InnoChat with Stephan K. Thieringer
by Daniel Klein
August 20th, 2017
I met Stephan Thieringer in a Japanese restaurant near his office. After we ordered our food, I took out my tape recorder and started picking his brain about Innovation Culture. Stephan was quick to clarify:
“When we talk about innovation culture, we’re really talking about two, three, four different things or more. Obviously, there is the basic level — what innovation is, what invention is, why am I allowed to do it, that sort of thing.
The other side is the cultural side, which quickly becomes extraordinarily complicated. We’re not just talking about the normal hierarchical work culture, we’re also talking about the culture within the company or organization, as well as the surrounding culture. Each person brings their own background, and the culture in the United States is very different than the culture in Europe or the culture in China. And in all these different places, innovation is handled very, very differently, because the work culture is handled differently. So, part of the challenge of having a global culture is finding a way to make adequate room for these very different work expectations.”
“Break that down a bit more, what is innovation,” I asked, “and what do you mean when you say: ‘am I allowed to innovate’?” It’s not always easy for me to follow Stephan when he’s excited; he thinks much faster than he talks, and he talks a mile a minute, which sometimes leaves me scrambling when trying to catch up to his next idea. Fortunately, he’s patient enough to circle back when I get stuck.
“Innovation, to me, is very simple. Imagine going through your day, from the moment you wake up, to the moment you go to sleep. There’s observations you make, interactions you have, things you see that work for you or don’t work for you. And underlying all of it is that question rolling around in the back of your mind: ‘what could serve me better?’ Because that’s the cause, that’s the jumping off point, that’s where innovation starts. Innovation isn’t just inventing new things, innovation is about looking at the things that are around us and changing them. Maybe you’re realigning them in a way that makes more sense to you, maybe you’re doing it to help a group, maybe it’s something that fits into your culture — that’s all innovation is.”
He pauses, taking a sip of water before continuing.
“And sometimes, only in our minds, but sometimes, we have this barrier, this limiting belief that makes us think that I can’t innovate because I’m not smart enough, I’m not an MIT grad, I’m not an engineer, I’m not creative enough, whatever. That is just not the case. Little children create and innovate all the time, they’re the world’s most uninhibited innovators by far. That’s because they haven’t learned these arbitrary restrictions yet, they just do what is instinctual. The key is transferring this kind of mindfulness into corporate culture, to make it an innovation culture.”
Just then, the first appetizer arrived. Soft grilled corn in some sort of sweet and spicy sauce. My mouth watered, and remembering it is making my mouth water even as I write this.
I quickly asked a follow-up question, something like “what stops us from innovating, and how do we get that culture into the workplace?”, before hungrily tearing into the corn. Stephan replied:
“What stops it is ourselves, it’s us not having the confidence to…”
He paused for a moment, to gather his thoughts.
“Society has trained us to limit the thoughts we may recognize, so it is sometimes difficult to recognize when our day-to-day observations are something of significance. What I mean is, when we see something and think ‘oh wow, I can do this better’, we often dismiss it because of any number of reasons. The key is mindfulness, after all, people have these kinds of thoughts every day, and whenever new products are brought out onto the marketplace.
Obviously, a lot of the impetus and drive behind innovating in the commercial spaces is to make money. So, when companies go to innovation labs and say: ‘ok the five of you guys, go in there and start figuring out what we can bring to the table’, it’s often a very exploratory process. But bringing the innovation from the incubating culture to the production culture such that it becomes part of the culture of the company, that’s hard. Innovation needs support from the top, people need permission to fail, permission to have trial and error, and the permission to work on assumptions. You need the freedom to ask whether this new idea is right or wrong, good or bad, and then to try and find out whether it works or not. Not every idea is great, but if you’ll never find the good ones if you don’t give yourself the chance. Are you following me?”
I nodded. “I’m just a little confused, because in that case anyone would innovate if they had the freedom to do so, but clearly it’s not quite so easy for a lot of people. What else is stopping them, there’s got to be other factors, right?”
“Yes, but it’s a lot of things. Sometimes it’s the environment, sometimes it’s the workload, sometimes it’s the culture. I’ve talked about Seth Godin’s Tribes before, but there are a lot of sheepwalkers, a lot of people who just follow directions and want to follow directions. There is a certain security there, where people think that if they just -“
“Here’s the Tamago and the Salmon,” the waiter says, pointing at a few of the nigiri pieces on the tray as he sets it down. Stephan thanks him and continues as I pour us soy sauce.
“…There’s a certain safety and security there, where we don’t have to worry about getting into territory where we may or may not fail. But innovation is about taking chances, and people need to be free to take them. In many ways, it goes back to the culture. It’s easy to get boxed in by expectations, both social and otherwise. Certainly, there are performance metrics that are important from a corporate standpoint that are extremely stifling to innovation. So, it’s critical to find a balance between doing the things that need to be done today, and doing the innovation and out-of-the-box thinking necessary to set yourself up for the future.”
He reaches for a piece of sushi, and we focus on eating our lunch.
If innovation is having the freedom to look at the world and think of the ways it could be changed, then the only innovating I did that day was putting food into my mouth. In a corporate environment, though, it’s clear that a little bit of extra freedom can go a long way to transforming the culture.