As a guy of a certain age, who grew up with the Star Wars franchise, and who is happily passing it along to his son, I think many aspects of life can be related with a Star Wars reference. Of course I’m going to skip over some of the franchise’s less than stellar characters (I’m looking at you, Ewoks, and you, Jar-Jar). What were they thinking?
But I digress. As everyone knows, a masterful Jedi controls his emotions and his situation. He or she has such control that Jedi Masters can influence the thinking of others whose “weak” minds are susceptible to influence. Thus it was in Mos Eisley that Obi-Wan Kenobi was able to convince the Storm Troopers that “these aren’t the droids you are looking for”, even though they most certainly were the droids they were looking for. It’s the old trope – who are you going to believe, me, or your lying eyes?
Obi-Wan’s capability with the force allows him to influence and blind a group of Storm Troopers to the obvious truth, telling them that the androids in his possession aren’t the robots that the troopers have been sent to find. With a simple mind trick he diverts the troopers’ attention, and goes blithely on his way. What’s not so well known is that many executives have similar powers. Their power of suggestion is at least as powerful as the Jedis, when it comes to innovation.
These aren’t the ideas you are looking for
While any executive may ask for new ideas to create a new product or service, the honest truth is that ANY executive can derail the search for interesting ideas by suggesting the ideas are too small or too large, products rather than services, too early or too late. A simple recommendation, a question out of context or a signal with negative body language can throw an entire innovation team into suspended animation, as they attempt to read the tea leaves and please not only the individual who started the activity, but also respond to every executive request, question and whim.
Most innovation teams are cross-functional, structured that way to introduce more experience and perspectives and to ensure many of the business functions are represented. While one executive may need a new product or service, all of the team members report to a wide array of managers and executives who may, or may not, be all that enthralled with the innovation need and the kinds of ideas being generated. It’s a simple act to place a question in the ear of an innovation team member, or to remind the team of a failure from years ago, or to illuminate a potentially competing product, and quickly have the entire team questioning the wisdom of pursuing a particular path.
Clarity, Consistency, Continuity
The executive mind trick is sometimes intentional, when competing priorities mean that executives want to derail projects or simply regain resources allocated in other places. In many cases the executive mind trick is accidental, an executive simply asking questions or making statements that cause the team to rethink its position. Innovation is difficult enough for an untrained, undermanned team with limited time and resources. No idea is perfect, and any doubt or uncertainty introduced about the team or its ideas is likely to distract or even derail the team.
What defeats the intentional or unintentional innovation mind trick are three factors: clarity, consistency and continuity. Clarity defines the strategies, goals, and commitments. Innovation activities are often started with little clarity about means and goals. The more clarity the sponsor provides, the more difficult it is for another executive to distract the team. Consistency describes sticking to the path in the face of adversity. Every project faces unexpected hiccups, and innovation projects even more so. Executive sponsors must understand the deviations that are possible but remain steadfastly focused on the end goal, and encourage the innovation team to do the same. Finally, continuity is important. The more every executive gets in line and says the same things to the team, encouraging and supporting rather than questioning and dividing, the more likely the team is to find a valuable outcome.
What ideas are we looking for?
The most challenging issue that many innovation teams face is that they know how the ideas they are generating must be evaluated, but don’t know how to reach that desired end state. In other words they know that the ideas must generate more revenue or more profits, attract more customers or disrupt the competition, but those are end goals that can be delivered through many different means. What type of ideas are we looking for? Incremental or disruptive? Products or Services? Internal or External? With definition comes the ability to defend the idea, but without definition or defined scope any executive can reasonably question any idea the team presents.
Many executives know that their people and teams hate uncertainty and ambiguity more than any other feedback. Asking questions or making statements to an innovation team that introduces uncertainty or suggests different priorities or knowledge ramps up the anxiety and slows the team’s progress. With a simple question or statement that isn’t aligned to the team’s understanding or goals, any executive can send a ripple through even a strong innovation team or activity. This is the executive innovation mind trick, and it derails innovation more frequently than you’d imagine. Sometimes it is accidental, sometimes on purpose, but in either case the innovation team must be hardened to identify and respond to questions or signals that seem to cast doubt on their work. Only an engaged executive with a clear definition and consistent feedback and oversight of the innovation team can do that.
image credit: jediarchives
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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.