Friday, June 01, 2012

Innovation: Strangers in a strange land

One of the issues I've often struggled with when leading innovation projects with clients is the sense that I'm a foreigner, speaking a foreign language and imposing foreign rules.  Often, when working with clients, I have the sense that they are visiting or touring a foreign country called innovation, where they are enjoying the sites, taking in the scenery, but don't plan to learn the language or stay longer than they have to.  It's as if innovation is a place of great beauty, great excitement but great danger constantly lurks at the edges.  Most people are very happy to visit, accomplish a few rudimentary tasks, and then leave again.

It's this unfamiliarity and the sense of being a tourist that makes innovation so strange and different.  We, for the most part, have carved out our own lands, which are settled, tamed, economical and predictable.  Not much happens and when it does we know exactly how to respond.  Our friends and neighbors have the same expectations and speak the same language.  When challenges occur they are reminiscent of problems from the past, and our tool sets allow us to respond intelligently.  We live in artificial worlds of our own making, but they are safe, comfortable and predictable.

Further, we're aware of another world, or perhaps even another set of worlds, just beyond our comfort zone and imagination.  Worlds where people much like us do things in extraordinarily different ways, taking more risks, encountering unimagined obstacles.  Those people seem like astronauts cast out into uncharted space.  We recoil from those challenges and investments.  They aren't safe or predictable, require new knowledge and skills.  But, increasingly, we are forced to enter those worlds to sustain growth and innovation.  So we become innovation tourists, strangers in a strange land.

Like Americans abroad, we expect this new land to conform to our expectations, to deliver on our assumptions.  It's disheartening to learn that to work effectively in this new land we need to learn new tools, adopt new language, embrace different and larger risks.  Our choices are to visit for short periods, returning to a homeland more predictable and safe, or become pioneers or explorers in the new land, adopting local customs, tools and language.  Yet, once you've adopted the new perspectives and behaviors, it can be difficult to go home again.  Perhaps one can only be a resident of either the efficient, effective business environment or a resident of the other worlds of innovation, but not both.  The rules, language, expectations, risk factors, outcomes are so vastly different that few have succeeded in doing both well.  We are either tourists who hire experienced guides to take us safely through the uncharted and unfamiliar space, seeking only to return safely home, or we move into innovation space and adopt the thinking necessary to survive.

And don't kid yourself that you can move into the "innovation space" and tame it, like pioneers of old tamed the American wilderness.  Innovation space isn't static, it doesn't stand still or adopt to our ways of thinking.  It is constantly changing, constantly unpredictable, constantly new.  Only pioneers willing to constantly adapt will thrive.  You can't tame the innovation space, you can only hope to adopt its patterns and logic.  That's why true innovators seem so different from the rest of us.  They are actually residents of another place, visiting our effective, efficient businesses for a short time, bringing their strange ways that are unusual and unfamiliar.  They realize eventually that the nutrients, oxygen and other components that sustain life here are different, and either surrender their citizenship in the more dangerous and fast paced future world to take on the efficient, effective world, or they return to their innovative space, like ET phoning home.  And when they leave we are often relieved in the short run, glad to be rid of people who are constantly reminding us of the incredible potential available.  In the end, though, we regret the departure of the strangers from the innovation space, and seek their return, or at least guides willing to breech the barrier between our safe existence and the potential worlds just beyond our safe frontiers.

Innovators in business are truly strangers in a strange land.  Welcome them, for they are few in number, but have the best capability to take you into the future.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:57 AM


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