Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Searching for Attitude

Creating the right chemistry in an innovation team is more art than science.  Whether you are assembling a team for a two-hour brainstorming session or a two-year skunk works project, you obviously need the right mix of technical expertise for the task.  Relevant expertise and diverse perspectives are critical components in selecting team members for any innovation effort.

Of equal importance to expertise, however, are the more attitudinal characteristics of the individuals being considered—their “softer” skills and qualities—their attitudes, the way they think, and how they work with others.  This may also apply when you are recruiting qualitative research subjects.  Here are a few characteristics to consider:

People who act not only to achieve results, but also to learn from them.

My high school algebra teacher used to tell us that it was not enough to get the right answer; we needed to learn how and why we got the right answer.  The logic of the formula was even more important to learn than getting the right answer.  Now I am beginning to understand my teacher’s admonitions.  Much later in life I encountered Peter Drucker’s counsel that the primary source of innovation for a company is its own unexpected success.  “No other area offers richer opportunities for successful innovation.  In no other area are innovative opportunities less risky and their pursuit less arduous.  Yet the unexpected success is almost totally neglected; worse, managements tend actively to reject it.”

We can look at success in one of two ways: either as something for which we are proud and can take credit, or as a teacher offering us something from which we can learn. How often we take successful results to be the goal more than the guide to our future contributions.  People who view success as a teacher rather than a trophy provide a very positive catalysis to any innovation effort to which they contribute.

People who have the ability to use all their senses for gathering intelligence.

When it comes to innovation – especially the “fuzzy front end” of innovation efforts – awareness and knowledge of the leading indicators frequently come more through qualitative rather than quantitative forms.  New insights that identify the first awakenings of a trend before it is generally recognized as  trend, come from creative connection-making with what initially seems like a lot of irrelevant information.  Once an insight begins to form, however, information that is “relevant” starts to emerge from the “irrelevant,” like text can emerge from context.

People who have the ability to make creative connections between seemingly irrelevant pieces of diverse information act like great artists who tap all their senses and seem to be able to make ideas come alive.

People who are more practiced at interpreting than predicting.

Several months ago Forbes’ ASAP ran a column based on an intriguing though curious analogy.  The article gave a tongue-in-cheek explanation for why Silicon Valley continually outperforms Route 128 (Boston/MIT area).  The article compared how the East Coast experiences relatively predictable seasonal changes every year, whereas the West Coast experiences little seasonal change, but instead lives with largely unpredictable natural events (e.g., earthquakes, wildfires and mudslides).

As a result, the author boldly suggested that people on the West Coast have learned a management and planning orientation that is not based on prediction, like their counterparts on the East Coast.  It is based on “resilience” – an ability to quickly recover and use unforeseen events as catalysts for seizing and exploiting opportunity.  Although the analogy is a stretch, the point is an intriguing one, especially when considering what qualities to seek in a teammate for an innovation effort.  The ability to recover, reorient, interpret and reinterpret as new information becomes available may be more valuable today than the analytical ability to predict with precision what will happen.

Aside from an individual’s technical proficiencies and experiences, the most useful quality of an innovation team member may be their attitude toward change.  After four people told me recently to read the book, Who Moved My Cheese, by Spencer Johnson, M.D., I picked up a copy.  It is a great little parable of four characters, each of whom responds quite differently to the reality of their storehouse of cheese being “removed.”  There’s Sniff, who smells the wind before looking for more cheese.  Scurry, who runs up and down the maze looking for clues to the next store of cheese.  Hem, who denies that things have changed and waits for the cheese to return. And Haw, who overcomes his denial to face the new reality and learns to love the question for “new cheese.”  Perhaps the teams we create for our innovation efforts need the right mix of Sniff, Scurry, Haw and yes, even a little Hem.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in September 2000. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270. 

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