Tag: innovation

The Beauty of Small Meetings

Good day, team.

This week’s challenge comes from an interview I read in The New York Times business section with Paul English, the co-founder and chief technology officer at Kayak. Conducted by Adam Bryant, the interview, titled “Ten People in a Meeting Is About Seven Too Many,” reveals why English believes that any more than three people in a meeting actually stifles creativity rather than enhances it.

Here are a couple excerpts from the interview that stood out to me:

“[At Kayak,] we’re known for having very small meetings, usually three people. There’s a little clicker for counting people that hangs on the main conference room door. The reason it’s there is to send a message to people that I care about this issue. If there’s a bunch of people in the room, I’ll stick my head in and say, “It takes 10 of you to decide this? There aren’t three of you smart enough to do this?

“I just hate design by consensus. No innovation happens with 10 people in a room. It’s very easy to be a critic and say why something won’t work. I don’t want that because new ideas are like these little precious things that can die very easily. Two or three people will nurture them and make them stronger, give them a chance to see life.”

Reading the interview made me think of the times I’ve worked on teams that came up with great ideas which eventually turned into a product or innovation. I can count on one hand the number of times this happened, and when it did, it was always a small team of people. We often felt like we had to keep our little project a secret — we referred to it as “skunk works” because we knew if too many people found out about it, they would tell us to stop working on it and do our regular jobs. I recall working for a high-tech startup that had grown from 12 people to 1,200 in four years. Once it got to more than 50 people, suddenly meetings became laborious. It took much longer to hear everyone’s opinions on projects, and a lot of the discussions didn’t lead to any result. It seemed to me that people went from being creative and focused to argumentative and confused. Everyone talked about the need for people to be more cooperative, but the more people who were added, the less cooperation occurred.

I’ve had an opportunity to work with many software engineers over the years, and I’m always curious about what type of environment they feel fosters creativity and innovation. When I was recruiting, I would ask them what kind of team atmosphere they enjoyed working in. Without fail, they would always tell me that smaller, more flexible teams were their favorites. They wanted to work in an environment where others encouraged them to experiment and test their ideas. One engineer told me, “I’m a geek, for sure, and my idea of the best place to work is a place where geeks are encouraged to be as geeky as possible. That is, take your creative ideas and see if you can make them work to enhance our product or design. Don’t get bogged down by having to follow processes or procedures — be hyperproductive and don’t be afraid to try things.”

In The New York Times interview, English went on to say the following:

“We’re a bit reckless in our decision-making — not with the business, but the point is that we try things. We give even junior people scary amounts of power to come up with ideas and implement them. We had an intern last summer who, on his very first day at Kayak, came up with an idea, wrote the code and released it. It may or may not have been successful, but it almost doesn’t matter, because it showed that we value speed, and we value testing ideas, not talking about them.

“It’s all about fast iteration. When you push down decisions and you don’t require people to write up plans and do designs by consensus, enormous amounts of work disappear. We cut out all the middle layers and let the designers talk to the customers. Otherwise, something gets lost in the translation with a lot of layers.”

I believe that different meetings serve various purposes. I agree with English when it comes to design and the exchange of creative ideas — smaller teams get more done. However, if you’re holding a meeting to deliver information about your company or about an issue that effects larger teams, then a larger meeting makes more sense. Know what your intention is for a meeting. Is it to get a better design or is it to communicate information out to a larger audience? Maybe you need to include all the relevant stakeholders, even those who are not necessarily touched directly by the project. Making a clear distinction about what you’re trying to achieve in a meeting — or setting an intention — helps to determine who needs to attend.

All too often I hear people say, “I can’t believe they didn’t include me in that meeting!” However, upon further reflection, people often realize that they actually didn’t need to be there and that an e-mail update about the meeting is enough. Understanding what role you play on a team and the importance of your participation is the sign of a mature person who doesn’t think they’re so special that they need to be in all the meetings.

This week, see if your meetings are actually producing the kinds of results that will move your company forward. Are people spending way too much time talking about things and ideas but never actually delivering anything? What about your most creative and innovative people? Are you encouraging them to test their ideas? Or are you extinguishing their creativity by telling them all the reasons their ideas won’t work? Are you piling on too many processes that weigh down their desire and commitment to create something new and exciting? Are your intentions and expectations about meetings clear to everyone? If you want people to come together to exchange ideas, state that up front. Also, don’t add people into a meeting just because you’re afraid they’ll feel slighted if you leave them out. Do they actually have a significant role to play in the outcome of the meeting?

What about the amount of time it takes your company to go from an initial design concept to the actual delivery of a product? Does it take weeks, months or maybe even years? Do you see your competitors whizzing by you at lightening speed as you sit in meetings talking about how to get things done?

Try encouraging your most creative people to meet up with just a few others who can help put their ideas into action. Encourage more agile ways for people to work together in smaller pods of people that can stay focused on a few things that excite them. If you have a larger team of managers who normally all meet together, try splitting them up into groups of three or four. Give them a subject to talk about or a problem to solve and then bring the groups back together to share their ideas. Run a contest between groups or encourage managers to ask their people to take a day to focus exclusively on their innovative ideas.

Think of ways your meetings can be a more positive experience for team members. Large, lengthy meetings are not fun, and they are often boring. People don’t tap into their creative spirits when they are bored and not having fun. No one wants their job to be a drag, and subjecting people to hour after hour of meetings only encourages them to stop paying attention. This week, try coming up with creative ways for your people to meet and exchange ideas. It may actually increase your company’s productivity, your people’s innovation and everyone’s ability to have more fun!

Have a good week!


© Copyright 2013 Pathfinders Coaching, Scout Search Inc., all rights reserved.

6/17/12 “The Creative Monopoly”

Good day, team.

A few months ago, David Brooks wrote a very interesting article for the New York Times, “The Creative Monopoly.” For today’s challenge, I’d like to share a few paragraphs from that article in which he writes about the differences between competition and capitalism and how we often confuse the two.

“As a young man, Peter Thiel competed to get into Stanford. Then he competed to get into Stanford Law School. Then he competed to become a clerk for a federal judge. Thiel won all those competitions. But then he competed to get a Supreme Court clerkship.

Thiel lost that one. So, instead of being a clerk, he went out and founded PayPal. Then he became an early investor in Facebook and many other celebrated technology firms. Somebody later asked him, ‘So, aren’t you glad you didn’t get that Supreme Court clerkship?’

The question got Thiel thinking. His thoughts are now incorporated into a course he is teaching in the Stanford Computer Science Department. One of his core points is that we tend to confuse capitalism with competition. We tend to think that whoever competes best comes out ahead. In the race to be more competitive, we sometimes confuse what is hard with what is valuable. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value.

In fact, Thiel argues, we often shouldn’t seek to be really good competitors. We should seek to be really good monopolists. Instead of being slightly better than everybody else in a crowded and established field, it’s often more valuable to create a new market and totally dominate it. The profit margins are much bigger, and the value to society is often bigger too.

Now to be clear, when Thiel is talking about a ‘monopoly,’ he isn’t talking about the illegal eliminate-your-rivals kind. He’s talking about doing something so creative that you establish a distinct market, niche and identity. You’ve established a creative monopoly, and everybody has to come to you if they want that service, at least for a time.”

His lecture points to a provocative possibility: that the competitive spirit capitalism engenders can sometimes inhibit the creativity it requires.

Think about the traits that creative people possess. They don’t follow the crowds; they seek out the blank spots on the map. Creative people wander through faraway and forgotten traditions and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows.

Now think about competitive environments that confront the most fortunate people today and how it undermines the creative mind-sets.

First, students have to jump through ever-more-demanding, preassigned academic hoops. Instead of developing a passion for one subject, they’re rewarded for becoming professional students, getting better grades across all subjects regardless of their intrinsic interests. Instead of wandering across strange domains, they have to prudentially apportion their time, making productive use of each hour.

Then they move into a ranking system in which the most competitive college, program and employment opportunity is deemed to be the best. There is a status funnel pointing to the most competitive colleges and banks and companies, regardless of their appropriateness.

Then they move into businesses in which the main point is to beat the competition, in which the competitive juices take control and gradually obliterate others goals. … Competition [trumps] value-creation. In this and other ways, the competitive arena undermines innovation.”

All of this got me thinking about the importance of not worrying about what the other guy is doing, but instead, using that energy to create something new or a niche in your market that no one else has inhabited yet.

I am reminded of my first job working for MCI in Washington, D.C. At that time, AT&T had the monopoly on all phone service in the U.S. It also owned the company that made the telephones. Jack Goeken, the founder and Bill McGowan, the CEO of MCI, intended to create a microwave phone service for trucking companies between St. Louis and Chicago so the truckers could communicate far more effectively for a fraction of the cost. Everyone thought they were crazy. No one in the U.S. other than AT&T, was in the phone business. When MCI’s telecommunications system was finally up and running, the Wall Street Journal interviewed Bill and asked him how he could possibly think he could compete with AT&T. His response was, “I’m not competing with AT&T. I’m creating a completely different kind of telecommunications service, of which, in 10 years, MCI will only be one of many players.”

How prophetic his comments were. I remember that our mantra at MCI wasn’t, “We’re going to beat AT&T;” it was, “We’re creating a brand new way to communicate.” The latter statement was much more motivating for us.

This week, ask yourself if you’re competing or creating. Are you spending more time thinking about how to beat out your co-workers for the next promotion or creating new and different ways to work with your fellow team members? Maybe you’re thinking of creating something in your life that has nothing to do with your job. How about finding ways to nurture that creativity by spending time coming up with new ideas?

Maybe your job is to study what the competition is doing to give you an advantage. How about thinking about what your competition is not doing? Is there space in your market to create a niche no one else has thought of yet? Some companies have “idea rooms” where employees can go to for a week and do nothing but draw, paint, write and so on to come up with new product ideas, creative organizational structures and innovative services. How about giving yourself free license to spend time creating something new?

As Brooks writes in his article,

“We live in a culture that nurtures competitive skills. And they are necessary: discipline, rigor and reliability. But it’s probably a good idea to try to supplement them with the skills of the creative monopolist: alertness, independence and the ability to reclaim forgotten traditions.”

Have a good week!


Kathleen Doyle-White

Pathfinders Coaching

(503) 296-9249

© Copyright 2012 Pathfinders Coaching, Scout Search Inc., all rights reserved.

1/15/12 “Modern Thinking”

Good day, team.

This week’s challenge is about the struggle to stay current as we get older. A recent experience illustrates my point.

My office exists above a successful bakery and coffee shop in NE Portland. Needless to say, the early morning aromas of fresh-brewed coffee, muffins and bacon, wafting from the first floor to the second, present strong temptations.

Until recently, I occupied the largest office at the front of the building in of a suite of five. When you live in Portland, getting any kind of light into an office space, especially during the gloomy grey days of winter, is a luxury. I rented that particular office because it had an entire wall of windows facing south.

This past year, three fellows moved into the smallest office in the back. They had recently left their employment with a successful company to create their own startup. I could feel their excitement about their new venture, and everyone in our suite of offices encouraged them in their efforts. After almost a year of presenting their ideas to venture capitalists (a grueling process at best), they received a considerable amount of funding for their startup. The money arrived the second week of December — what a great holiday gift and a terrific way to start the new year!

Along with the funding, however, came the realization that they would now need to hire more people and expand. They were already crammed into the small office in back and began to look at office space in other locations. If you’ve ever shared office space, you know how rare it is to find people who all get along, and none of us wanted our startup guys to leave. So I decided to sacrifice my large office with all the light and proposed that we switch places. The startup guys thought this was a great idea, and when we all returned from the holidays, we commenced the move.

Fortunately for me, these three, young guys helped move me out of my office. After moving all of my furniture, books, rugs and other supplies into our shared reception area, I looked at it all and wondered how one woman could accumulate so much stuff in a year’s time (perhaps fodder for a future challenge). As I stood there, one of our other suite mates commented as he walked by, “Geez, it looks like an antique shop!” I was devastated! Was all my stuff so conservative and old-looking that someone would make such an observation? I looked at everyone else’s office décor. One could only describe it as somewhere between contemporary garage sale finds and IKEA. My Oriental rug, mission-style desk and comfy chairs looked ancient in comparison. I wondered, “Are my office belongings a reflection of my antiquated thinking? Have I reached an age where my thoughts and attitudes, which I often don’t question, reflect my age and many years of business experience rather than being particularly relevant to the present modern times?”

A few days later, in talking with my landlord about moving my landline from my old office to the new, he asked me why I even had a landline. “Don’t you use your cellphone most of the time anyway?” I had to admit that I did. There it was again. Had I become such a fuddy-duddy that I hadn’t even thought about why I had a landline? In my world, if you have an office, you have to have a landline. “But Dan,” I said, “I’ve had that phone number for 14 years!” “Well, that’s not a problem,” he replied. “Your cellphone company can simply port the number to your cellphone. The real question is, why do you even need that number anymore?” As I considered this, I realized I was actually attached to my phone number. Like having a pet for 15 years, I had grown an emotional attachment to a set of numbers!

Whether or not I get rid of my landline is not the point, but how I use my landline and whether or not that’s still relevant for my business is what’s most important. This means I need to change my thinking from “That’s the way I’ve always done it” to “Is this the best use of technology for my business?”

These thoughts caused me to make a resolution for 2012. This year, I will try not to assume that just because something was true before, it’s true now. There’s a lot to be said for practical experience, and I’m sure many of the solutions I recommend to my clients are still sound and work well. But I’ve resolved to question my thinking more often and to try new things. Part of the benefits of sharing office space with young people involved in a startup is that I get to witness how flexible they are in their thinking. They come to the venture with very few preconceived notions, and they’re not afraid to explore new territory. In fact, their new company is based on just that, a brand new set of ideas and possibilities.

This week, try experimenting with your thinking. Don’t be afraid to question your assumptions and talk about new ideas with your staff or business partners. Maybe you’ll reconsider some of the processes you’ve had in place for a number of years and change them or maybe even eliminate them altogether. Try asking yourself “Why?” rather than “How?” when it comes to the way you do things. You might even create a new meeting each month for the sole purpose of generating new and creative ideas. Ask people to come to the meeting with the attitude that the sky is the limit and that no ideas, thoughts or questions are stupid or inappropriate.

With the passing of Steve Jobs last year, I realized how much this man changed my life because he wasn’t afraid to think out of the box. He thrived on new ideas, creative solutions and that wonderful energy that comes from successfully doing something no one has ever done before. As he said, “Innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem.”

This week, consider thinking and acting in new ways. As this quote from author and inventor Roger von Oech advises, “It’s easy to come up with new ideas; the hard part is letting go of what worked for you two years ago but will soon be out of date.”

Have a good week,


© Copyright 2012 Pathfinders Coaching, Scout Search Inc., all rights reserved.

1/24/11 “Innovation and online video”

Good day, team.

This week’s challenge is about innovation. Recently, I read an article in Wired magazine titled “Film School — Why online video is more powerful than you think,” by TED curator, Chris Anderson. It’s all about the significance of online video and the impact it’s having on society.

Anderson’s theory is that online video is creating new global communities, granting members the means and the motivation to step up their skills and broaden their imaginations. He writes, “It’s unleashing an unprecedented wave of innovation in thousands of different disciplines, some trivial, some niche, some central to solving humanity’s problems. But, all in all, it’s helping the world get smarter.”

Here’s an example. Last week I was thinking about starting a new knitting project. My friend’s mother-in-law gave her a pair of hand-knit socks for Christmas, and I was quite impressed with them. They were soft, durable and extremely well made —even pretty. She and I were talking about where we might get a good pattern for knitting socks. What shop in Portland or what book or magazine might give us some good ideas for making socks? In overhearing us, my friend’s young daughter said, “You just need to go on YouTube. I’m sure there’s a good video of someone making socks that would teach you.”

In that moment, I realized what has happened in my lifetime. The old ways of accessing information and getting input have changed drastically. Some say that the print media revolution has become the video revolution, and it could quite possibly have at least as much if not more impact. Watching someone make socks, along with providing instructions, is a much more effective way for me to learn. And, it’s also fun.

Herein lies your challenge this week. Spend some time thinking about fun ways to be innovative and find ways to introduce them at work. It could involve making a video related to your work, but it doesn’t have to. The point is to do something innovative. Maybe you change the way your team conducts meetings by adding a fun exercise at the beginning. Perhaps you suggest new ways your team mates can work together. One coach I know uses old “I Love Lucy” videos to show how Lucy and Ethel often worked together to get themselves out of challenging situations. Another consultant leads weekend retreats during which his clients play games such as bridge, chess, Monopoly, cribbage, horseshoes and so on. He videos his clients while they compete and then in the evening, their entertainment is watching how they play together. This allows them to experience different aspects of each other’s behavior as well as their own.

This week, try being more innovative in your approach. You might find that it wakes everyone up and helps them access more of their creativity and brainpower. And, as the following YouTube video shows, you might just have more fun!


Have a good week!


Kathleen Doyle-White
Pathfinders Coaching
(503) 296-9249

© Copyright 2011 Pathfinders Coaching, Scout Search, Inc., all rights reserved.