Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Successful innovators are "true believers"

After my "don't rock the boat" post a few days ago, I was asked by a few folks a very interesting question.  Which was:  what does it take to be a good innovator in a corporation?  Note that I placed some scope or constraints on the question.  After all, it's fairly easy to be an innovator in a small company or as an entrepreneur.  In fact you need to rock the boat in small companies or startups or you will struggle to differentiate and grow.  But what about large companies?  What does it take to be a successful innovator in a large corporation?  Either a culture that welcomes and encourages innovation or a true believer mentality.

How do you do it?

We at OVO get to participate in a lot of idea generation sessions.  It's interesting to lead these sessions and to sit in as a guest idea generator.  Because most of us have few filters, we are willing and able to generate any idea.  Ask me sometime about the credit card that zaps you with an electric shock if you use it too frequently.  So when we have all of these crazy ideas, people often ask us:  well, how do you do it?  How do you constantly generate such crazy ideas?  Why are you so much better than us when it comes to generating ideas?  The reason is that we are true believers.  We believe that there is ALWAYS a better way to do something.  All it takes is a little insight, a little imagination and a willingness to free yourself from your day to day constraints.

Working inside an organization, especially for a long period of time, an individual becomes part of the fabric and culture of that organization and begins to think like others in the organization, accepting core principles and cultural norms.  Over time what seemed changeable seems permanent and what seemed possible seems immutable.  It's exceptionally difficult to work inside an organization for very long and not adopt the cultural biases, and typically those biases have to do with maintaining status quo, not creating new products and services.

The typical innovation project

On any typical innovation project we see three categories of participants.  The first were asked to be on the team because they've been successful within the execution engine.  They know how to make the day to day operations work effectively.  They typically try to force an innovation activity to look and feel like a normal day to day process, limiting the scope and rushing to a decision.  The second category of people who participate are subject matter experts, asked to participate because they either have deep knowledge or can add a fresh perspective.  Most don't have a stake in the outcome unless it materially impacts their area of expertise, which is dangerous, because expertise and knowledge of existing models and methods overcomes their ability to consider meaningful change.  The third category is usually composed of people who are "available" - that is, they are busy but have some time that can be spared for the innovation project.

What's often missing from this list are what I'll call true believers, people who are convinced that innovation is vital and important.  Every company has a number of true believers, but they are often considered problematic because they are constantly asking why things are done the way they are.  These true believers are always seeking to do things differently or suggesting improvements or changes to existing processes or products.  They are often the last folks to be asked to participate in an innovation project because they are thought to be uncontrollable - they rock the boat a lot.

Why do true believers matter?

True believers are unique and important to innovation for a number of reasons.  First, many of them are dissatisfied with the status quo.  They know that it's possible to create better products and services.  They WANT to see change, rather than seek to avoid it.  True believers of any stripe, in any discipline, don't allow a little resistance or public sentiment to bother them.  They are willing to seek out new information and insight even if it conflicts with existing beliefs.  They don't allow barriers or roadblocks to discourage them.  In fact they often redouble their efforts when they encounter difficult barriers, where many more complacent people will willingly give up.

True believers always believe there is a better answer, a better way.  They are never satisfied with incremental change, although they'll accept it on the road to disruptive or radical innovation.  They like Jobs want to put a dent in the universe.  These true believers are found in every business, in every country, in every walk of life.  They are difficult to deal with day to day, but impossible to live without if you want to innovate beyond incremental changes.

These true believers can be a bit insufferable, and that's why they are found so much more frequently in startups or as entrepreneurs.  They believe in their ideas, their insights and aren't going to let a complacent culture, corporate inertia or simple fear of risk and uncertainty become a barrier to their ideas.  And they are exactly what most corporations need right now.

We are living in an age of great technological and market upheaval, where the pace of change is almost unprecedented and the level of competition unmatched from almost any time since global markets unfolded over 300 years ago.  Money flows to where it can find its best return, anywhere in the world and at the blink of an eye.  Consumer demand and market conditions shift rapidly.  New competitors emerge in places that were unthinkable as competitive hotspots only a few years ago.  The people who can lead you out of your corporate inertia are the people you've most likely relegated to the sidelines.  The people you know could be valuable but you haven't figured out how to harness them yet.  You need to engage the true believers in your organization - the people who want to create real, interesting change - and you need to do it soon.  With the changes that are underway, playing a passive defense is not a strategy, it's a recipe for oblivion.

Can you find your true believers and task them to create really interesting and valuable new ideas?  Can you clear the barriers and remove the inertia and let them create valuable new products and services?  Do you even know who the true believers are in your corporation, or have you tamped them down, and squeezed them out in the ever increasing goal of corporate efficiency and compliance?

What can you do?

First, find the people who are always creating interesting ideas, people who want to create change. It may be hard to distinguish them from chronic complainers, but with a little work you can sort them out.  Instead of leaving them out of innovation projects, learn to work with and manage them successfully.  Give them far more latitude to generate ideas, but in parallel give them clear targets to aim for.  

Second, discover who in your organization has compelling innovation traits.  We can help you identify people in your organization who have the traits and characteristics that other innovators share.  Contact us about our InnoTraits Assessment to help find the people in your organization who have the skills to innovate, if not the passion.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:41 AM


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