Tony Vengrove is a regular contributor to intrepidNOW, writing about innovation, creative leadership, and fostering a creative culture.I must admit I absolutely abhor the phrase, “make innovation happen.” It’s a silly phrase often used in blog titles such as, “Five Steps to Make Innovation Happen.” I read such posts and feel like I’m listening to a snake-oil peddler pitching a super tonic that has the power to cure everything from cancer to heart disease. If you believe innovation can happen by following a few formulized steps, then I’d love to sell you Bernie Madoff’s sure-fire system for beating the stock market. The truth is, there’s no silver bullet for making innovation “happen,” or any other worthy endeavor. Innovation is a circuitous journey filled with hard work, patience, and persistence.
Alas, though, too many organizations continually seek a surefire process that will guarantee their organization a never-ending stream of innovative Grand Slams.
Several years ago I was working on an Executive Certificate program at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, outside of Boston in Cambridge. It was twice a month and I had to commute three hours from my home in Connecticut to attend. As much as I loved the program, getting up at 4:30 a.m. was the dawn of the living dead, but I’d fill a mug of coffee, turn on talk radio, and hope for a golden sunrise as I drove east.
I recall one time when I arrived especially groggy. A number of students were already seated around the twenty or so circular tables and were flipping through the course materials that had been provided on each seat. I wasn’t ready to socialize just yet, so I hunkered down while I contentedly sipped my coffee—until an ebullient attractive young woman joined our table and said, “Hi, I’m Julie. My company just declared innovation a key corporate strategy, so they sent me to this class to learn what process we should implement. So, what process do you use for innovation at your companies guys?”
Oh God, please don’t drag me into this conversation, I’m not fully caffeinated.
All four others around the table, though, enthusiastically jumped in and before you knew it, a full-fledged debate about what optimum innovative process was underway. It was quite entertaining. My classmates made passionate cases for what they thought was the magic formula, but there was no clear winner. Then our professor stormed in and the debate was curtailed.
I’ve never forgotten that conversation, because it was the first time I realized how much emphasis people put on process to deliver innovation. As Julie noted, most organizations that get serious about innovation embrace a process orientation, then they put their best managers in charge to run it. Don’t get me wrong, process is an important piece of the puzzle, but implementing and managing a system won’t magically output game-changing innovation. Only curiously engaged human brains working collaboratively have the power to do that.
So how do we make innovation “happen?” There’s really only one answer: any way you can.
So let’s agree to let go of the notion that there’s a single magic formula for innovative success. Instead, let’s adopt a spirit of whatever it takes!
Do whatever it takes to get inspired, and to inspire those around you, to solve those seemingly impossible problems.
Do whatever it takes to connect the right people together and build a collective brain.
Do whatever it takes to understand what your consumers are really experiencing and feeling.
Do whatever it takes to create the conditions for others to channel their creative genius.
Do whatever it takes to defend ideas, no matter how much you’re outnumbered by skeptics.
Do whatever it takes to satisfy every constraint management throws at you, until you earn a green light for launch.
Do whatever it takes to learn and make things better—embrace failure a la Thomas Edison.
Do whatever it takes to gain agreement to take a shot on goal.
This spirit is infectious and will build confidence with both your superiors and subordinates. At a former company where I was Director of Innovation, I brought a “whatever it takes” spirit to the job—every day. When several of our new products were ready to test market, management continually delayed the launches because of looming legislative and taxation changes. With each delay they added new constraints or requests for modifications.
My team and I were frustrated by each delay, but we always rose to the challenge and met management’s objectives. We never surrendered. After a few rounds of delays, I found myself presenting our new test-market plans for the coming year to senior management. At the conclusion of my presentation the President said, “Tony, I feel like we ask you to do your job while standing blindfolded on one foot, with your arms tied behind your back, while we continually push back the finish line. Somehow you manage to find a way to get it all done. I’m beyond grateful.”
My team and I beamed with pride. Those products soon made it to market.
Never give up! Do whatever it takes!