The Real World of Innovation

The way innovation plays out in the real world is fuzzier than some books or TED talks would have us believe.

Very often the persons who suggest practical innovations are the very people who rebel against innovations being made. Nuts, but there it is. And when people unilaterally implement innovations it can make things worse, because they only see their part of an operation, not the knock-off effects down the line.

Many years ago we had a big problem where I work: increased instances of cargo shifting in heavy weather. The reason was complex. It had to do with a change in the variety of cargo we carried from Alaska to Seattle, and a relative increase in a particular type of packaging for frozen fish products. The palletized cargo trade is filled with these sort of arcane details. Change one small thing and everything changes.

A solution had to be found fast, or customers might be lost. There were theories as to the physics behind the problem, and a few possible solutions, but no concrete data. “Consultants” were useless.

The whole problem was dumped in my lap. I’m no genius. But I was smart enough to know that solutions were likely to be found by talking to our mariners and longshoremen. So I interviewed them and found they indeed had data on the physics, as well as solutions. But no one person completely understood the physics, or had all the solutions. Only when everyone had been interviewed did the complex picture reveal itself.

Once it did, a system of several different techniques was developed. New dunnage was invented. Manuals were written and distributed with a codified system which was taught to everyone. The cargo shifting problem all but disappeared overnight. After that, the very rare instances could be easily traced to someone not following the system.

So, an innovation success-story based on suggestions from ABs and mates, right?

The problem was that the very group of people who had the solutions sometimes fought against the new system. Individuals would say their own solution made sense to them, but the rest of the system was crap. A few people decided they knew a “better way” to do things. (The better way invariably required less physical effort on their part).

The fact that their 'innovation" lead to cargo damage was something they didn’t see, because they weren’t the guys who unloaded the cargo in Seattle. They didn’t have the big picture. Leading inevitably to those isolated instances of cargo shifting I mentioned.

The solution? Officers demanded things to be done by the book, all the time, period. Sound familiar? Changes are made to the system, but they aren’t made willy-nilly. There’s a time and a place for everything.

That’s the real world of innovation. No heroes and villains. Just a messy, fuzzy give-and-take.


Your story is a perfect example of piss poor leadership. " Only when everyone had been interviewed did the complex picture reveal itself." You merely interviewed everyone…you did not involve them in the problem solving process. They did not participate in the problem solving and improvement, and thus they had no personal attachment to the improvement and therefore resent change that was shoved down their throat by a paper procedure and officers’ demands.

You like to tell personal stories and extrapolate your experiences to everybody else. You can find a story for every point you want to make, no matter how irrelevant it may be in the big picture. It’s easy to point outliers out. But the world, nature, and humans all follow a bell curve.

You innovated and kept cargo from shifting. Good job. But, you failed miserably on implementation and buy in from those doing the work. There’s multiple ways to get the men to follow the procedure…you chose the whip instead of honey.

Your men didn’t have the “big picture” not because they are lazy, ignorant, dumb, uneducated. No, they didn’t have the “big picture” because the organization failed to allow them to see the big picture.

Typical Forum Logic on your part. I give a nuanced report describing the real world and the foibles of human progress. You read it and immediately stake out an extreme opinion , filled with adjectives and name calling. I’ll be the adult in the room and dial things back:

How did you know that I didn’t? You made an assumption on your part. In fact, as is done regularly in this company, emails were sent out to all crew members explaining the problem, asking for solutions, and reporting the findings to everyone as we went along devising the solution. Comments from individuals were reposted to everyone else.

That’s the common way we have at this company of solving problems in the fleet, as CTI readers of this forum well know. if i interviewed everyone face to face it would have taken months . By round-robin emailing ro everyone and making sure everyone is reading the same data it took only a few weeks.

That is, by the way, why email was invented. For researchers to work collaboratively at a distance from each other on a common problem.

It was only later used as an angertainment delivery device to turn large swaths of the public into quivering nerves of anger and resentment.

Sigh…did you read what I said? The answers came from our mariners, not me. And once implemented systematically the problem all but disappeared. Only in using Forum Logic would that be construed as failure. And only in a fantasy world are all problems conquered forever. Backsliding is the normal human condition.

Agreed. So why do you always argue the extremes? Despite all human progress ships sink in hurricanes. Planes crash. Reactors meltdown. People backslide and make mistakes. I simply admit it, and acknowledge the fact that supervisors must maintain a system, and deviations from the system aren’t generally allowed . How do you extrapolate that as:

I presume you have an SMS where you work. How many times is a third allowed to deviate from it because they had a new idea at breakfast?

None of that is mentioned or implied in my post. I was careful to note that any backsliding in implementation was done by individuals, not entire classes of workers. I was acknowledging the fact that innovation without rules can lead to consequences, From that your mind immediately took a negative extreme. Why?

Don’t like them, don’t read them. :slightly_smiling_face:


He stated in a different thread he prefers to hire inarticulate mariners so it seems to me that unsolicited feedback from the boats might not be required or desired at CTI.

On a side note, it’s an interesting structure there at that company in that the ‘new hire vetting guy’ and the ‘hey figure out this cargo stowage problem guy’ are the same guy.

You provide a good example of innovation happens at the intersection of ideas, and how network analysis can be a useful tool for understanding the phenomenon. The prevailing school of thought in innovation research is to view it as an emergent phenomenon, and there are parallels to be drawn between the interplay of individuals in an organization and the neurons in a biological brain.

You also demonstrate how employee participation plays a key role in organizational learning, which is a core concept in all areas of the field. By fostering the accretion of ideas from people at the sharp end, you shortened the path to a new organizational behavior formed by tacit knowledge of stowage procedures. This ability to respond to dynamic operating conditions has been identified as a strong indicator of long-term survival of organizations .

However, I think you underestimate the role of organizational inertia in explaining the resistance you met. Any entity is pressured by the neighboring nodes of an organizational network to persist with currently established behavior. This applies especially to management personnel who try to innovate. Ownership of an idea is one of the few forces powerful enough to break this pattern, again emphasizing the importance of broad participation for changes to take place. I’m reminded of how Mark Mallinger was frustrated in implementing TQM due to a misplaced sense of loyalty where middle management perceived that they needed to protect the organization from their bosses’ mistakes.

As for johnny two-cent’s input, it’s a fine example of bullshit. His words look like they form an argument of some sort, but on closer examination he just makes a bunch of claims without basis in the posted material, and proceeds to analyze them through a lens designed to reach hyperbolic conclusions rather than understanding.


Cool story bro. Where’d you get your MBA from? Buzzword overload. Toyota beat you to it.