What Dancing Can Teach Us about Innovation

It’s remarkable how many different things can teach us about innovation: historic figures, such as Thomas Edison; outdoor activities, such as skateboarding; sports events, such as sailing competition The America’s Cup; consumer products, such as iPhone 5s and Spanx. And then, there is Hollywood, The Karate Kid, and (my favorite) “a parking lot full of meat lovers.”

In fact, one shouldn’t be surprised, for innovation comes in so many different shapes, shades, angles and facets that it can originate from almost any source, not just as a neat package delivered by a college or business school professor.

Inspired by the above examples, I decided to contribute my fair share to the list. As a competing amateur ballroom dancer, I’d like to argue that dancing too can teach us about innovation. To prove my point, I’ll share with you some wisdom that I’ve learned from my dancing teacher.

Make every move your move

In a sense, there is no “correct” way to dance. True, textbooks and competition guidelines would describe recommended sequences of steps that every basic dancing move is composed of. Yet, every dancer knows that it’s his or her body—its structure, flexibility and responsiveness to music—that ultimately defines the choice of dancing moves and the way they’re performed. You succeed in dancing only when your every move fits your physical and spiritual abilities; you become a dancer only if every move becomes your move.

When launching innovation initiatives, organizations—especially those with a shorter innovation history—often look for “best practices,” a set of supposedly proven approaches that can guarantee a successful outcome of any given innovation project. The truth is that there are no “best practices” in the innovation management practice (remember Steve Shapiro’s “Best Practices Are Stupid”?). Instead of chasing the elusive silver bullets, the organizations should try a number of very different approaches and identify those that fit the best its corporate strategy, organizational structure, the level of innovation maturity, resources and culture.  Only after finding the moves that are its moves, can the organization successfully conduct an innovation dance.

You move with your feet, but you dance with your whole body

When I was taking my very first dancing lessons, I was absolutely sure that once I memorized the sequence of required steps (“slow-slow-quick-quick-slow”), the art of dancing will be mastered. But then, I was told that my arms mattered too. Later, I realized that without moving hips (not something taken for granted for a man of my age), my dance will look bland. Finally, I understood that it’s my brain (or guts?) that ultimately drives my dance, bringing together my feet, arms, hips, shoulders and, yes, my face expression. In fact, the more experienced I get in dancing, the less I think about steps as such.

Usually, organizations begin experimenting with innovation by creating a dedicated innovation team—be it within R&D, business development or IT unit—whose responsibility is to learn and conduct first “steps” of innovation journey. It’s crucially important for this group not to stay indefinitely focused on the pure technicalities of the innovation management process. To begin with, the innovation group should rapidly reach out to the marketing to make sure that all planned innovation initiatives incorporate customer feedback. Then it should talk to human resources to ensure that employees who made significant contributions to innovation projects are properly recognized and rewarded.

And don’t forget corporate communication whose help with celebrating success stories may play a crucial role in changing the very way the organization views innovation. Finally, little will come out even of the most brilliantly conceived innovation initiative, if the senior management team, the company’s brain and face, would fail to support the innovation group. It’s for a reason that innovation is called a team sports.

Motion creates an emotion

I’d lie if I told you that I’m always in a dancing mood; no, quite often I don’t feel like dancing. But sometimes, I simply have to, for example, to get prepared for my next lesson. So I get up, turn on the music and take my first step. Then another. Then one more. And, all of sudden, a magic happens: my body sheds the rust and gets filled with life, and the rhythm of the music begins pulsing in my blood vessels. My dancing motion is creating a dancing emotion, and, fueled by this new emotion, my next step is better than the previous.

There are so many excuses for organizations to place innovation at the bottom of the list of priorities. “We don’t have time,” “We don’t have resources,” “Our CEO doesn’t care”—have we all not heard this before? The only way to shake off the innovation lethargy is to leave the proverbial couch and take first step. Then another. Then one more. Trust me, sooner or later, the motion of repeated innovation “steps” will change the spirit of the innovation group and then gradually start taking hold of the emotional state of the whole organization. Repeated acts of innovation will become the habit of it.

It’s likely that one of your innovation initiatives will eventually succeed. And there is going to be a celebration, perhaps, even party. And, who knows, there may be even a band in the room playing music. Enter the floor and make a few dancing moves.

image credit: learntodance.com

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Internal Innovation Networks - foundation for successEugene Ivanov is innovation consultant helping organizations establish internal and external innovation programs. He also assists his clients with selecting and defining R&D problems that can be successfully solved by using crowdsourcing approaches. He tweets at @eugeneivanov101.

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