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Insights | By Howard Tiersky

Teams Not Innovating? Try SCUBA Diving!

We hear from CEOs all the time that they want their teams to be more innovative, but "it just doesn't happen." "Where are the big ideas?" they ask. “Where is the bold thinking?"

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Get FREE access to the first chapter of FROM's
Wall Street Journal Best Selling Book


  • Learn the three patterns of all successful digital brands (including companies like Apple, Netflix and Uber).
  • Understand why many great new products fail, and the formula for building products that won’t.
  • Discover the key reasons companies resist change and how to overcome them.

One recent client described, "We've told our people we are looking for them to take more risk, to pursue game-changing ideas, but all we seem to get are small improvements and the same old thinking."

Generally, the problem is not that the people within an organization inherently lack creativity or are incapable of generating original thinking. We know because we’re often brought in to address these types of situations and find it can be turned around in a matter of a few months.

The problem, easily overcome once understood, is prior conditioning — best understood by example.

I am an avid SCUBA diver and have in fact spent more than one week "living" underwater during the almost 500 dives I have done over the course of my life. But when I first learned to SCUBA dive it freaked me out a little. Here's why:

When you were taught to swim as a child, what was the first and most important thing you needed to learn? Don't breathe underwater. In fact, when you first took swimming lessons you probably got that wrong once or twice and had a pretty unpleasant experience. But after multiple lessons, you learned not to breathe underwater.

When I speak at conferences on this topic, I often ask an audience, "How many of you, that know how to swim… before you jump into the water to go swimming, how many of you stop first and make a mental note to yourself to remember not to breathe underwater."


NOBODY does this. Why? Because we have conditioned ourselves not to breathe underwater. Another way of saying that is we have become so habituated to this that its ingrained in our subconscious, we don’t have to think about it — like driving or brushing our teeth.

But here's the problem. One day you take a SCUBA diving class, and someone hands you a regulator and tells you to go ahead and breathe underwater. Your conscious mind understands that the situation is now totally different. It’s ok to breathe underwater if you have an air supply. Previous rules do not apply. However, that deep animalistic part of our subconscious that drives our long-ingrained behaviors doesn’t adjust that fast. So even though we know it’s fine to breathe underwater with a regulator in your mouth, when you go 10 feet underwater and take that first breath, there is still a part of your brain screaming STOP! DANGER! DO NOT DO THIS! You have to find a way to overcome this internal resistance, or you can't do it.

Once you do and take a few breaths, you might feel like you are doing ok, but for many people, the panic comes and goes in waves…you feel fine for a few minutes, and then your mind sort of wakes back up and says WAIT! WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING! GET OUT THERE! For most people, it takes a few dives before the voice is quiet enough not to be a problem and of course eventually, you condition yourself in a new way. You've trained your subconscious with a new rule: it’s ok to breathe underwater if you have SCUBA gear on. But it takes a while, and the time it takes varies for different people.

So what does that have to do with innovating? Corporations are generally built around process. That is how they scale, protect against risk, and make sure that they provide the customer a consistent experience. If you got a job in high school working at McDonald's, you might have shown up on the first day with some new menu ideas or a concept for a quicker way to make the burgers. Did they want those ideas? Do they appreciate experimentation? No. They trained you in how to do it "their way." They probably measured whether you were "doing it right," and if you did it wrong too many times, you got fired.

This isn't just true in fast food. Get a job as a bank teller, or an auditor. Go to medical school or nursing school. Get a job as a teacher under No Child Left Behind, or start working as a software developer or on a manufacturing floor. At junior levels, we bring people into the work force, and we train them to do their job the “right” way.

Now, this is done for all kinds of good reasons. We don’t want every bank teller to get creative with how they document your deposited check, just like we don’t want kids trying to breathe underwater in the pool. However, when the day comes, after years of training you that you should "do as you are told," we invite you to a brainstorming session, or tell you to just 'be innovative,' we’ve basically put a regulator in your mouth and told you to breathe underwater. The first reaction is somewhere between discomfort and panic.

In fact, a double problem is created because we train people to follow instructions — not to be independent or generate new ideas. When we give them an instruction to be bold, original thinkers — we are basically ordering them to not follow the rules. This does not compute. The compromise solution most people arrive at is to do one of the following:

  • To just sit quietly and hope someone else will fulfill the request for new ideas.
  • To generate "ideas" which are either the "same old" ideas (hence not new) or which are only very small iterations on the existing rules, hence being fairly safe or only minor infractions of the "no original thinking" mantra that they’ve been conditioned to.
  • To focus on ideas from direct competitors because these at least feel like they are "tried and true."

When these types of results come back, executives can draw the false conclusion that they just don’t have creative people on their teams. But that’s generally not it. The people have massive creative potential. And their knowledge of the business, the customer, the industry, etc. put them in a far better position to generate great ideas than going out and hiring new "more creative" people. The solution instead is to re-condition the teams to release their innovation potential.

Here are three tips to get started:

1. Set Expectations
Create an expectation that teams may need to move through some discomfort. Show them this article! Some people start to "try" to be innovative, find it uncomfortable, and quit, concluding that "it’s just not for them." People do this with SCUBA too, by the way, but if they persisted through a bit of psychological discomfort they would acclimate, and their comfort would increase massively. Some people just quit too soon. Help teams know what to expect so if they feel that panic they know why and that it’s temporary.

2. Play Games
We use games extensively in our innovation training and facilitation. The reason is that games are an automatic "escape" from the normal rules. If your boss is pitching at the company softball game, its fine to hit a home run, even though you'd never do the equivalent at a meeting back at the office. Brainstorming games lower the stakes and allow people to loosen up. We train executives all the time on specific games they can use with their teams to get ideas flowing quickly.

3. Change the Environment
Part of people's conditioning relates to environmental stimuli. We built a creative innovation workshop facility in midtown Manhattan filled with toys, plants, and walls you can draw on, where many large companies bring their teams to learn how to innovate. Getting out of the office into a space that has totally different environmental triggers can make it easier to behave differently. Music helps, too.

4. Give Praise!
Joseph McClendon III says, "If necessity is the mother of invention, then praise is its father." As individuals or teams are starting to get the idea, give them praise. Think of a child learning to swim-- celebrate and encourage each step.

Learning to dive is not done in a day. To get a Scuba certification, you have about 20 hours of classroom instruction, 10 hours or so practicing in a pool and then four supervised dives in open water. It takes some commitment and time, but really it isn’t that hard, and the payoff is huge: It’s beautiful down there.