Friday, April 27, 2012

Innovators aren't cynics

I was talking with a potential client who seemed cynical about innovation.  In fact, most of our clients are both equally cynical and hopeful about innovation.  They are cynical because innovation has often failed to deliver extravagant promises, and hopeful because innovation is one of the few tools that firms have to grow, to differentiate and to disrupt.

People are cynical about innovation because innovation often hasn't delivered what has been promised.  But looking more closely at the reasons why uncovers some basic truths.  One, many promises have been overstated, by people with a vested interest in promoting innovation.  Yes, even us innovation consultants can get carried away, but often executives turn to innovation and make promises.  Even politicians make promises about innovation.  Yet those promises neglect some vital aspects.  Often when executives or politicians promise great returns from innovation, they fail to support, fund, resource and sustain innovation.  Blaming innovation for failing to deliver results when programs aren't adequately funded or resourced is like blaming your car for failing to start when you neglected to fill up.

Two, people are often cynical about innovation because they realize it is occasionally used as a scapegoat or "flavor of the month".  Executives rush in, talk about innovation without intent to deploy anything, and then drop innovation to pick up another management credo to pronounce.  Everyone realizes that innovation will be hard work, and everyone knows the differences between innovation as a talking point and innovation as a funded initiative supported by executives.

But there's a deeper point to made here about cynicism.  We've learned, through books, through movies, through corporate examples, that business people lend a critical eye to everything.  We business people are cynics by nature - looking for the challenge or failure in any product or service.  Many businesses deliver products that HAVE to work - I want cynical engineers designing my bridges and airplanes.  But cynicism is deadly to creative thinking and innovation.

Don't get me wrong - the best innovators, Jobs for example, are a masterful combination of wonder, empathy and cynicism.  Wonder and empathy to imagine and create, cynicism to design, build and deliver.  Edison, perhaps our first significant innovator, was devastated by the failure of his first invention, an automatic voting machine.  He swore he would never again create a product that he didn't know if he could sell.  But he obviously balanced his market cynicism with passion for experimentation and discovery.  No cynic could attempt hundreds of experiments.

But what about the majority of us in business, in politics, in academia?  We are notorious cynics, but we cannot afford to be.  How many times have you said "I've seen this before" or "This didn't work the last time we tried it"?  How many times have you turned a cynical eye on a new idea, not giving it the consideration it deserves?  My favorite is "well, I've seen it all".  No, sorry, you haven't.  You can't possibly imagine all of the possibilities, and the disruption around the corner in your market will surprise and amaze you.  Because someone with less cynicism and more wonder and optimism simply asked the question:  why not?

Until you recognize that you haven't seen it all, that you can't even imagine all the opportunities, that cynicism is a set of blinders meant to keep you in line, you are definitely correct:  you can't innovate.  There is no more self-fulfilling prophecy than a cynic who boldly declares that he or she "can't innovate".  They are exactly right, and self-reinforcing to boot.  Get rid of your cynicism, approach innovation opportunities with a sense of wonder, enthusiasm, possibility.  Yes, that means shedding your green eyeshades and corporate cynicism.  Don't worry, we won't hold it against you.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:15 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your article is very true. It's hard though to give people the sense of wonder that you refer to. That means a person opening up, becoming confident, allowing themselves to make mistakes and being able to be positive about criticism. However I am sure that everyone who reads your article will be better-equipped to deal with cynicism in themselves and others.

6:42 AM  

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