In Which I Try a Bunch of Ideas
My first job when we moved to New Zealand was a 12 month contract. I was filling in for a woman on maternity leave, and I knew that if I wanted to work at the local polytechnic for more than 12 months, I had to have an impact fast. I was managing the student recruitment section, and the management wanted us to increase enrolments by as much as possible. In addition to the limited time, I had another constraint – even though our section’s budget was more than $1.5 million, I couldn’t sign off on anything myself. Any expenditure had to be approved by my manager.
I did the first thing I always do when faced with a new challenge: I started reading. As Valeria Maltoni reminded me recently, books change lives. In the first two weeks on the job, I did a lot of managing by walking around, and I re-read Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters. Based on this, I did a lot of thinking, and I made a list of 48 things I could try in the 12 months that I had.
And in that time, I ended up trying 44 of them.
They didn’t all work. But a lot of them did. Here is an example of one of the experiments:
One of my teams handled enquiries about classes – both walk-ins and phone calls. After watching them for a week and talking with them, we agreed that they were understaffed. Walk-ins were about twice as likely to apply for a course as phone calls. But one big problem is that the team had to interrupt face-to-face talks to answer the phone.
I asked them to use very simple logs like this one to track how many people they were interacting with. After two weeks, we had enough data to demonstrate to my manager that we needed another person in the Info Centre.
Overall, all the stuff that we tried ended up increasing enrolments by more than 10%. That’s a better than $2 million return on trying 44 experiments that cost nothing.
More importantly, we learned a lot. By collecting data on all of the ideas, we learned a lot about how the student recruitment process really worked. This meant that our decision-making became much more data driven. And by working together on the ideas, my teams and I built a lot of trust.
After all of that, I did end up with a permanent job at the polytech – and I could even sign for my own budget!
There are several innovation lessons in this story:
- You don’t need permission to innovate. All of those 44 ideas were cheap, and they fell within my scope of control as a manager. So we just did them. I had asked permission, the answer probably would have been “no.” Once we had a track record of results, the our scope of control expanded.
- Experiments drive change. We needed to increase enrolments, but we didn’t have the resources to make a big bet. So we made a lot of small ones instead. Once we got into the habit, my teams started to test their own experiments as well. Experimenting is the best way to build an innovation culture.
- The biggest innovations are often ideas. The idea with the biggest impact was deceptively simple. We started finishing every single enquiry by asking the person “would you like to put in an application for the course?” The innovation here was changing the way the Info Team viewed their roles. Originally, they thought their job was to provide information. This question came from thinking about the job as helping people achieve their goals through education. That was a huge innovation.
People often focus on the constraints that make it hard to innovate. But if I hadn’t had the budget constraint, I’m not sure that I would have approached that job as creatively as I did. It was the constraints that created the innovation opportunity.
Ideas Change Lives
The bigger lesson here is that ideas change lives. Reconceptualising the role of the Info Team ended up having an impact on all of the people that went into a higher education program that they might not have otherwise.
And Thriving on Chaos changed my life. I had a fair bit of management experience before this job, but this is the one where I really learned how to manage. I had built my people skills on previous jobs, and that was crucial. But this is where I learned how to convert ideas into action. One of Peters’ favourite innovation quotes is from Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest Airlines:
We have a ‘strategic plan.’ It’s called doing things.
Here’s another one from Peters – quoting John Masters, a gas and oil wildcatter:
This is so simple it sounds stupid, but it is amazing how few oil people really understand that you only find oil if you drill wells. You may think you’re finding it when you’re drawing maps and studying logs, but you have to drill.
That’s the big idea I got from Tom Peters, and acting on it made me a much better manager. This was where I developed many of my core ideas about how to innovate.
This is important for one more reason. In the social era, language is a critical source of competitive advantage. Talk is the technology of leadership – and this means that there is a huge innovation opportunity in language.
Read, write, talk – and work on improving on all three skills. Ideas change lives – we need to get better at working with them.