50 Shades of Gray: Learning to successfully experiment and innovate



Harry Greenspun, M.D.

Chief Medical Officer, Managing Director, Health Solutions

Korn Ferry

February 27, 2018

My wife and I consider ourselves pretty adventurous, so last year we decided to try something really different.  Like with many couples, for us that meant repainting the kitchen.  We had grown tired of the old, golden hue, and opted to go really bold and modern – gray.  While it seemed like a simple enough task, when we arrived at the hardware store we were confronted with not 50, but closer to 300 shades of gray.  Paint chips in hand, Kerry and I compared “Artic Seal” to “Cobblestone Path” to “Timber Wolf” and dozens more.  Some differences were obvious, others imperceptible.  After taping innumerable chips to the wall, we finally settled on two options, retrieved some samples, and painted a few test patches on the wall.
With Kerry’s keen eye and my characteristic cautious marital acquiescence, we made our choice and called Jorge, our painter. A few days later it was done. Within moments of Jorge walking out the door, it was clear it was a mistake.  “It’s too blue,” Kerry said, a conclusion reinforced by nearly everyone who said, “I love your blue kitchen!”  Within a week, Jorge was back applying a different shade.   The result was much closer, but still not quite right.  Rather than abandon this one as well, we tried to make it work by changing out the lightbulbs and hanging different colored art work. That made an enormous difference, so we decided to stick with it.
Still, I could tell that Kerry was not fully satisfied.  At dinner I could see her gaze drift to the walls, the faintest hint of disappointment in her eyes.  Then, last week, she turned to me and said, “I’ve tried, but this is just not working for me.  I’m going back to Jorge.”  
Organizations face these same pressures - frequently struggle to innovate, believing they need to radically rethink themselves overnight, adopting dramatically different ways to conduct themselves.  At best, changes wind up being transient and superficial.  At worst, they can undermine positive aspects of culture. However, by keeping a few principles in mind, innovation can be transformative, constructive, and sustained.
  1. Get consensus on what needs to change – Never innovate for innovation’s sake.  Have a clear and shared understanding of what you want to address.
  2. Be inclusive gathering ideas (and reward suggestions) – The business world is filled with stories of innovation stemming from unexpected sources.  Those immersed in a situation often have more compelling ideas and insights.  Equally importantly, provide incentives for team members to speak up and contribute.
  3. Start small – There is a common misconception that bold and ambitious change can only happen with a “big bang.”  More commonly, successful organizations start with a pilot, demonstrate a quick win, and gather momentum.  In other words, paint a few test patches.
  4. Fail fast – If something clearly isn’t going to work, admit it, learn from it, and move on.  Celebrate them to avoid damping enthusiasm and creativity.  
  5. It takes work – Innovation is a process, not a destination.  While it is often clear what failure looks like, success can take some more work.  Moving from the gray area between obvious success and failure takes work.  In our case, we nurtured our change, changing other elements (like the lighting) to see if we could achieve our desired results.
  6. Don’t fall into the trap of sunk cost – If you come to the realization that things have not worked out, remember that the effort you’ve put into it is sunk cost.  If you let it persist, you will create a culture of resignation.
  7. Continually monitor and re-evaluate – Don’t simply adopt and move on.  You must critically reassess whether you have achieved your goals and been able to sustain them.
In this way you can create an environment conducive to creativity and a culture that supports innovation.  It celebrates its successes and learns from its mistakes.  Most importantly, it empowers everyone to speak up and contribute.
A few days into our new color, “Stormy Monday” everyone seemed happy.  Then, last night, I recognized the look in Kerry’s eyes.  “We should go a bit darker.”  



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