Did you ever play with magnets when you were a kid? Wasn’t it interesting to discover how powerful small magnets were when you connected the negative pole of one magnet to the positive pole of another magnet? Or perhaps you had one of those toys that allowed you to manipulate iron shavings over the outline of a face, to create “beards” or a mustache using a magnetic wand to drag the shavings into place. These and other toys that rely on magnets work because of the force that magnets exert on other magnetic objects. Without the magnetic force, the shavings stay in place, held by inertia or gravity.
I can help returning to a constant theme I’ve developed over the years – the idea that inertia and complacence are two of the biggest impediments to innovation. Any sentient being wants to avoid change, uncertainty, and new or additional work. Face it, the vast majority of us like doing the same things, building the same things, meeting the same people. We all live in a fairly regular, routine rut that we call life. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that nothing ever changes in those routines. Most of us don’t seek out change within our routines either. When we seek novelty we seek it in other places, doing other things. Our home and job are for routine, our vacations and travels are for novelty and experimentation.
Yet we can see that innovation requires a force to act on an individual or population in order to lift them from the everyday rut and retain their focus on the new opportunity or new need. This is true at the start of an innovation activity, when we need to create enough energy and enthusiasm that we spark the small flame of novelty and creativity that all of us nurture deep inside. Yes, admit it, you do have natural curiosity and the desire to do something new and different. It’s just been held deep in abeyance at work because trying to do something new and radical may be a career-limiting move. So you wait, and do your work in the “business as usual” environment as the flame of creativity and newness slowly flickers and dies. What will it take to increase the flame or re-ignite it after years of neglect?
Further, if an innovation opportunity or project can re-ignite the flame and draw your attention away from “business as usual”, what will retain that passion and attention over the life of an innovation project or the creation of a new product or service? Simply capturing your attention for a brief moment is one thing – retaining and sustaining your attention over the life of an innovation project is quite another. So many other factors will arise to impede your work. So many demands from your everyday job. So many barriers or hurdles to overcome to do new work. In fact it’s relatively amazing that innovation gets done at all, considering all the barriers, hurdles and “reasonable” work that must get done in any company.
You need a magnet
In the past I’ve written about a “burning platform” to attract attention and cause action. In an innovation setting a burning platform is an opportunity too big to ignore, or a threat too imminent that you can’t afford not to respond to. A burning platform provides energy or passion to engage in an innovation project. It causes executives to agree to support and fund innovation, and creates enough light and heat to convince people to engage. But anything burning can also easily burn out. Far too often we find that burning platforms are quickly replaced by another burning platform, which draws attention and firefighters to another problem long before the first one was extinguished. We need something more than a burning platform. We need innovation magnets.
The difference between the analogies for burning and magnets is that something on fire will eventually be extinguished, it will burn out or it will be judged not important to address. A magnet creates a powerful attractive or repellant force and it sustains that same force over the lifetime of the magnet. As long as the magnet retains its magnetism, it exerts the same force. That’s what we need for innovation to succeed in any organization – an initially powerful force to attract the right people to the right ideas, and an equally powerful force that remains powerful and attractive over time to keep people focused, even when other forces come into play.
Who or what are your magnets?
Now, in the physical world magnets are pieces of metal that have been charged with a current to create a magnetic field. In the workday world of your company, you need to find the “magnets” that will attract and retain your team’s attention and passion. Magnets in this sense are first important needs, opportunities or challenges that your firm MUST address. This provides the first attractive force. But you must do more than an initial attraction, because other forces will inevitably work on the teams that were initially attracted to the challenge. Your magnets must have staying power.
Your potential magnets are people with deep passion, executives with deep commitment, leaders and managers who “get it” and understand the longer term trade-offs between “business as usual” and innovation. Identifying, empowering and sustaining your magnets is probably the most important thing you can do to sustain innovation, and do what everyone talks about – building a “culture” of innovation. Until you have people who are magnets, attracting other people, other ideas and a level of commitment that sustains over time, you don’t have a culture of innovation, you have a burst of innovation that simply can’t sustain, and is more likely to crash and burn than to create anything of value.
Do you have magnets? Do you have people who are fully energized by innovation, who have enough hierarchical authority or simple moral imperative to create the reasons to innovation and attract the right people and ideas? Can they sustain that attraction, not just in the eager initial phases of an innovation project but during the long slog to a new product or service when the siren calls of their regular job start exerting new forces to draw them away? How strong is your attractive force for innovation, versus the attractive force of the everyday job? If you want innovation, you need some magnets – people, causes, cultures that draw the right people and keep their attention. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and you need to attract the right people, and retain them with attractive force that’s more powerful than the hurdles or barriers they’ll face along the way.
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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. Follow him @ovoinnovation