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I attempted to revert to my old patterns, and sneak in at least an hour of reading in my spare time. I dozed off in ten pages! Eventually, I decided to read before bed, which is supposed to help you sleep better. But I was easily distracted by social media, and some random video about DIY carpentry hacks?!

As a last feeble attempt, I began carrying a book in my bag, so that I could read on my way to and from work. The books in my TBR list keep piling up—at the bottom of my bag, on my nightstand, and in my online shopping cart. My vocabulary growth feels stunted, and my imagination misses a certain spark.

Innovation Isn’t All Fun and Games — Creativity Needs Discipline

But on the inside, I am embarrassed of the joke that it has become. I feel disgusted. Ashamed at my weakness. And yet, bold somehow for at least admitting I had a problem. My failed experiments to resuscitate my dying reading habit taught me to not be judgemental. I understood why so many friends preferred the movie adaptation over reading the book. A medium that was both audibly and visually engaging was far more likely to hold your attention than something that was merely visually engaging, right? But at what cost? When I asked the same managers to describe such cultures, they readily provided a list of characteristics identical to those extolled by management books: tolerance for failure, willingness to experiment, psychological safety, highly collaborative, and nonhierarchical.

And research supports the idea that these behaviors translate into better innovative performance. But despite the fact that innovative cultures are desirable and that most leaders claim to understand what they entail, they are hard to create and sustain. This is puzzling. How can practices apparently so universally loved—even fun—be so tricky to implement? The reason, I believe, is that innovative cultures are misunderstood.

The easy-to-like behaviors that get so much attention are only one side of the coin.

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They must be counterbalanced by some tougher and frankly less fun behaviors. A tolerance for failure requires an intolerance for incompetence. A willingness to experiment requires rigorous discipline. Psychological safety requires comfort with brutal candor. Collaboration must be balanced with individual accountability. And flatness requires strong leadership. Innovative cultures are paradoxical. Given that innovation involves the exploration of uncertain and unknown terrain, it is not surprising that a tolerance for failure is an important characteristic of innovative cultures.

Some of the most highly touted innovators have had their share of failures. And yet for all their focus on tolerance for failure, innovative organizations are intolerant of incompetence. They set exceptionally high performance standards for their people.

The surprising habits of original thinkers - Adam Grant

They recruit the best talent they can. Exploring risky ideas that ultimately fail is fine, but mediocre technical skills, sloppy thinking, bad work habits, and poor management are not. Steve Jobs was notorious for firing anyone he deemed not up to the task. At Amazon, employees are ranked on a forced curve, and the bottom part of the distribution is culled.

Millennial reading habits have changed the definition of a classic

It, too, has a rigorous performance management system that moves people into new roles if they are not excelling in their existing ones. At Pixar, movie directors who cannot get projects on track are replaced. It sounds obvious that companies should set high quality standards for their employees, but unfortunately all too many organizations fall short in this regard. Consider a pharmaceutical company I recently worked with. The truth is that a tolerance for failure requires having extremely competent people. Attempts to create novel technological or business models are fraught with uncertainty.

But failure can also result from poorly thought-out designs, flawed analyses, lack of transparency, and bad management.

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Google can encourage risk taking and failure because it can be confident that most Google employees are very competent. Creating a culture that simultaneously values learning through failure and outstanding performance is difficult in organizations with a history of neither. A good start is for senior leadership to articulate clearly the difference between productive and unproductive failures: Productive failures yield valuable information relative to their cost. A failure should be celebrated only if it results in learning. A simple prototype that fails to perform as expected because of a previously unknown technical issue is a failure worth celebrating if that new knowledge can be applied to future designs.

Building a culture of competence requires clearly articulating expected standards of performance. If such standards are not well understood, difficult personnel decisions can seem capricious or, worse, be misconstrued as punishment for a failure. Senior leaders and managers throughout the organization should communicate expectations clearly and regularly. Hiring standards may need to be raised, even if that temporarily slows the growth of the company. Consider how digitization has impacted the value of different skills in many industries.

In some cases, people can be retrained to develop new competences. Maintaining a healthy balance between tolerating productive failures and rooting out incompetence is not easy. A New York Times article about Amazon illustrates the difficulty. One reason striking a balance is so hard is that the causes of failure are not always clear.

And in the event of bad technical or business judgments, what are the appropriate consequences? Everyone makes mistakes, but at what point does forgiveness slide into permissiveness? And at what point does setting high performance standards devolve into being cruel or failing to treat employees—regardless of their performance—with respect and dignity?

Organizations that embrace experimentation are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. They do not pretend to know all the answers up front or to be able to analyze their way to insight. They experiment to learn rather than to produce an immediately marketable product or service. A willingness to experiment, though, does not mean working like some third-rate abstract painter who randomly throws paint at a canvas. Without discipline, almost anything can be justified as an experiment. Discipline-oriented cultures select experiments carefully on the basis of their potential learning value, and they design them rigorously to yield as much information as possible relative to the costs.

They establish clear criteria at the outset for deciding whether to move forward with, modify, or kill an idea. And they face the facts generated by experiments.

Social media is killing book reading habit!

This may mean admitting that an initial hypothesis was wrong and that a project that once seemed promising must be killed or significantly redirected. Being more disciplined about killing losing projects makes it less risky to try new things. A good example of a culture that combines a willingness to experiment with strict discipline is Flagship Pioneering, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, company whose business model is creating new ventures based on pioneering science.

Flagship generally does not solicit business plans from independent entrepreneurs but instead uses internal teams of scientists to discover new-venture opportunities. Explorations are initially unconstrained.


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All ideas—however seemingly unreasonable or far-fetched—are entertained. A willingness to experiment does not mean randomly throwing paint at a canvas. But experimentation at Flagship differs in fundamental ways from what I often see at other companies. First, Flagship does not run experiments to validate initial ideas.

Such a lean approach to testing not only enables the firm to cycle through more ideas more quickly; it also makes it psychologically easier to walk away from projects that are going nowhere. It forces teams to focus narrowly on the most critical technical uncertainties and gives them faster feedback. The philosophy is to learn what you have gotten wrong early and then move quickly in more-promising directions. Third, experimental data at Flagship is sacred.

If an experiment yields negative data about a hypothesis, teams are expected to either kill or reformulate their ideas accordingly. At Flagship, ignoring experimental data is unacceptable.

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They gain no financial benefit from sticking with a loser program. In fact, just the opposite is true. Continuing to pursue a failed program means forgoing the opportunity to join a winning one. Again, compare this model with what is common in many companies: Having your program canceled is terrible news for you personally. It could mean loss of status or perhaps even your job. Keeping your program alive is good for your career. At Flagship, starting a successful venture, not keeping your program alive, is good for your career. Disclosure: I serve on the board of a Flagship company, but the information in this example comes from a Harvard Business School case I researched and coauthored.

Disciplined experimentation is a balancing act. Demanding data to confirm or kill a hypothesis too quickly can squash the intellectual play that is necessary for creativity. It was for me, the first time I made it across the hot coals. I believe that if every human being believed fervently that flight is impossible, then the possibility of flight could never exist.


  • The Killing of Fred Hampford.
  • How Big Companies Can (and do) Innovate Like a Start-Up.
  • Junior.
  • The Sorrento Setup;
  • Add a little personal fear to the equation and suddenly major paradigms are in place that need shifting. The invention of human flight could never have happened until that first Wright brother suddenly realized it wasn't impossible. Once it's demonstrated, a cascade of related inventions will ensue.

    However, you need powerful tools to break through such rigid beliefs, to arrive at the reality that the impossible is possible This is a fascinating article. I'd quibble with the assertion that stress is critical to brain plasticity. The thought of Samsung developing a culture of crisis saddens me. Other successful companies manage to cultivate innovation with less punitive strategies. In fact, chronic stress inhibits neurogenesis. Therefore, Samsung may be building itself a future lack of innovation. Quantum computing will produce a discontinuous "super-exponential" disruption. Innohacking is a new process for generating disruptive business models.

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    • Changing Paradigms in International Adoption. Moses Ma The Tao of Innovation. Follow me on Twitter. Connect with me on LinkedIn. Innovation Loves a Crisis The innovation that saves your behind Moses, Thanks for a thought provoking article. Thanks again! Nicely weaved article Submitted by Dan Keldsen on April 30, - pm. Moses, Very interesting article, glad to have found it via stephenshapiro's tweet. I'll add what I believe is an extra thread in here. Great article - can spin out a lot from this.

      Cheers, Dan. Another great post Submitted by Kimberly Key on May 4, - am. Moses, Very timely and relevant post for our current economy! Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing with the rest of us! Submitted by Brain Training Advocate on October 31, - pm. Martin Walker www. Post Comment Your name. E-mail The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly. Notify me when new comments are posted.

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