From Bath Towel to Bonanza (Part Two)...or How Companies Put Themselves Out of Business Every Day

Innovation, Culture and Impact, Executive DevelopmentLeslie L KossoffComment

Whenever I think about innovation, I also think about how much innovation potential and opportunity is lost. That’s when I get sad:

  • Sad for the people who had and have great ideas.
  • Sad for the people who want to make a difference in their jobs, their companies, their lives and the lives of others.
  • Sad for the organizations that miss out on the momentous opportunities being handed to them…at no cost…every day.
  • Sad for the customers who have to wait for - or never experience - the benefit of the beautiful thinking that someone did.

Where does all this sadness come from?

It comes from the fact that organizations - institutionally and in individual management - aren’t geared to listening, learning and then acting on what they’ve learned. Their orientation is to show results. Now.

Even more specifically, they’re expected to show results for what they’re being measured on now. Not on some possibility in the future - no matter how great an idea it may be.

Unfortunately, listening and learning don’t show immediate results - which makes innovative ideas that are brought forward interesting but not compelling. A ‘nice to have,’ but not a ‘need to have.’ Something for another day. If ever.

This, by the way, is also why most executives don’t give themselves time to simply think. Not do. Just think. Unfortunately, very few organizations have KPI or other measures for thinking time. 

But I digress. (We’ll talk about this later.)

Let’s get back to bath towels and our friend, Joe.

As you may recall, I presented my version of the innovation story of the bathmat. (That’s where Joe comes in.) You’ll also recall that, in today’s market, there is a minimum 800% premium on the cost of a bathmat over the cost of a bath towel…both of which can be used for the same purpose - but aren’t.

When we left off, Joe had just told his manager about his great idea. So, let’s pick up the story from there. And, fair warning, we’re following the far more common, far sadder version - because it’s also far more true….

After hearing Joe out, his manager said, “That’s great, Joe, but I have a meeting right now. Let’s get together later and talk about it.”

The days went by and Joe kept thinking that his manager would come to him at a convenient time for them to talk. Then, when that didn’t happen, Joe decided to take advantage of his boss’ “Open Door” policy…something he’d never done before.

He knocked, stuck his head in, saw his boss looking over stacks of papers on his desk and said, “I hope I’m not interrupting, boss. I wanted to take you up on talking more about my idea for bathmats.”

“Sure, Joe” his boss said. “Come on in.”

After all, what could the boss do? The Open Door policy was a mandate from the C-Suite. (Something to do with ‘culture….’) 

In preparation for when they would meet, Joe had used the time since they first talked to come up with some figures on costs and ROI as well as ideas for how to implement his idea. He gave his boss his overview sheet and then took him through the idea in greater detail.

The manager was quiet throughout and, to Joe’s thinking, listened politely…while, in fact, he was running production numbers through his head, trying to figure out how he was going to present a not-as-good budget picture as his boss would like at the next staff meeting and what he could do to make it up to his wife that he forgot their anniversary.

When Joe was finished, his boss said, “You know, Joe, that really is an interesting idea. Let me review your numbers, do some more thinking about it and ask a few people some questions and I’ll get back to you. This was great. Really. Thanks!”

And that, dear reader, is the end of the story…at least for Joe’s company. Because, as was to be expected, the manager never did any more thinking about it, never asked any others any questions about it and, definitely, never got back to Joe.

So what happened to the idea? And Joe?

That’s the happy part of the story…at least for the idea and Joe. Because Joe was so frustrated with the lack of response that he told the story to some friends of his outside of work, who talked with some other folks they knew about this really great idea Joe had had…and Joe got a new job with a company that was VERY interested in what Joe had to say - about bathmats and any other ideas that occurred to him.

That’s why they gave him a position in R&D.

As for Joe’s old company? Oh, they went out of business. You see, they missed out on the 800%  profit differential bonanza that the bathmat brought to their competitor and lost their market altogether.

Exactly as they deserved.

Were this today, Joe would have gotten together a few friends, crowdfunded some seed money, figured out the best place to offshore production, set up a website and, eventually, been acquired by Amazon.

And his old employer would still have gone out of business.

Get my drift?

Unless and until your organization…and, particularly, your management group…is designed to listen, learn - and act - you’re putting your business at risk every day.

The higher up in the organization you are, the broader your vision for what your company can do. Chances are, there are people throughout your enterprise - no matter how large or small - who see what you do and want to make it work…almost as much as you.

I think we can all agree it’s past-time to find out what they have to say.


The Steve Jobs Series: Innovation

Make a Visible Difference: New Idea Development and Deployment in Three Steps

Deploying Vision

Coaching Your Organization to a Culture of Success