Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fear, Faith and Innovation

One of the silent killers of innovation efforts may be fear. With the uncertainty in every stage of the innovation process, fear can easily seep in and disable the innovator, especially since the innovator is typically working against the odds. 

One of the most obvious fears associated with doing something new, and against the odds, is the fear of failure. (This fear has an interesting cousin called the fear of successe.g., the jealousy for resources that a ‘prodigal’ sibling innovation may appear to steal from the ‘elder’ and established sibling business.) However, there are likely other types of fears that become particularly acute during certain stages of the innovation process. For example, the fear of rejection can keep an idea generator from voicing an idea that could lead to a breakthrough.

Innovation efforts involve working through four fundamental challengesdiscovering something new, inventing something useful, incarnating this invention into a practical context and tangible value, and finally introducing the invention to the market and/or organization.  Might not each of these challenges have its own “demon” for the innovator; in other words, its own dominant type of fear? For instance, the fear of “unlearning” (i.e., appearing “naïve”) may be the demon against which innovators fight in the discovery stage of an innovation effort.  For the invention stage, it may be the fear of rejection. For the reduction-to-practice stage, it may be the fear of failure. And for the introduction and integration stage, it may be the fear of insignificance (e.g., realizing that while valuable, the innovation might not be the “be all and end all”).

“Drive out fear” was one of Edward Deming’s fourteen timeless principles which became popular during the total quality era a few years ago. Deming’s principle has a timeless relevance to innovation management as well. But how do you do that?

For a couple of years now we’ve been toying with a hypothesis regarding the role faith plays in the innovation process. While successful innovations are difficult to predict and diverse in their character and circumstances, the accounts of how successful innovations have developed have at least one theme in commonan overcoming of the odds. When overcoming the odds is a part of the plot line, both Hollywood and the world’s spiritual traditions know that the story involves a little bit of faith on the part of the innovator. If innovation is about overcoming the odds and their associated fears, then faith may play a larger role in innovation than is often conceded. As many of the world’s spiritual traditions have known for a long time, one of the most effective antidotes to fear is faith.

Justifying innovation investments, especially financially, continues to be a perennial management challenge. Net Present Value, options valuation methods, scorecards, and other attempts have not been able to completely satisfy those who are searching for a defensive rationale. Given the general dissatisfaction with any clear and definitive financial criteria for innovation investments, it is fascinating that so many companies continue to investsometimes significant portions of their resources—in the pursuit of growth-enabling innovations. So what is it that sustains this motivation if it is not the numbers? Might it be faith? [Faith as defined by one spiritual tradition as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.”]

Aside from all this philosophical hypothesizing, there may even be practical management implications in all this as well. Faith teaches us to face our ears, whether with the child-like awe required of the learner to unlearn what he thought he knew, or with the confidence required of the idea generator to expect and anticipate rejection, or with the persistence required of the inventor whose 99% perspiration results from repeated trials and errors, or with the humility required of the introducer/integrator to stand aside and let the light shine on the innovation itself. Awe, confidence, persistence and humility…aren’t these all synonyms for faith?

We would appreciate your thoughts, experiences and connections with any or all parts of this hypothesisthe role faith has played in your innovation efforts. The dialogue itself should help us each with more, better and even faster, innovations that work®.

This article by Lanny Vincent originally appeared in Innovating Perspectives in September 2003. Subsequently Lanny wrote the book Prisoners of Hope: How Innovators and Others Get Lift for Innovating (published by Westbow Press in 2011), which expands and elaborates on the subject of this article. For more information, please go to http://www.innovationsthatwork.com/books-poh.html

For other back issues of our newsletter, please visit www.innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.  

© 2013 Vincent & Associates, Ltd. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Feel the Temperature of Change

You probably heard the story about the two frogs. One frog is dropped into a pot of boiling water and immediately jumps out. A second frog is dropped into a pot of lukewarm water, the water temperature is gradually increased, the frog stays put and eventually boils to death.

The difference between the two frogs can be instructive to those of us at risk of becoming victims of our own success. Of the two frogs, the one at greater risk is obviously the one who was unaware of the threatening, albeit gradual, changes occurring in his immediate environment. The frog who survived was the one who had enough “feel” for his environment to allow him to respond appropriately.

How sensitive a corporation is to its environment can be crucial to its long-term success. For example, how well does your company or division update its understanding of the immediate business environment? And, how well does your team “sense” the subtle and gradual changes in that environment, especially those that signal lasting change?

Sensitivity, more than precision or accuracy, may be what is most important. The frog that survived did not calibrate the exact temperature of the water. He leapt out because it was too hot. That was all he needed to know. When conditions are turbulent or in a period of rapid change, it may be more useful to get a general feel for the major factors than to worry about the precision of the environment analysis.

The president of Specialized Bicycle Components, Inc., Michael Sinyard, sensed the water boiling in the late 1970s. He began to notice how some enthusiasts were rigging up their bicycles to ride on mountain trails in Marin County, California, and Boulder, Colorado. In the subtle changes, he saw an opportunity, and was the first to capitalize on the mountain bike craze. He changed what as once a parts distribution company into the first and leading mountain bike company in the world. Being alert to the significance of subtle and early changes, and having a willingness to act even with an imprecise understanding, must be counted as essential factors that led to his success.

Karl Weick, in his book Sensemaking in Organizations, relates the story of a young Hungarian lieutenant who sends his men into the Swiss Alps on a reconnaissance mission. Shortly after they left, it began to snow and soon turned into a blizzard. The lieutenant feared he had sent his men into the icy wilderness to die. Three days later, however, the men returned. Relieved, the lieutenant asked where they had been and how they made their way back. They said they considered themselves lost and waited for their death. Then one of them found a map in his pocket, which calmed them down. They pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm, and then, with the map, they discovered their bearings and here they were. The lieutenant asked to see the map and had a good look at it. He discovered to his astonishment that it was not a map of the Alps at all. Instead, it was a map of the Pyrenees! Weick concludes, “This incident raises the intriguing possibility that when you are lost, any old map will do!”

Understanding the environment with precise accuracy was not necessary, but the decision to get moving was.

This article by Lanny Vincent originally appeared in Innovating Perspectives in June 1996. For other issues of our newsletter, please go to www.innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.  

© 2013 Vincent & Associates, Ltd.