Monday, July 07, 2014

Innovators overcome the can'ts

There's a vicious, pervasive mentality swirling in corporate America today, and it's limiting innovation, growth and corporate renewal.  Many of your fellow employees have been infected by a mental virus, and they aren't even aware that they have it.  It's not Ebola or the plague, although it can often be just as deadly for new ideas as these illnesses.  The virus has crept into the thinking and attitudes of many managers and employees, without a lot of fanfare.  In fact, when it was introduced it seemed natural and reasonable, but it has become a major limiting factor to growth, change and innovation.  That dreaded but little known illness is called the can'ts.

A reasonable perspective

The can'ts emerge when anyone suggests a new idea, a change to the existing order or entering a new market or segment.  The can'ts are always reasonable, always based on existing methods, decisions or models, always based on facts.  The can'ts are viral and powerful, and seem so reasonable upon first utterance that many people infected with the can'ts aren't even aware of the virility of the disease.  Many times the first exposure will look some thing like this:

"I have a great new idea to solve a customer problem in ..."

"Here's why we can't do that..."

And the reasons are perfectly reasonable.  Too expensive, too different from what we do today, too many competitors, too much regulation, too demanding on a workforce that is already stretched.

To those infected with the can'ts, this is logical, reasonable and quickly puts to bed an interesting annoyance that was distracting the team from its primary mission. 

Getting past the can'ts

But if we are to innovate, to bring valuable and relevant new products or services to market, we have to get past the can'ts.  I'm sure most innovations that make it to market are confronted with many can'ts, and it is only the willpower of the innovators or the guidance of a senior executive who removes the roadblocks that the can'ts erect.

To innovate effectively, we first have to realize that many people are infected with the can'ts.  In one recent innovation project I described a possible ideal result - a new product or service.  Then I asked the innovation team to write down all the reasons they thought we "can't" create that new product or service.  After about 20 minutes we had a list of over 30 reasons.  There was a collective gasp at how difficult the work appeared, based on all the hurdles.  Fortunately we had scheduled a very senior executive to come in and talk about the executive team and their willingness to overcome the can'ts.

Merely recognizing the can'ts and addressing them in advance can help, but that's not enough.  Doubt and prior experience always creep back in, so even if you can stymie the can'ts early on, you'll need to constantly fight the same battles throughout an innovation activity.  Because while the innovation team may be on board to resist the can'ts, often others that they need data, information or assistance from haven't been inoculated, and their doubts can infect the team again.

Diverge and Converge

Innovation offers us another tool to remove some of the can'ts - the intentional steps of divergence and convergence.  You see the can'ts want to limit our thinking, to quickly converge based on the scope that is dictated by what "can" be accomplished, rather than what needs to be accomplished.  This is why divergence and convergence are valuable tools, at every step of the innovation process.  Divergence doesn't eliminate the can'ts, but it does highlight many alternatives or options that are possible if the team can escape the limiting convergence of the can'ts.

How might we...

Other tools to help fight the can'ts are open ended, aspirational questions to the team when they are struggling with the can'ts.  A great one, often held up as a mantra for innovators is:  "How might we..."  Notice the "might".  I'm not asking yet for commitment, just options and alternatives.  As people become aware of more options and alternatives, they often are willing to acknowledge that other solutions exist and the can'ts aren't quite as powerful as they thought.

Can you change the can'ts

In another client we ran into a case of the can'ts that illustrated a blind spot in corporate thinking.  Working for an insurance firm, we generated some really compelling new ideas, only to be told that we "can't" implement them because some of them violate regulations and statues.  Well, we replied, don't you employ a team of lobbyists? And isn't it their job to help legislators and administrators find the best solutions?  Aren't the regulations and laws changeable?  Shouldn't they be changed if we can find better solutions?  Too often the can'ts appear real, immutable and permanent, when they are really based on common agreement and can be changed.

As a fish is unaware of the water it swims in, and we take the air for granted, too often we become immersed and immune from the limits in our thinking.  We become a people of "can't" rather than a people who wonder "How might we".  The can'ts are pernicious because they are so reasonable and pervasive.  What we innovators need to know is that we will always face the can'ts.  What we need to do is make people aware of their thinking, show how the can'ts limits innovation, offer alternatives and options for success, and identify blind spots and barriers that creep in.  We'll likely never eliminate the can'ts, but we can keep people aware and honest as they participate.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:41 AM


Blogger James Little said...

Very thorough here.
I like the definition of innovation as novelty that is useful.
Good job on the integration of strategy with innovation.

4:35 AM  

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