the status quo (whether in an organization or in their family) email this post as a prelude to the conversation. It might help open up a dialogue. ps. I love the video of the 5 monkeys. Hadn’t seen it before.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Jesse, I must admit that before writing this I wondered to what extent the “we’ve always done it that way” attitude still prevailed in today’s working environment. It looks like it is still alive though (although getting old), along with the “that’s not my job” attitude.
      That *you* think this post will be good reading for those wanting to break through the status quo is very gratifying. Thank you very much for that 🙂

  4. Hi Gwyn,

    I hadn’t heard of the Story of the 5 Monkeys; what a great illustration of how behaviours can get unintentionally added to a groupthink without any understanding of why this process/approach is beneficial or necessary.

    I think your last point about creative thinking is the most important because really that’s where innovation begins. For example, if you look at the interfaces we all now take for granted in our various technological devices, would you think that it had anything to do with caligraphy? Of course not.

    And yet, thanks to Steve Jobs taking a caligraphy class, he realized that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to using a DOS-style interface of a single white text font on blue. For computer engineers at the time, I’m sure they thought such matters were irrelevant compared to ensuring a device had enough processing power or diversity of applications.

    And yet, Jobs understood that by bringing more aesthetic appeal to such devices, he could encourage a wider adoption within the population. It’s that kind of creative, looking at things outside your field that can truly inspire the disruptive and sustainable innovation processes that so many companies are eager to find.

    Of course, as with everything else, such measures can only begin by having the willingness to take that first step and being open to such thinking with your team members.

    A wonderful checklist of points for organizations to note when pursuing innovative measures within their workforce, Gwyn. Thanks for sharing.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Tanveer, I love the Steve Jobs story. He is certainly one person who exemplifies the notion of innovation. I understand one of his strong values is “beauty” and he certainly challenges himself, and those around him, to create tools (and toys) that are highly functional AND beautiful.
      More and more, I’m thinking that encouraging innovation in workplaces and organizations everywhere begins with giving greater value to it and then, as Jenifer points out, holding ourselves and others accountable for giving it life
      Thanks for adding to the post, Tanveer. Your contribution is always valued here. 🙂

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