Opinions are not Data

753DFB80-244E-4B68-8539-990F5ADBE853People have a lot of opinions when you start or expand a school.  Ken Robinson, in his very popular TED Talk, says that people are bored when you discuss education, but are completely engaged when you ask them about their own education.  The strong feelings people have about how they were educated color the opinions and advice they have for a newly expanding school.

In the corporate world, senior leaders are often extremely passionate about an idea they have or feel strongly that a particular direction will never work.  Many times, the HiPPo, or “highest paid person” in the room states an opinion or throws out an idea, and everyone on the team picks it up and runs with it without considering a few very important questions:  “How do we know they are right?  Are they right for THIS situation?  Are they right in THIS time?”

I’ll share 3 examples of what we heard at the school and talk about how we withheld judgement until we had data in hand.

  • “The community really needs a new girl’s school.” – Our community has a number of single-gender parochial schools and at our very first meeting to discuss expansion, several people shared the word on the street.  In this case, the street had it wrong. Rather than committing to a path before the data was in, we opened up registration to find that the boys’ class was filling even faster than the girls’.
  • “The community will only support mainstream schools.” – We felt strongly about offering the first strict Montessori elementary program in our very conservative community. We had watched other new schools begin with innovative ideals but ultimately shift to “more of the same” before they enrolled students.  We suspected that these decisions were based on fear and hearsay rather than data, so we arranged an informational dinner for interested parents to see what type of response we got when we let our freak flag fly.  We hoped for 30 attendees, but ended up hosting 100 engaged parents who only stopped asking questions when the restaurant owner turned off the lights at 10:30pm.  And the applications started pouring in.
  • ”No one will drive that far for a school.” – Over 2 years, we grew from 16 pre-schoolers in a basement to 90 students from pre-school to 3rd grade. We planned to continue through high school, so it was important to find a space where the school could grow. When we found the perfect space at the right price, it was almost 20 minutes away from the community. There were many closer educational options, but we hoped we were strongly differentiated from the competition so that people would still choose our school in spite of the distance.  Before we signed the lease, we ran a test to find out. We told our existing and incoming parent body about the new location, emphasizing the gorgeousness of the building, classrooms and playground to see if we would lose families because of the distance.  We did not AND many families with kids in both pre-school and elementary signed up for late stay for their little ones to give them a single pick-up time, providing an unexpected revenue stream that paid for cool programs like music, yoga and martial arts during the school year.

Whether you’re part of a start-up or a multi-national corporation, you will be tempted to accept opinions from the powerful or confident, but pump the brakes and create an experiment to test the assumptions instead. There’s no downside to validating an opinion with data and you may avoid a business-breaking mistake.


5 ways Corporate Innovation is like Everest

“I think Everest is a magical mountain with magnetic qualities,” said Alan Arnette, Montaineer & respected Everest blogger. “It’s like a light to bugs that attracts people once they hear about it.”

This sentiment will have a familiar ring to anyone who has spoken with a senior executive about making their large company more successfully innovative and seen the gleam in their eyes.  Just as many mountain climbers are drawn to the glory and reward of a successful Everest ascent, an increasing number of corporate executives recognize the need to evolve their organizations and position them for continued growth and adaptability in an ever-changing world.  Successfully pulling off this difficult feat would solidly establish their leadership legacy.

But the journey to a successful Everest ascent is filled with discomfort and danger, as is the corporate innovation journey.  As corporate innovators, we can learn from the Everest experience.  Here are five ways corporate innovation is similar to climbing Mt. Everest.

1) Investment – A trip for one person up Mt. Everest can cost over $100K.  Corporations also need to invest in their innovation efforts.  The outlays can be big or small.  You might need to invest in or acquire a promising start-up to push your business forward.  Or you might want to inspire your employees to create the next big thing.  Adobe created a DIY innovation platform for their employees that gives intrapreneurs a $1K, no-questions-asked gift card to experiment with their ideas.

2) Commitment – Aspring Everest climbers get themselves into peak physical and mental condition before embarking on the dangerous journey.  Corporate leaders who want to successfully transform their organizations need to transform themselves first.  Traditionally, senior leaders create a vision, dictate the actions that will achieve the vision and rely on their teams to execute.  Corporate culture isn’t usually intentional, but a by-product of personalities and path. But the most senior job in a successfully innovative organization is different. Ed Catmull, co-founder and President of Pixar Animation said, “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture – one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable they became – wasn’t a singular assignment.  It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job.”  It starts with the most senior leaders role modeling the behaviors they want to see .

3) Balance your risk – Everest climbers have evaluated the risk vs. reward equation and feel that they can overcome the risks, most often with experience and careful preparation.  Several years ago, I saw a TED-type talk about risk where a guy who jumped off cliffs for Red Bull explained that he didn’t see his job as risky. I thought he was insane, but he felt that he took the appropriate precautions to de-risk his job.  Corporate Innovation is risky.  Just like the most popular paths on Everest can be littered with the frozen bodies of those who didn’t make it, many of us can think of our own innovation graveyard or a visible casualty from another organization. Google Glass, anyone?  So how do you protect yourself against the very present risks?

4) Preparation – Some climbers prepare for their Everest ascent by climbing 7 lesser, but still challenging peaks, so they better understand the type of terrain they’ll be facing.  By climbing those mountains, they learn how to strategize and troubleshoot in (slightly) less dangerous environments.  In the corporate world, it is also important to understand the terrain you’ll be facing.  Here are a few key questions to think about before you dive in (but there are many more):  What types of innovation are you going to pursue?  Moonshots or creative, but incremental improvements to what you already do?  What difficulties have innovation attempts in your company had previously? What will success look like and how long do you have to get there? Who do you absolutely need on your side and what will be required to recruit them?


5) Experience & Best Practices – There are many paths up Mt. Everest, but most people (and the successful ones) select from the paths that have been successful for others.  If you are climbing Mt. Everest, you are probably going to start your climb from the Base Camps that have already been established.  Everest’s governing body also requires that climbers hire a Sherpa, an experienced guide, to lead the climbing party. The stakes are so high and the path so treacherous at the best of times, that best practices are crucial for success.  It is not unusual to see people new to corporate innovation balk at the constraints of design thinking, Lean Start-Up or Agile processes.  “Isn’t innovation about creativity?”, they ask.  Yes, that is a part of it.  But like the ascent up Mt. Everest, it’s also about survival.  Success in the corporate innovation world means taking the most direct path to create value for your organization.  Start your climb from base camp.  And hire a Sherpa.

Debbie Schwartz is the Head Sherpa at Blank Page Advisory, a innovation strategy consultancy that helps organizations navigate corporate innovation.