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.

On Risk, Innovation and Aspiration

Besides everything else I do, I write for Horticulture Week and Garden Retail - both UK specialty trade publications for their sector.

I love writing for these guys.  The editors, Kate Lowe and Matthew Appleby, respectively, are not only great but they're risk takers.  After all, they asked me to write for them and I'm far removed from their sector and their country, for that matter.  (The writers and staff are great, too!)

Yet the issues are the same - especially when it comes to innovation and aspiration and risk.  That's why the blog post I wrote for them today on the Garden Retail Awards I judged was particularly happy-making.

I thought I'd share, so here it is!

Garden Retail Awards - It Was a Good Year!

Each year, I wait with trepidation to find out if Matthew Appleby is going to invite me to be a judge for the Garden Retail Awards.

The reason for my trepidation is two-fold.  First, I really want to be asked.  It's a great opportunity for me to see what all of you are doing out there and, particularly, how you are defining everything from "innovation" to "quality" to "best of breed."  And when the applications are good, I get to simply beam for you guys for doing what you need to do to change your world.

The second reason isn't as happy-making.  That's because for the past couple of years I've been disappointed - particularly in the levels of innovation risk - that I've seen in the applications.  There wasn't a whole lot of big idea/big concept world changing going on.  At least not driving the industry forward from within.  Or at least not based on the applications I was reading.

Some of you, at this point, are going to be very angry with me.  You'll say that I'm an outsider and that I don't understand what it means or what it takes to succeed in your market.  You'll accuse me of being an American - and, even worse, from the Silicon Valley - which gives me unrealistic expectations anyway.

And you may be correct - because all of that is true.  At least the part right up to the unrealistic expectations.  Because what I know - and what I've been writing you guys about for years - is that you can do far more than you believe you can do.

As well, it's not that there isn't good, innovative work being done in the industry.  There is.  It's just that, for a few years there, the moves were all incremental.  Way incremental.  Baby steps.  Miniscule.  Teeny-weeny.

And that being said, for those who were taking those steps I know they didn't feel that way - which is why I give great credit to those who try and risk and aspire.

Now some of you will say that in these tight economic times - particularly when we were in the early stages of the downturn and no one knew what was going to happen next - it made perfect sense not to be too different.  To try too hard.  To extend too far.

And that's okay as far as it goes.  Except the risk you run in those cases is that someone out there is willing to take those risks and do the things to which everyone else is saying, "oh no - not now - maybe later."  Only by the time "later" comes along, those who didn't push and innovate and aspire are playing a game of catch-up - which is much harder to win.

That's why I was so happy and excited - application after application - to read about what many of you in the industry have done in this past year.   

Somewhere along the way, in the categories I was judging, you guys got past the fear and took some really creative, far-seeing steps - all of which have netted you excellent results.

I'm proud of you guys.  All of you.  Those who aspire and those who are still afraid - because simply by being in the business you're in, working within the regulatory and competitive confines within which you work, you're still brave.

But when you attend the awards dinner on the 31st October and, particularly, read up on what the winners did to deserve their award, think about what you're doing now and next and learn from this year's crop of winners.  Then, next year, show the industry what you've got.

And, if Matthew invites me again, I'll be there cheering you on.