Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Breaching the innovation "wall"

If you've ever been a distance runner, you know about the dreaded "wall".  For every runner there's a point in a race or a distance at which everything conspires to make you quit.  Your body aches, the path seems too steep, the wind is in your face, and your mind and body screams for rest and relaxation.  Yet you'll learn, if you choose to push through the wall, that running on the "other side" of the wall seems easier, less fretful and more enjoyable.  The mystery of distance running is that it's often the start and the first segments that are the most difficult, while the last segments and the finish are blissful.  Strangely, innovation is like that too.

Runners know that many factors become potential and real barriers when starting a run.  Weather, the topography of the course, the number of competitors, an individual's mental state.  All of these factors play a part in the start of a race.  Likewise, for innovators, many factors present hurdles or barriers.  Perhaps one of the most significant hurdles is a poorly defined initiative or need.  All too often innovators are told to create an interesting, important new product, with few defining characteristics or evident customer needs.  Another barrier is the expectation that existing systems, knowledge and skills are all that is necessary to innovate.

But the runners and innovators set out on their assigned tasks.  Runners can tell you that in the initial stages of the workout or race, many intangible, unseen forces work against them, compounding each other until many runners hit "the wall", which is often much more a mental block or barrier than a real physical barrier.  The mental conditions, unseen forces and intangible barriers add up to force many people to quit running.  Likewise, innovators also encounter "the wall" but their wall is made up of sponsor expectations, limited budgets, the challenge of creating something new in an environment perfected to constantly create the same product very effectively.  There are no physical barriers, just a significant amount of intangible, cultural and expectations barriers that cause an innovator to lose focus and hope.

What happens when a runner hits their wall is important.  If the runner gives up and quits, he or she will never become a great runner or experience what running is like on the other side of the wall.  He or she accepts a mental and artificial limit on his or her skills and abilities, and limits themselves.  Similarly, when innovators succumb to the innovation "wall", they never experience the freedom and breadth of skills and insights that are available to them if they can push through the wall that is constructed of cultural barriers.  If innovators never push through the wall, it becomes self-reinforcing, and organizations come to believe that they "aren't innovative" when in reality they simply don't have the persistence and commitment to get to the other side of the innovation wall.

What happens on the other side of the wall?  For runners, endorphins kick in and running takes on new characteristics.  Runners gain a "second wind" and can often run much further and much faster than they expect.  Innovators experience a similar but different reality when they push through the innovation wall.  They find that innovation becomes much more simple, much more intuitive and much more obvious.  They are able to create meaningful, relevant ideas and both incremental and disruptive ideas much more easily.  Most organizations cannot innovate consistently or easily because their teams have never broken through their corporate "wall".

What does it take to break through the wall?  For runners, it is commitment to push through even when the voice in your head tells you to stop.  For innovators, it is commitment to doing more than the organization expects or perhaps even tolerates, and trusting that the skills and competencies built when approaching the wall will sustain you on the other side of the wall.  If you never break through the innovation wall, you'll never experience what true innovation can be, and what it can deliver for your organization.  And even if you do manage to break through the wall, corporate forces will arrange themselves to push you back or strengthen the wall, until you've proven that the wall can be breached and real benefits exist.

Many running books will argue that there are different strategies for breaching the wall when running.  I think the real solution is commitment.  Ignoring the subtle voices in your head and the aches and pains in your body and pushing through the imaginary wall results in much greater outcomes and even greater enjoyment.  One can argue about carbo loading, different training regimes and so forth, but when you hit the wall it is your commitment that pushes you through.  The same is true for innovators.  Only innovators who have real commitment to innovation outcomes, and the support and sponsorship of their organizations, can breach the innovation wall and demonstrate the real opportunities and outcomes effective innovation can achieve.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:47 AM


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