Monday, April 09, 2012

Innovation attitudes and success

Well, I'm back and feeling chipper after a nice trip to Istanbul to meet a potential partner and a week in Spain on R&R.  After some relaxing days and digging out of email, it occurred to me that many of Stephen Covey's principles apply to innovation.  Sharpening the saw equates to building skills through training.  Important versus urgent defines innovation versus the day to day demands of business.  But the one I want to focus on today is:  start with the end in mind.

You see, there are three starting "attitudes" that define how companies begin an innovation effort.  They are, in no particular order, fear, uncertainty and confidence.  Where your team starts, matters.  Because you need to start an innovation project with the end in mind.

Let's start with fear, which is where most innovation efforts begin.  I'll call it "fear" since at least half of all innovation projects are started based on fear - the fear of falling behind a competitor, and are worked in fear - fear of failure, fear of new tools, fear of disrupting the status quo.  In fact fear is probably the most prevalent of all attitudes when innovation is active.  If fear is the starting point and fear is the dominant attitude during the effort, what's the likely result?  Ideas that closely resemble the existing product portfolio, that don't ruffle feathers or cause any consternation.  Fear is a limiting emotion, causing people who encounter fear to play it safe, or, often even worse, to become reckless.  If you start from a position of fear, and fear overhangs your effort, innovation simply can't be successful.

Next is "uncertainty".  Many firms start from a position or attitude of uncertainty.  They are uncertain if innovation is necessary, uncertain about the tools and methods and uncertain about the best outcomes.  When nothing is left to chance and everything is certain in business, only innovation is uncertain.  Therefore, innovation is the outlier and by definition it is a variance to be eliminated rather than a path to be pursued.  When you start in uncertainty and all tools, methods and outcomes are uncertain, your end result will be the same.  Or, to quote another saying, when you don't know where you are going, any road can take you there.  Uncertainty isn't necessarily limiting, it just creates confusion and aimlessness.

The final attitude is confidence.  Firms with strong leadership, cultures that welcome innovation and people who have innovation skills start their innovation efforts confident of success, and are confident in their abilities to accelerate good ideas to market.  Confidence is contagious and sweeps more people into its fold.  It's almost unfair, actually, that confident innovators are gaining skills and capabilities at an ever increasing pace, while uncertain or fearful innovators are losing share, losing ground and falling further behind, which of course creates more uncertainty and more fear.  Fear and uncertainty can create vicious cycles, while confidence creates a virtuous cycle.

What's really interesting is that most people understand this innately, even if they don't communicate it.  Companies and teams that start with fear as a basis for innovation, or with uncertainty as the basis will almost always be unhappy with the results, regardless of the approach, regardless of the methodology or tool or software application, while firms that start in confidence will usually succeed regardless of the method, tool or approach.  What gets in the way of confidence? 

Not enough skills, not enough commitment, not enough simple belief that innovation can make a difference.  It's the difference between "I'll believe it when I see it" or "I'll see it when I believe it".  There's no magic to innovation.  What's necessary is a set of skills, a clear goal, a commitment to working through a process and the ability to commercialize good ideas quickly.  If your company has these characteristics and strong leadership to back it up, you can innovate from a position of confidence.  Lacking these traits means you'll start from a position of fear or uncertainty, and will struggle to develop ideas that are valuable and meaningful.

Start with the end in mind.  If you plan to be successful with an innovation effort, start confident in your goals, confident in your skills and confident that the systems and decision making processes will support you, or work to make them so.  Otherwise, innovation is simply too difficult to do from a position of fear or uncertainty that you will struggle to succeed when starting from these attitudes.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:46 PM


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