What do Blue Lobsters Have to do With Innovation? Everything!

Blue Lobster at the  South Bristol Coop , 2004

Blue Lobster at the South Bristol Coop, 2004

What’s with blue lobsters? Well, a blue lobster is rare, about 1 in 2 million, and very beautiful.  To me, a blue lobster is a person who views and organizes the world differently, who rejects the status quo, who loves to try stuff, learn, fail and try again, who is interesting because they are interested and who has impact .  When you get enough of them together, you create a blue lobster organization – one that creates positive disruption. 

It is incumbent upon us, whether we’re a blue lobster or not, to find, nurture and develop blue lobsters.  Why? Because the key to innovation isn’t processes, stage gates, weird exercises, or competitions.  The key to innovation has been and always will be People. People who view the world differently. Blue Lobsters.

I view the commitment to innovate, in the companies I’ve worked for and with, as a spectrum of lobsters - from cooked, to live, to rare blue ones.

Red Lobsters think they innovate and believe they want to, but not enough to expand their comfort zone and hire the right people to do it. They think they’re innovative because they make something in green instead of just red, but they stick with their industries, markets, customers, and (usually dying) business models.  In some cases, they are doing pretty well, so there isn’t sense of urgency.

Frankie B. Jr. - Bought 7/13/17 at Hannaford’s Grocery, Damariscotta, ME & freed off our dock on Pemaquid Harbor, ME

Live lobsters have pockets of innovation in the organization and/or people assigned to be the corporate innovators.  Innovation may be a designated job residing in a small part of the organization instead of throughout the culture.  This group may or may not be able to spread and have impact...but usually isn’t enough to become blue.

Blue Lobsters are just plain innovative. You can’t stop them. They ooze it from their pores. Attracting, hiring and developing blue lobsters is in their DNA. They know now to nurture and encourage blue lobsters so they are always growing and impacting the lives of their employees and customers.

I used to think if an organization worked hard enough, tried enough things, read and adapted the latest “best practices”, it could become innovative. Not anymore.  It’s not processes, it’s people. You need blue lobsters to make an organization (more) innovative and change a culture … and maybe even create blue oceans!

The key to innovation has been and always will be People

So, how do you become a blue lobster company? It starts from the top. The CEO either has to be or love Blue Lobsters, to be willing to invest not just money, but diligently invest his/her personal time, effort and social capital, finding and developing Blue Lobsters as well as assuring the culture will accept them. I’ve never seen innovation take hold, consistently, if it’s not embraced, nurtured, desired from the top.

This means getting some blue lobsters into the C-Suite, mentoring and nurturing them AND developing live lobsters so the core keeps running excellently and, moreover, may turn live lobsters blue!  One of my clients is doing this with their “Blue Lobster Leadership” program (seriously, that’s the name!).

Do you want to find some blue lobsters? Are you one? If you’re interested, ask me. I have some ideas and I know some places they tend to hang out.

And please, remember, it is incumbent upon us to find, nurture and develop blue lobsters, because perhaps that way, they’ll be less rare, and we can have more impact on our world.

When Software Can’t Change the Laws of Physics (or Leadership)

Boeing 737 Max in production

Boeing 737 Max in production

As far as we know, the physical laws of nature are true and fixed on earth.  We can’t design with atoms and ignore gravity, conservation of energy and Newton’s laws of motion.  Tragically, it took Boeing and the FAA two horrendous accidents with over 350 deaths to accept this.

Boeing 737, Edwards Air Force Base, Sept. 1967

Boeing 737, Edwards Air Force Base, Sept. 1967

The Boeing 737 has been flying since 1967, outlasting the 757 and 767.  How many other intricate, interdependently constructed products made in the 1960s are still around?  Not many! There have been major 737 design upgrades and changes over the years; it is usually easier to do variations on a theme in terms of design, testing, certification, regulatory approvals, etc. then create new.

Business’s emphasis on efficiency means we try to make things work without total re-designs.  In the case of Boeing, software was going to solve known basic aerodynamic design problems. Apparently, the software could have been better designed both in functionality and UI/UX.  And certainly, proactively notifying airlines and pilots that new training was required should have been a no-brainer.


Today’s systems are complicated and complex* requiring different leadership capabilities throughout the organization.  And I mean Leadership, not "Management Plus", from those leading the various physical, hardware, software, etc. design teams, to procurement, supply chain, etc. all the way across and up to the CEO.  Complex systems also require a different organizational culture - a systems-level mindset and a sense ownership at all levels. The 737 disaster highlights that our systems today are not systems but discrete parts stuck together touted as systems, without holistic, integrated accountability and ownership (e.g., Boeing, FAA, airlines, …)

In your business, with your products or services, what are you assuming will ‘fix the problem’?  Are you sure? Are there immutable laws you’re trying to violate? What do the assumptions imply for your employees, your culture, your customers?  This week, please, please, stop and reflect on this.  For most of us, lives are not literally on the line from our products and services, but there are still implications.


*complicated systems have many parts and pieces but are fixed with a finite set of possible states; complex systems are infinite with boundless sets of constantly changing dynamics.

Why Does a Door Need Instructions? Seriously!

Red Door Pull Sign.jpeg

If you’re willing, the next time you get to a door, stop.  What’s your initial reaction? Push it? Pull it?  Doors are one of my favorite examples of lousy design.  Shouldn’t opening a door be intuitive? We really need instructions to go through a door? Really?? 

USB Pointer.png

Our world is filled with poorly designed products we use every day without thinking twice.  We’ve come to accept that this is the way it is.  We learn how to work around the non-intuitive design and just use the easy-to-figure-out features.   Take the USB Pointer for presentations! My natural instinct is to use the up arrow, the one on top, to move the slide ahead, but no! Even though I’m pointing at the screen, I don’t use the up arrow (pointing at the screen), I use the down arrow pointing at me!

blue vespa.jpg

Some of the best designed products are simple and long-lasting – like the paper clip!  And there are products that just entice us with their elegant, beautiful and comfortable design – like the Vespa, globally recognized as an icon of design.

As you approach work this week, be it leading people, designing products, services or systems, creating marketing material, building circuit boards, writing essays in college, giving presentations, etc., take a few minutes to think who will be using, hearing, reading, sharing your “stuff” and how you can make it easy for them.  Just as I asked you to stop the next time you got to a door, stop the next time you’re ‘designing’ and think - how can you make it intuitive, easy, enjoyable and amazingly useful?

p.s. A great read on design for everyday life is The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman!