Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Innovation: Reach beyond your comfort zone

Lately I've met with a number of potential clients who are frustrated that their innovation efforts aren't creating a bigger splash in the market.  It can be difficult to identify the limiting factor in any new product or service.  Perhaps the customer need wasn't as strong as we anticipated, or we built features and attributes to appeal to the wrong need or client base.  Perhaps the product is too early, and difficult to adopt, or too late and missed the market window.  Or perhaps the concept was too narrowly conceived from the beginning.

Reach and Grasp - the Alligator Arms effect
The idea of reach is one I talk about often with my clients.  In many organizations we have what football commentators call "alligator arms".  You've seen the phenomenon:  when a wide receiver runs a route over the middle of the field and a pass is thrown his way, he may make a half-hearted attempt to reach out and catch the ball, but then immediately retracts his arms to protect his body.  Rather than leave his torso exposed and catch the ball, he makes a quick but futile attempt to snatch the ball and then protect his body.  All too often innovators have alligator arms when it comes to their vision.  They know a big, interesting concept matters, but aren't willing to push the idea for fear of rejection.  So they pursue ideas that are less than compelling, and given the time, energy and resistance to overcome to commercialize a new product, they are never happy with the results.

Reach should exceed Grasp
Robert Browning wrote that "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"  His concept is that people should constantly reach further than they think is practical or safe, or risk living a life that is unsatisfactory and cramped.  In the same way innovators should constantly have visions of ideas that exceed their grasp.  If you know exactly how you will implement a new idea or concept today, then your idea is too practical and too easily copied.  If your idea doesn't face some internal skepticism and headwinds, it is already too incremental.  One of my other favorite sayings in this regard is:  Don't worry about someone stealing your idea.  If it is truly new and original, you'll have to ram it down their throats.

Houston:  we have a problem
Many corporate innovators suffer from alligator arms, or have limited reach, which is unfortunate, because there is an increasing gap between what is expected and needed by senior executives and the market, and what is produced by innovators and product development teams.  Many times I hear CEOs explaining that their staff must not be very innovative, because all they produce is safe, incremental ideas.  We recently led an innovation activity in the insurance industry where the CEO kicked off the event expounding the need for real "game changing" ideas.  Once he left the team to its devices, they reverted to real "small ball" concepts.  Mid and senior level managers have been taught to pull their punches and rely on small, incremental changes, but the expectations and markets have shifted.  CEOs desperately want interesting, differentiating ideas and products, but our reach is completely within our grasp.  Many innovators and product developers are frustrated by the limited reach, but don't believe new, interesting, disruptive ideas will be well received.

We have a solution
So we have a quandary:  executives are asking for the big idea, the reach beyond the grasp, while innovators and product developers are still locked into small ball and incremental innovation.  Paul Hobcraft and I developed the Executive Innovation Workmat to address the root cause of this issue:  executives saying they want innovation but failing to put the frameworks and programs in place to ensure its success.  If your reach is limited to your comfort zone, if you are frustrated by the incremental ideas your team creates, contact us.  We can create a framework that bridges the gap between expectation and capability.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:11 AM


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