You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold’em


As Kenny Rogers sings in The Gambler:  You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em….Know when to fold ‘em….Know when to walk away…. Know when to run.……….Every gambler knows,….That the secret to survivin’,….Is knowin' what to throw away….And knowin' what to keep.”

Over the past two weeks I’ve learned that as CEO making the decision to “fold/kill” your flagship offering is not as easy as it looks. 

BACKGROUND: Recently I faced the decision to “fold/kill” our Innovation Engineering - Innovation College.  It’s arguably the most successful innovation training course ever offered anywhere.  Graduates of the course are currently leading innovations with a raw value of $75 billion USD.  Graduates say the reason Innovation College is so effective is that it teaches them WHAT and HOW to Innovate not simply WHY to innovate.  Innovation College gives them the mindset, systems and tools they need to activate and enable innovation in their organization.

WHY KILL THE WORLD’S MOST EFFECTIVE INNOVATION TRAINING PROGRAM?  About a year ago the team and I realized that while Innovation College was effective it was not efficient. In it’s current design it would be difficult if not impossible to scale the program from thousands to millions of people trained.  Using the Innovation Engineering approach that we teach, the team reinvented our education system.  They piloted the program using rapid Plan, Do, Study Act cycles of learning with the help of Innovation Network friends in Scotland, Canada and the USA.  The new approach achieved new levels of effectiveness and efficiency.

DECISION TIME:  As we prepared for our annual Innovation Engineering conference two weeks ago it was my duty, responsibility and job as CEO of the Innovation Engineering Institute to make the decision on the transition from the old to the new.

The decision was obvious to the team - but as CEO I had other things to consider - existing agreements with clients and IE network partners, people already registered for future Innovation Colleges, the Impact on corporate clients who have built Innovation College attendance into their employee development plans and a collection of financial positives and negatives associated with the change.

To be very honest.  Making the decision to leave an offering that is successful for a new and better way - is easy in theory - but hard in practice.  After a year of development and testing I was surprised at my apprehension when the moment came.   Instead of ignoring my anxiety I embraced it and set myself on a journey to work through the decision. I felt a responsibility to the Innovation Engineering pioneers around the world to take some time to think it through one last time.  I focused on learning more through stimulus mining.  

  • I did one more review of the current and new programs in detail. 
  • I looked at what competitors were doing.  
  • I worked through various scenarios on what might happen
  • I held private conversations with each of the people involved in development and testing. 
  • I reached out to some of my most valued mentors for their perspective on leadership - on what had worked and not worked during Dr. Deming’s time.  
  • Most importantly I also reviewed the decision with respect to our mission.

A few days before our Innovation Engineering Conference I got the team together and told them that I had decided we needed to make a clean change.  We should discontinue Innovation College - and move to the new program - the course the week after the conference (last week) would be the last.  The new approach was more effective and scalable.  And, it was the only way we could achieve our mission of “changing the world by enabling everyone to innovate.”   

I acknowledged we faced real risks and problems.  However, given our team, mission and cultural mindset I have no fear that we’ll find solutions to any and all challenges.

While everyone agreed with the decision - I still sensed a collective “gasp” in the room.  The team had been focused on the new program but had not thought about the idea of “killing” the old.  The old was also their program - they had built it into the success it was - and had emotional attachment to it. 

However, with the decision made clearly and cleanly (as opposed to a non decision of having both programs go on simultaneously until the old one shriveled and died) the team pivoted to talking about having an “Innovation College Retirement” celebration at the Innovation Engineering conference.   I encouraged this idea - as it would give all of us an opportunity to celebrate what had been accomplished and to bring emotional closure. 

They also came up with an idea for pivoting the last Innovation College - changing out 1.5 days of content to the newer, smarter, System Driven Leadership focus that is the core of the new program.   

This past week we ran the last Innovation College.  The students attending were AWESOME. We were very open about the changes we were making.  They were supportive and engaged. And, just as with classes years ago - they became part of the development of the program - providing ideas and advice for improvement.  And thus we are off on the next Innovation Engineering adventure

Details on the Change:  The new off campus approach aligns with changes being made on campus.   In brief it includes: 

Innovation Engineering QUICK START COURSER (IE Blue Belt) - a fast and effective way to learn and quickly apply the new mindset to your work and life. The course teaches the four fundamental skills of Create, Communicate and Commercialize. 

Innovation Engineering LEADERSHIP COURSE (IE Silver Belt)  - a special course for leaders that teaches their unique and critical“role” in enabling increased innovation speed and decreased risk. 

Innovation Engineering SYSTEM DRIVEN LEADERSHIP (IE Black Belt) - The prerequisite for this course is attendance at the QUICK START or LEADERSHIP COURSE.   The course teaches the advanced systems of Create, Communicate and Commercialize.  It also goes deeper into the System skills taught in the fourth Innovation Engineering campus course.

        Best of all the program will be available around the world.  We’re still working to update websites with the new information and schedules.  To get details on the new approaches and dates in advance click here.  

To my family and friends in Canada - Happy Thanksgiving! 



Like most CEO’s I have a collection of mentors inside and outside the Innovation Engineering Network who I look to for ideas, advice and provocations.  As I get ready to post this on Monday morning - I thought you might be interested in two emails I got last night that tell stories of other major changes that leaders have made. 

Excerpt from an email from my mentor - Walter Werner

Deming Master

    I want to credit this to ASCO Valves but it's over 20 years ago so memory may be in error.

    The President at ASCO realized that markets were changing. ASCO was then and still is a major supplier of automated industrial valves. Their old system involved batch manufacturing of standard high volume items which were then shipped to supply locations through out their market. Low volume customized valves were made in small runs only after orders had been placed. It might take days before they could break into a long production run to make a few custom items.

    The President decided that JIT/LEAN production was leading to new demands that could not be met by their traditional approach. After discussion with ASCO senior managers the decision was made to scrap the old process and build an automated assembly line that could make any order size down to one item at a time. Orders received before 5 pm would be scheduled and shipped by FEDEX the next day. The key was realizing that most of their unique items still had many standard parts so all they really had to stock were the unique sub assemblies. Only top selling items would be stocked in remote locations for same day delivery.

    The risk was immense. The cost was huge and would break the company if it failed. There was no way to be completely sure what would happen until after the new plant was online. The ASCO Valve leadership accepted the challenge and built the plant on faith. The idea was a success.

    We could look at New Coke or we could look at ASCO Valve. Change is a demanding master. Get it right and you are rewarded. Get it wrong and you are punished. 

Congratulations my friends across the Innovation Engineering Network you got it right.

Excerpt from an email from my mentor Barry Bruns

Vice Commander Retired - Nebraska Air Nat’l Guard, Innovation Engineering Black Belt

Walter's example is apt.  Curious innovators are always looking for some way to improve things, no matter how much they like how they are now.  Once they begin looking for a better way, especially if they have a developed system for that, they will find a better way.  That may make it feel like the "system" is forcing their hand, it is still comfortable to stay with what is working.

Before we left Nebraska we rode on a steam powered excursion train.  It was pulled by the last steam locomotive ever made in the USA, an American Locomotive Works 4-8-4 that was still fueled by anthracite coal that had to be trucked in from West Virginia.  It was a beautiful machine, over 60 MPH it would out pull any diesel locomotive made to this day, by a wide margin.  The stoker itself was powered by a 400 HP steam engine and was an 18 inch diameter auger.  When you "Poured the coal" to it the saying took on modern meaning.  It was manufactured using the most modern steam technology, 6 years after the Union Pacific stopped buying steam engines.  God, it was great, I loved it.  But, it was outdated, and had been relegated to a living, moving museum status.  In your terms, the railroad that purchased it, and 9 more just like it, "killed" them after only a couple of years.  They were not even broken in completely. 

Now, the railroad killed the steam engines, good as they were, but did not kill rail motive power.  They did not kill their business, the railroad.  They sucked it up and moved on to better ways.

Innovation College is more like the last steam locomotives that the Union Pacific replaced in 1948 than it is like the American Locomotive Works masterpiece made in 1954.  I think it was the Chicago-Northwestern that kept purchasing steam, but whoever it was stayed with the very good but outdated technology at least 6 years too long.

You did not kill IE College.  You just set about hooking it to more modern locomotives.  All of the track works, the grade, the bridges, the marshaling yards, the business support, etc., are still there.  Steam could have continued to pull trains, it does in many places in the world.  It is just 5% thermally efficient versus 45-60% for diesel and electric.  Steam locomotives require an order of magnitude more care and maintenance than modern locomotives.

Now you (and the IE Network) have made a big and high level decision of a very strategic nature. 

Very, VERY well done.

In terms of the discussion that you, Walter and I have been having, you (and the Innovation Engineering Black Belts) now have the very best foundation of credibility to talk to any CEO/COO on earth about leadership.  How does it feel?