Innovation: “Ninety percent of this game is half mental.”


Based on this quote alone, Yogi Berra has to be the best source of leadership insights ever.  So what does his quote have to do with innovation?

Innovation is a nebulous topic that people think about in varied ways.   Most people are quick to say they would like their organizations to be more innovative, but when you ask “tell me what that looks like to you?” it requires more careful thought.  What does it look like to you if your organization is acting in innovative ways? Are people solving problems better?  Designing products your customers will love more? Creating revolutionary new ways of doing things?

All these things describe innovation, but creating revolution may involve more risk than you are willing to accept.  So what does innovation look like to you?   How do your people behave?  What skills do you feel they need to have? And, how does your organization behave as a result?

From my vantage point, innovation is about enabling your people to see things through fresh eyes (or from different perspectives) in the hope that they will consider new and interesting solutions that they would under normal circumstances.   It can be a bottom-up organic thing.  It is not forced from above or commanded.   Innovation leaders needs to see themselves more as holding a watering can where they engage in cultivating seeds of ideas in their people.  As with plants, how they grow up is unpredictable, yet still somehow related to their care and feeding.   We need to create the ground and MAKE IT POSSIBLE for the ideas to germinate and flourish.   It is the ultimate in unleashing human power and imagination.

We are trying to create a certain mindset among our people.

Here is a list of desired traits and skills proposed by Lisa Bodell, in her new book, Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution.

1)      PROVOCATIVE INQUIRY Truly valuable employees are not just curious; they have the ability to ask smart, even disturbing questions. These questions stretch their own thinking and that of others. Employees who have this skill are willing to question their own assumptions instead of holding them sacred.

2)      CREATIVE PROBLEM-SOLVING Creative problem solvers draw on a wide range of resources to go beyond the quick and obvious to create novel and game-changing solutions. They apply best practices from offbeat sources and unrelated industries, making connections that others wouldn’t think of. They’re excited to think in new ways, instead of using the same go-to solutions for every problem that arises.

3)      AGILITY In today’s business world, change is the only constant. Employees will need to think on their feet and nimbly change directions. They need to be resourceful and confident in their own abilities to handle unexpected situations. Employees who are agile can be counted on to effectively deal with any wild cards that are thrown their way.

4)      RESILIENCE Employees who are tenacious will be incredibly valuable. Their courage to overcome obstacles and push on undeterred will give their organizations an advantage in good times and in bad. As our positive culture encourages teams to take on more autonomy and responsibility, resilience will become more and more important, and they’ll need to get a little bit tough to thrive.  Finally, I would add:

5)      INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY Innovative people are consummate students – of their industry, their technology, their customers, the way people behave, and how the world works.   They read, explore, and observe everywhere they go.   They tend to see possibilities for how their organization could operate better no matter what they are looking at.  They think in metaphors and imagery, and see more similarities than differences when looking at businesses outside their home industry.

You can argue about whether these are trainable traits or whether we have to hire for them (because we are born with them).  The answer, of course, is a resounding YES!

In many organizations, we smother these instincts and make it almost impossible for them to flourish.

The Biggest Culprit?

It has to do with striking the right balance between the short-run and long-term . . . between doing what you think will ultimately produce the best business outcomes and actually achieving them.  When I speak with managers (especially mid-level) they all sing the same song.  Everyone is being challenged to do more with less, and many days, it doesn’t feel like we can keep up.  Couple this with the pressure to hit various performance metrics against which we will be evaluated, and it is no wonder innovation suffers.

Innovation requires that we give our people the ability to stand back from what is right under our nose to observe,  think, experiment, question and explore in new ways.   There is just no getting around the fact that this needs time. If we want our teams to be innovative, we as leaders need to provide the opportunity, encouragement and resources.

I have never worked in an organization where there weren’t more problems than people to solve them.   I learned that you can’t do it all.  What you can do is choose.  Choose the most important issues and decide that you are willing to let some small fires smolder while you are seeking to address something bigger that can make your operation sustainably better.

Perhaps you have experienced otherwise, but I never had success with project teams that met once a week for forever, and really drove innovative solutions.   My best results always happened when we cleared the decks, locked people in a room, and told them this was their day job for the next ‘X’ days.  Sure, it takes some courage, but it works.  Focus, understand the problem, generate new ideas, filter them to find the best and carefully plan the execution.   That’s the formula.

Often, Your People Don’t Want to Try.

Why should they?   If you live only in the world of today’s tasks, and only focus on the short run, your people will quickly learn that it is pointless to think more broadly, because nothing will come of it.   We will then lose patience and interest.   And they’ve seen it before . . . too many times.  By focusing on the short-term, you will cultivate a team of mindless drones, who may keep the planes running on time, but they will be locked in the here and now and attached to what is.  What a waste.

In my next blog, I will suggest an exercise you can try if you want to slowly move your organization to a place where people are alive, and shaping their own future (rather than merely reacting to it.)

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