I began this series with a quote from Arthur Schopenhauer, a proponent of pessimism in Western philosophy: “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” In the last two articles, I’ve explored ways to expand that field of vision when we examine our industries and organizations. In this article, I want to talk about the first (and perhaps most important frame) we need to move in driving innovation more reliably and rigorously: how we frame ourselves as innovation leaders.
On the one hand, innovation has never been more professionalized than it is today. More and more firms are establishing Chief Innovation Officers, there’s a dizzying array of innovation consultancies available to help (including yours truly), and we now have countless software applications designed to support innovation—from ideation to crowdsourcing to portfolio management. However, the notion that innovation is a vital discipline that deserves rigor and dedicated resources is fairly new. So most of the individuals who are called on to lead innovation today, either directly or as key stakeholders, didn’t grow up as innovation professionals. Their prior training and experience may not prepare them for the different leadership behaviors and tools innovation demands. Even the most naturally gifted individuals often need to shift how they frame their role and impact in helping their organizations innovate.
More broadly, the bigger challenge is often helping leaders see that they have a vital part to play, regardless of their title. Some of the most effective firms involve a broad cross-section of their leadership in innovation—from managing the portfolio to sponsoring individual initiatives. And transformational innovations, the ones that go beyond products to include new platforms, experiences and business models, demand innovation from multiple parts of any enterprise. If you take nothing else from this article, know that you have an essential role in helping your organization innovate.
This is a longer conversation, but there are three leadership shifts that are vital for anyone leading innovation (whether you’re an appointed head of innovation or simply a switched-on executive who wants to support it more broadly in your organization):
I have a lot of empathy for CFOs when it comes to innovation. They’re typically only consulted when it comes time to loosen the purse strings and fund an initiative—long after all of the framing, research, and design has been done. They’re often confronted with investment cases that are either tissue-thin or wildly optimistic (and repeated exposure to the latter will make even the most generous person cynical, as the promised exponential growth rarely materializes). This puts CFOs and other senior finance professionals effectively in the role of the person who continually has to say “no.”
This is a shame and a missed opportunity because finance professionals are typically pretty useful when it comes to thinking about business models, financing mechanisms and ways to de-risk initiatives. And more senior finance professionals are vital in understanding and shaping the innovation portfolio, in translating the range of ambition and risk across initiatives into funding requirements and return possibilities, and connecting them to the organization’s strategy.
The same opportunity—and need—exists for virtually every other function and discipline—we need HR leaders to identify and foster promising innovation talent and set the right incentives and metrics; we need sales leaders to explore unmet customer needs and drive new innovations into the market; we need CIOs and CTOs to understand how digital and other technologies can create new possibilities; and so on across the organization. Perhaps you haven’t been asked to participate, or as is often the case with finance professionals, you haven’t been asked in the most productive way. Put your hand up. Rest assured that you have valuable perspective, capabilities and resources to contribute. And if there isn’t enough activity in the first place to get involved, then offer to take it on. Worry later about whether that’s the right long-term structural solution for your organization—that’s a wonderful question to have to answer because it means you’ve got enough activity and commitment to warrant it.
Innovation, by definition, is fundamentally about creating the new—we cannot know the answer at the outset. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us don’t really love that proposition, however much we profess otherwise. We’re hardwired as humans to avoid uncertainty and ambiguity. Our training doesn’t help, as most management science is grounded in breaking problems down and testing hypotheses—not in creating new things. The various planning and coordination mechanisms needed to organize our organizations often struggle to accommodate ambiguity, and they all have enormous inertia (how much has the annual budget for any department really moved in the last three years?). Now recognize that you’ve likely succeeded so far by learning how to navigate and work in a context that prizes certainty, reliability and steady achievement by default. None of these conditions are in your favor.
Leading innovation (again as either the direct leader or a key stakeholder) demands a much higher tolerance for ambiguity than you’ve probably encountered in your other leadership roles. The development process is never linear—it’s a roller coaster punctuated by moments of elation (“nobody could refuse this value proposition!”) and despair (“…and we just found out it’s currently illegal.”). Failure actually is an option while innovating. If none of the initiatives fail, you probably need to take bigger swings (or are placing some bad bets)—but very few organizations are comfortable failing. One of your fundamental tasks as an innovation leader is to keep your organization’s ambition and courage high throughout the journey, and this requires living in ambiguity with confidence.
Learn to mistrust easy answers and simple tradeoffs, to refuse solutions that are perfectly fine but fail to solve the bigger opportunity. Spend as much time exploring the problem you’re trying to solve as any of the options for solving it. Ask “why?” relentlessly. Yes, these leadership behaviors will return you and your teams to the sea of ambiguity (and likely annoy your colleagues in the process)—but they also demonstrate that some time adrift is a vital part of the process.
The other articles in this series will hopefully help you see new possibilities; to fight the blunting effects of time and familiarity and see your world in new ways. The leadership shift at the heart of this perspective is very simple, but not always easy to make or maintain: the stubborn, resolute belief that there’s a better way.
Cynicism can be surprisingly easy. There’s typically little-perceived risk in accepting the status quo. There’s little risk in sighing and saying, “We’ve seen that before,” “We’ve tried that before,” “Why will we succeed here when so many others have failed?” and so on. There’s little risk saying no. In many ways, each innovation initiative we charter is a triumph of hope over experience. Corny as it sounds, hope and optimism are essential traits in any innovation leader, and it takes work to refresh and sustain them.
Take time every day to explore the world in some small way outside the walls of your office. Spend time with your young people—including those only young at heart—and take in their dreams and aspirations for your company. Spend time with your customers and remind yourself that what you do for them matters—and that they need you to keep improving and expanding what you do. Indulge your skepticism—a common refrain around Doblin is “What if everything we believe about this is wrong?” But try with all your might to never let it become cynicism. There’s always a better way. We just have to keep looking, however unlikely finding it feels. Even pessimists like Schopenhauer can teach us quite a bit about optimism.
This article was written by Brian Quinn from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.