Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The seven stages of innovation grief

I'm writing this a bit tongue in cheek, but the point of this blog is very serious.  There are a number of phases that innovators go through, accepting what they can about innovation based on what the executives and corporate culture allow.  Growing as an innovators is something like experiencing the seven stages of grief, only it's often in reverse.  

When we experience grief, as when we lose a loved one, psychologists note that many people progress through a number of stages. Those are:  disbelief, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression and finally acceptance or even hope.  That is, at first we deny the issue, then we try to come to grips with it, then we express anger, then we finally come out of the darkness and end up with some hope.  If you've never seen it, one of the best examples of the seven stages was acted out by Tony Shaloub, who played the character Monk on television. He goes through the stages in about 2 minutes (accelerated because of his psychological makeup) Here's the clip:  https://vimeo.com/5419363

In the clip Shaloub first denies that his psychiatrist is retiring, then bargains for his return, then goes through anger and depression, all in just a couple of minutes.

We innovators, especially corporate innovators are like this, but often in reverse.  We have these big expectations about what we can do, only to watch them get watered down, constrained, managed, defunded and so on.  Yet we are supposed to push on with the same enthusiasm. It's true that we often start out with hope, and end with denial and disbelief.  Let's examine why this happens, and more importantly look to Napoleon for methods to circumvent it.

The five stages of innovation planning

As good innovators, we should be planning to disrupt an existing market or industry, or create a new market or industry.  This type of innovation has an impact far beyond the existing corporate framework, creating new products or even new industries.  These plans will often be stymined because executives will find them too risky, because the firm doesn't have experience outside its own comfort zone.

So the next option is to migrate or compete in an adjacent industry - one where we can partner with other experts to extend a capability or do some open innovation that marries our products and services with anothers to enter an industry or segment where we don't compete today.  This places a significant bet on a partner that we don't control and may have other plans or motivations.  Trying to mitigate one type of risk, we simply transfer the risk elsewhere.

Once that has been considered and rejected, we seek to do whatever we can to innovate within our own footprint, discussing "disruptive" innovation in our own markets or industries.  But we are quickly reminded that disrupting the cash cow isn't smart - either tone down the innovation in the existing footprint or go innovate outside the footprint (which, of course, has already been rejected since we know so little about markets or industries outside the footprint).

Then, innovators will consider adapting or adopting existing capabilities for new uses within the industry or footprint.  This seems like a real possibility, until we discover that we really know very little about innovation beyond the product itself.  Channel, business model and customer experience innovation, building on an existing product and extending innovation beyond the product, seems interesting but we know nothing about how to do it.

So, eventually, we end up with incremental innovation based on existing products, or, in other words, product extensions.  This is a completely viable innovation outcome.  It just shouldn't be the only one, but inevitably becomes the only viable outcome.

Innovation Places and types

In a perfect world, we'd consider places to innovate and types of outcomes, and create an interesting mix.  We'd innovate in adjacent and completely new spaces, because it's a rare company that wants to disrupt its own industry or business model.  In other words, we'd attack other companies' models or industries, to keep them off-guard, which opens new markets for us and protects our nest eggs from attack.  We'd also keep up a constant drumbeat of innovation in channels, business models, customer experiences, services and so on - to retain the value proposition of our products by extending innovation in other means and types. 

Innovators all know this, and live with consistent hope.  We go through innovation denial, giving up first disruptive innovation, then adjacent innovation, then other types of innovation to settle into incremental innovation.  It's no wonder that so much innovation is simply incremental.  It almost doesn't matter where your starting point is, or what your original targets and expectations were, most paths lead to the same place.  Paul Hobcraft covered this in his Snakes and Ladders posts a few weeks ago.  The Snakes are everywhere, causing you to fall back to the lowest common denominator.

Environment shapes Attitude

This reality is the reason so many innovators are so often also fatalists.  They've seen the mountain, and even think they know how to get there, but the obstacles placed in their way, by their own sponsors, executives, corporate culture and others simply wear down their hope and initial enthusiasm.  Ask almost any experienced innovator and they'll be able to describe the proposed journey and the almost inevitable outcomes.  New innovators are full of possibility and energy.  Experienced innovators constantly seek ways to get a lot more done under the radar, or before the barriers are raised.  Experienced innovators skip quickly past disbelief and denial.  Anger they've got plenty of.  They become masters of bargaining, and still retain a lot of hope.

When you stop to consider how important attitude, belief and commitment are to a successful innovation effort, it won't surprise you that fatalism and inertia are deadly.  The best innovators never give up hope, never stop believing, always overcome obstacles.  But it can be difficult to remain optimistic when your own organization is the culprit that builds the obstacles.

What Napoleon can teach us

Napoleon would make a great modern innovator. Of course he was a pretty good innovator in his own time, in warfare and in governance.  He had a couple of sayings that I think would apply nicely to modern innovation activities.  The first was Audacity, always audacity.  He meant that the winning side was often the one that plunged in and took big risks.  He was known for dividing his army in the face of the enemy, doing crazy, audacious things that no other commander would do.  He grew from a lowly second lieutenant to commander of most of western Europe by doing things others did not expect.  I think the same is true with most successful innovators. They have hopeful plans and are audacious, doing things that others can't imagine.
Another important Napoleonic aphorism was "if you go to take Vienna, take Vienna". In other words, no half-hearted attempts.  Make big plans and execute on those plans, ideally before the decision makers and corporate culture becomes aware of just how audacious your plans really are.  If you want to bypass or overcome the steps of innovation denial, move with audacity, make big plans and achieve them quickly.  Otherwise, the slowly moving corporate forces will introduce fear, uncertainty and doubt which will cripple your efforts.

In the world of corporate innovation, there are many possibilities but a few certainties.  One certainty is that the faster you move, the less time the culture has a chance to develop antibodies against your plans. The second certainty is that no matter how audacious your plans are, they will encounter resistance and will be watered down. Therefore, go for the biggest opportunity you can imagine.

The third certainty is that innovation grief works in the opposite direction to psychological grief.  Innovators often start with hope, move to bargaining and end with denial and disbelief.  Move so quickly, with such force and determination that you don't have to go through the steps.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:00 AM


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