Offices: Anaemic electric lighting. Standard issue chair and stapler combo. Carpet and soft furnishings in a shade called ‘Futile Blue’. Short of knocking off for a bourbon-soaked lunch at 11am, there’s little relief from the monotony of working for a large company, especially if the mindset of the management team is very much a reflection of the choice in decor. In this post we’ll take a look at some approaches and practices that large, well-established businesses might leverage in order to, well… feel young again. And by ‘young’ I mean innovative and agile.


In an excellent blog post on promoting innovative behaviour in entrenched business environments, Co.Design provides the example of inviting “thought leaders” to participate in in-house think tank sessions. These teams or individuals could be from other companies, education institutions or startups. The objective is to create an opportunity for these outsiders to offer insights and ideas from a completely different/new perspective and to catalyse ideas in-house without the considerable effort of learning the lessons through research (or worse, trial and error).

This should not be confused, however, with ‘soft-skill’ training sessions intended to deliver a standardised set of skills and competencies en masse. ‘Brain storming’ solutions in a caffeine-fuelled idea-binge will help the company to realise it has potential, whereas opening your doors to the latest and brightest risk-takers on the scene will help your business to actually realise it’s potential.


This is a great little strategy and one that is excellently described in this article by the Harvard Business Review. A common strategy for businesses is to operate on a somewhat tacit agreement that an individual’s ability to take risks are set informally (in the job description or behaviour patterns discernable in the wider company) and reviewed as standard (tedious Performance Review meetings, for example). It’s a sustainable approach as long as you just happen to have a healthy balance of risk-hungry and risk-averse people on the books. This arrangement does, however, allow decisions to be very much personality-led as opposed to on sound business sense. There then develops a culture of buck-passing (for failures) and credit hunting (for those delicious successes) rather than one of making informed, calculated decisions.

The HBR outlines a simple solution: appoint Risk Managers and allow anyone  to propose a risky strategy to them. If the plan is approved (after an independent review by the Risk Team) the proposer is given the green light along with the unconditional permission to fail. Needless to say, successful plans are preferable, but failures now become a tolerated par for the course.

One beneficial outcome of such a strategy is that responsibility for the decision is clearly indicated from the outset rather than after the figures have been counted. The risk-taker is able to seek advice and help from whomever they want, but they remain completely in ownership of the plan they have put in place, for better or for worse. This streamlines the decision making process and avoids endless meetings seeking decisions by committee. It also means that all risks are on the table; failures that are not attached to predetermined risks are immediately obvious and would require some serious explanations and soul searching.

More importantly, the “permission to fail” approach opens up the process to all levels of the company and may provide a platform for overlooked voices who just haven’t been able to get the right ‘ear’ yet. As the article observes:

The most creative thinkers may not be the best choices for high organizational rank — in fact, there is often a conflict between the intuitive leaps that underlie attractive risks and the meticulous attention to process necessary for a large organization to remain organized.


A gloriously enticing proposition that uses games to promote brainstorming, as described in a book of the same name by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo. Gamestorming is a collection of best practices compiled from the world’s best and most innovative companies and converted into a kit of ‘tools and rules’ to address the perennial problems of collaboration and teamwork.

On the terrific Gamestorming blog site, the writers do a terrific job of juxtaposing the process-driven approach of business and the objective-orientated opportunities in games:

[W]ork does not need to be organized around business processes to be effective. It’s not a requirement that all work proceed neatly from left to right, according to a neatly prescribed sequence of cause and effect. The way that rules function in processes and games is entirely different. Processes are rule-heavy. They prescribe a narrow range of activities and prohibit everything else. Games, on the other hand are rule-light. In a game, anything not forbidden is permitted.

The approach offers an alternative to the monotony of a traditional business meeting. Rules and objectives for the interactions are clearly defined from the outset and participants are often required to make use of props (thought-provoking objects, cut outs) or more ‘trad’ materials like sticky notes and markers. The idea is to break free of expectations and inherited ideas and to embrace game dynamics and mechanics to kick start new avenues of thinking and discussion. It has its roots in the mind-mapping methodology of Silicon Valley success stories, so there is definitely something to it.


If I may quote the Bard, ‘Nothing will come of nothing’. If you do nothing and expect improvements to somehow magically come about then you’ll experience no change or opportunities to do so. Getting stuck in a rut of routines or repetitive patterns of behaviour will erode everyone’s interest. People will become less attentive as it’s ‘more of the same’ and nothing they haven’t seen or heard before. Be deliberately different and pose problems/ask questions/make opportunities that require people to actually put some thought into their responses rather than churning out the same tired answers.


A rather twee question, but one that is not without its merits. After all, a question should be judged on the quality of thinking it generates rather than the answer it produces. What I’m suggesting here is more of a thought experiment; juxtaposing (there’s that word again) the business models/methods of successful businesses in an entirely unrelated industry and seeing what lessons could be learned and applied to your own. For example, IKEA comes up with the number on the price tag first and then commissions a designer to create a furniture piece that could be made and sold for that figure. How could that approach be applied to ELT publishing for example? Paying more flat fees for content? Introducing different ‘tariffs’ of course books?

Example #2: IKEA’s iconic store layouts are designed to expose the shopper to as many unsought-after purchase opportunities as possible whilst also making the whole experience  stress free (stores have daycare units and refreshingly edible food at more-than-reasonable prices). How could publishing companies apply a similar ‘sticky’ strategy? Enhanced cross promotion of similar titles? More opportunities within a course to follow one’s own interests and preferences?

Flat pack test builder, anyone?

Feature Photo Credit: Dunechaser via Compfight cc

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