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

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© 2013 Vincent & Associates, Ltd. 

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