Innovation and Culture: Lessons Learned from a Women's Prison

Did you know that if you combine face cream and coffee, you can make a mock-mascara?


Or that, using that same cream combined with some grape juice and a bit of the wax from the inside of the juice carton stirred well, you can make a workable lipstick?

I'll bet you didn't.  Why would you?  After all, you can just go down to your local store and buy what you need.  There's no reason to make it from scratch - and particularly not from such an odd combination of ingredients.  Not for you.

But for women in prison, this is how they create makeup.  They may be living in someone else's "house" during their incarceration - with rules that say 'no makeup allowed' - but, because they want to look and feel as good about themselves as possible, they find a way.

Even more than that, they teach each other the 'quality of life' tricks they've learned - even orienting the newbies who come in unprepared for all that this particular version of an off-site will have to offer.

Why, you may be wondering, am I telling you about makeup in women's prisons?

Because what you're looking at is, in fact, the culture you want manifest in your organization.

Take the emotion-laden part out of the story and what you see is people who:

  1. Want a particular outcome and find creative ways to make it happen,  
  2. Do so within a system that doesn't support innovation in any form, and
  3. Share it with others so that the benefit of their creativity grows exponentially.

That's what you're missing in your organization.  Those are the lost opportunities that are going on around you all the time.

Everyone likes to talk about an "innovation culture."  They (and I include myself in this) toss around examples like Google and Apple to show just how innovative an organization can be and how you can adopt and adapt their innovative techniques in your enterprise.

And that's true.

But when you take it down to its foundation, it's about the people.  Your people and the ideas they have, every day, about how to make their jobs - as well as your products and services - better.

It's also about how they 'share' those creative solutions - all without you knowing (or wanting to know).  As a result, your organization isn't benefiting in ways that build success.

I have a friend who has spent a good portion of her career trying to bring civility to women's prisons.  She talks of creating a learning environment so that the women have the opportunity to improve themselves and their lives while they're within the prison system and - particularly - when they leave.

But what she doesn't talk about - and I'm not sure she even realizes or knows - is that the women are finding their own way of doing exactly that.  By their definition.

Organizational systems are like transparent prison walls.  Employees do things a certain way because that's the way they're done.  If they're good at working within the walls, they get rewarded with promotions and bonuses.

But if they're really good at what they do, they leave an organization whose walls are just that bit too confining.  Because what they know is, there's another entity out there whose walls are either more permeable or wider than the ones from which they just came - and that those organizations want them.  A lot.

The lesson learned for you is to recognize that you have people - your people - who are finding and sharing wonderfully creative and innovative ideas and successes every day...all within your walls.

Your job - now and on an ongoing basis - is to find those people and support them while determining where you have built your transparent prison and taking action to tear it down.  By doing so, you free everyone from those walls, leaving all your stakeholders with unlimited access to all that creativity and success.  Every day.