Thursday, October 24, 2013

Innovators need serenity, courage and wisdom

If you are uncomfortable, dissatisfied, disappointed in your products and services, you may be an innovator.  Of course, you may simply be a curmudgeon, never happy with anything, but that will be evident to everyone around you.  The difference between curmudgeons and innovators is often subtle, but it deals with the difference between simply complaining, and acting on your passion.  Innovators are frequently dissatisfied, but are simultaneously seeking new and better solutions.  As Emerson wrote, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him... The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself... All progress depends on the unreasonable man."

If you are dissatisfied with the status quo, it may help to understand the source of your dissatisfaction, and also begin to identify those things you can change, and those things you must accept.  As Niebuhr wrote in the Serenity prayer, we need serenity, courage and wisdom.  We also need to demonstrate the difference between being a disruptive influence and being a disruptive innovator.  To that end, the Serenity Prayer may offer a path to improved innovation, and create a distinction between those who are merely dissatisfied and those who can use their dissatisfaction to create better solutions.


There are aspects of any organization that you may not be able to change, even if they are disfunctional.  As an innovator, you may be dissatisfied with the current state of your processes, products or business models, but you may not be able to change them.  The rationale for change may not exist, or others may be satisfied with the state of play, even if you aren't.  As we've discussed before, only a major calamity or a "burning platform" will create change.  You can either create that burning platform or identify it and get people to buy in, or you need to achieve serenity with the things you cannot change.

Serenity is also important in the process of an innovation activity, because every project has its ups and downs.  Innovation is often a roller coaster ride of discovery, setback and new insight.  Those without the serenity to deal with the ups and downs will struggle.


There are aspects of an organization or an activity that need to be improved or innovated, and everyone understands that to be the case, yet little is done because no one wants to take the lead.  Innovators are not simply dissatisfied with the status quo, but they are also proactive solution seekers.  In this instance you need to be courageous, and take the first step to create new products or solutions when it is clear that others have "bought in" to the need for change and are waiting for someone to lead.

It also takes courage to tell executives that existing products should be cannibalized, or funding for pet projects should be cut in order to develop new products.  Or that a new market should be developed based on trends, scenarios and future insights.  Nothing takes more courage than asking executives to place bets on future products or existing products.


There are factors that are simply unknowable or unobtainable, and understanding these will minimize dissatisfaction and frustration.  For example, many innovation projects include a customer research or insight activity.  The most common question is:  how much insight did you get?  Did your research uncover "all" of the needs?  This is often an earnest but disingenuous question.  It is not possible to uncover "every" need.  You could research a population for years and fail to uncover every need.  We simply need to balance the amount of learning possible with time and resource tradeoffs.  This is an exercise of "wisdom", the ability to know when to stop researching and the ability to defend the decision.  Since much of innovation is unusual and uncertain, often poorly framed, innovation requires a lot of "wisdom" in the ambiguous areas. 

 Innovation:  Both rational and instinctual
While there are those of us who'd love to define innovation as a functional, rational process that is scientific and fully replicable, to date that's simply not the case.  People who need that safety, security and comfort with guardrails and existing well-defined processes will struggle in an innovation setting.  Good innovators will have serenity to deal with the "ups and downs" of innovation.  They'll have courage to reject the existing processes or systems and ask for funding for products that will only emerge in the future.  They'll have the wisdom to know when to push, and when to pull back, when to get more insight and when their gut says they have enough. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:26 AM


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