Five Glitches Sabotaging Your Plan
What company, division or team isn’t striving for some combination of better, faster, cheaper in order to compete? A recent Korn/Ferry survey found that 84% of executives believe that innovation is very important to future success. No big surprise – everyone in the business and non-profit worlds seem to be talking innovation as mission critical. Organizations are awash in innovation projects, incorporating innovation objectives in annual plans and leadership competencies, and devising metrics to track progress. How are they doing? Only 15% of those same executives are very satisfied with the level of innovation in their companies.
If innovation is the new North Star, then what are the likely obstacles and common traps that derail your drive for the breakthrough?
Whether at the institutional or team level, whether focused on products, services or processes, consider five recurring glitches that slow down or, even worse, can cause a backslide despite your best intentions.
GLITCH # 1: Fuzzy Vision – Amorphous Goal
“A problem well stated is a problem half-solved,” according to Charles Kettering – and, as the holder of 140 patents, he should know. In order to focus breakthrough effort, the challenge needs to be stated clearly enough to unleash big ideas that drive at the heart of the challenge or opportunity. For example, the question “how can we focus on long term strategy in the heat of short term pressure?” drives right into the heart of a fast-paced culture too busy to think forward. Of course the answer is that organizations need to do both – deliver results today and set sail for the future. But framing the right question can make all the difference in thinking differently. So take a close look – how sharply defined is the innovation challenge you face? When Howard Shultz described the innovation challenge for Starbucks as “a third place between work and home” he neglected to mention coffee. Yes, coffee was part of the plan, but he focused on the experience. Have you grabbed the hearts and minds of the team with compelling words that will focus effort and stimulate solutions?
GLITCH #2: Old School Brainstorming
Brainstorming has become a check-the-box part of company cultures. Yet idea generation needs to go beyond flip charts and “no idea is a bad idea” kind of thinking. It’s a discipline for generating, building on and shaping ideas. Here are three tips for better brainstorming. For starters, create an environment safe enough to entertain the wildest possibilities, creating a runway down the road for its more plausible version. Try this partway through your next brainstorm – ask “what ideas are so crazy they could get you fired?” After a self-conscious few snickers, the conversation typically takes a liberated turn for the better as ideas become more free-wheeling. Take it even further by inviting outsiders to the brainstorming party, those without a vested interest in the status quo or burdened with well ingrained habits of the past. Beth Comstock, Chief Marketing Officer of GE reports on compelling outcomes from the GE Open Innovation Challenge where a broad-based online community generates ideas, sorts through them, votes, debates and rallies toward outcomes. Third, get outside. If you stay within your industry, category, or even your office, it will be hard to think new thoughts. Steve Jobs got inspiration for the Mac graphics from a restaurant menu. What and who can add inspiration for your team?
GLITCH #3: No Care and Feeding of Best Ideas
Even the best of brainstorming will never deliver ready to execute ideas. Ideas need to be advanced and explored; they need to be cultivated with key stakeholders so they don’t suffer an early death, snuffed out by the inertia of the status quo. Whose buy-in is needed for the idea and what will happen if you don’t get it? Think about the first barcoded product -a pack of Juicy Fruit gum – now on display in the Smithsonian. When supermarket executive Alan Haberman worked to advance a universal product code in the 1970s he met with endless resistance from colleagues and collaborators who could envision more problems than solutions. In the end, it was not just his persistence with cultivating a shared belief in a linear strip of bars to automate and organize product information – but his effective relationship and trust building with constituents that won the day. What more can you do to till the ground, to cultivate your best ideas?
GLITCH #4: Saying No Is Easy
No doubt, you will try new ideas and be disappointed in the results. Count on it – if you’re in innovation mode. But be careful not to jettison the plan at the first sign of imperfection. How can the idea be morphed? Bubble wrap was initially imagined as wallpaper and then greenhouse insulation before it became the product pioneer in protective packaging; Viagra emerged from a careful review of the test results from what was intended as a blood pressure drug. Buried in the experiments and pilots are kernels of potential; in a different application, they might be the unexpected breakthrough. The critic has been over-rewarded in the modern marketplace for discarding and dismantling what does not work. Route unexpected outcomes back to your idea generators for further exploration. What have you left on the cutting room floor that might spark an unexpected breakthrough?
GLITCH #5: Not Pausing to Learn
The culture of execution is in high gear in most organizations and the quiet time needed to thoughtfully debrief lessons learned is rare. What worked? What didn’t? Where were the surprises and bumps in the road? How did the team fare? This is not a performance review – set aside the impulse to blame and shame. Create an environment where learning is valued and disappointments reveal insights for a stronger cycle next time. This “learning loop” is one of the single, most economical ways to power up your performance. Exploring lessons learned helps team members to grow, transforming experience into wisdom. And it’s not just about glitches: understanding what was at the root of a success is just as valuable. Prepping for a global leadership meeting in which a successful project was to be showcased, we asked the naïve question: What was at the root of your success? Once prodded, the team stepped back to analyze what made it click – how they made decisions and shared information, for example – and how they could apply their learning to the next project. It took a couple of focused hours of candid, constructive conversation, not days or weeks of analysis and presentations. Is your team hitting the pause button for the team to reflect about what works and take the measure from success, disappointment and failure?
A culture of innovation cannot be legislated through memos or inspired solely by a catch phrase on your intranet. Instead of proclaiming your intention to innovate, see if any of these five common glitches are interfering with progress, then try something new. Clarify your vision. Boost your brainstorming efforts. Look for the serendipity in unplanned outcomes. Take a deep breath and learn from experience. You may be surprised to find that a small change in mindset and technique can yield exciting results.
Let’s embrace Meg Wheatley’s thought that “the things we fear most in organizations — fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances — are the primary sources of creativity.” Confront the glitch and let the problem solving begin.
Janice Maffei and Joanne Spigner are the founding partners of VisionFirst, helping teams to envision their future state and innovate to get there. They invented the rapid visioning tool, Vision-in-a-Box® and co-hosted a weekly program, “Invent the Future,” which showcased innovators in business, education and not-for-profits.