Change the toilet, not the pipes

October 6, 2012

First things first. I’m about to use a toilet analogy to share an innovation and transformation idea. If toilet analogies bother you then either stop reading or get over it. I’m using this analogy deliberately for two reasons. The first is that that’s where and how the idea came to me. I was in a bathroom, saw a toilet and had the idea. And the second reason is that I want you to know how the idea came to me – because inspiration can come from anywhere if we aren’t too close-minded or prudish.

Imagine that there’s something troubling you about our plumbing system. Let’s say you believe it wastes water and you want to do something about it. Well, we’ve done that. We now have regulations in the US that limit the water flow for a toilet so that we waste less water. [Many people find that toilets don’t work as well anymore and so they just flush multiple times thereby erasing any gains – a good lesson for any regulators to remember.] Anyway, let’s say you want to improve this even further. Maybe you think big and wonder why toilets have to use any water at all. What if the toilet did something to the waste to package it up in some way so that water was not required? Something tells me that’s possible.

But now your world gets complicated. You cannot simply create a brilliant new toilet because our toilets work as part of a system with our pipes. So unless your new toilet is going to use Star Trek technology to beam the waste to a dump, you’re going to have to make sure that whatever your toilet does to the waste will have to be tolerated by the pipes.

You could, of course, change the whole system. After all, our plumbing system is ancient. The idea of flushing waste into a set of pipes using water is very very old. Surely if we completely re-imagined this, we could build something better. I’m sure we could. And who is going to rip the pipes out of their walls to accommodate your new system? And who is going to convince every other building owner to do the same?

It just ain’t gonna happen.

And this is the point I’m trying to make about innovation and transformation. Of course you must be creative and imaginative. Of course you must think big. Of course you must identify big scary problems to work on. Of course you must reject the status quo.

But you also must be pragmatic. Human nature will not change because you want to be creative. The laws of physics will not change because you want to innovate. And the world will not simply reorient itself around you because you have ambition.

So here are my three recommendations for you:

  1. Think systemically. You have to identify the underlying system at play so you know the parameters and contours you have to deal with. If you think it’s all about the toilet, you might go one way. When you recognize that the pipes are an integral part of the system it will often take you in another direction.
  2. Identify the unmovables. Be real here, not lame. Unmovable means it just ain’t gonna happen. It does not mean it will require a lot of thinking or a lot of convincing. This is about being pragmatic not lazy.
  3. Optimize your impact. Figure out the most powerful change you can make to affect the whole system. This isn’t always obvious.

In short, when you’re trying to transform, you’re much better off trying to make a better toilet than you are trying to rip the pipes out of the wall.

How does that apply to your business? Or your life?

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