Innovation Muscle



Ironically, one of the skills that has helped each of us in business is critical thinking. And unfortunately for the practice of innovation, critical thinking usually means our natural instincts are to be critical of a new idea. We are trained and rewarded for being able to see what’s wrong, what’s at risk, what to be careful of when considering new ideas. And that skill has its place.


But at the point when ideas are being “born” – when they are tiny embers that need us to feed them with oxygen – what is called for is a spirit of “for-ness.” As in, “what are we FOR in this idea?” before we explore what we are worried about. This is actually a very simple discipline that can be embedded in your organization, and one of the important pillars of building innovation muscle throughout your company.


Another practice to encourage is that of challenging orthodoxies. An orthodoxy is conventional wisdom, a commonly accepted way of thinking in your company or industry. An orthodoxy might be “UPS is a package delivery service”, which when overturned became “UPS is a logistics company,” enabling growth into a broad range of new services. Or “insurance is so highly regulated that we are unable to make things easily understandable for customers. We have to give them the detail and the legalese whenever we communicate with them.”


The point is to regularly check yourself for assuming that orthodoxies are immovable, unchangeable dynamics. In fact, turning one upside down can result in a great idea. One way to do this is to make use of outsiders. Sit down and talk with newcomers to your organization, while they still have fresh eyes and have not yet been acculturated. Ask them how things were done where they came from, or what their perceptions are. Talk to customers, front-line employees who have regular contact with customers, anybody who can see your world through what futurist Edie Weiner calls “alien eyes.”


Probably the most important aspect of building muscle and creating a culture of innovation is to create a safe space and to recognize that only one in ten innovations is going to bear fruit; people who take the risk to try should be rewarded. A colleague once described innovation “culture watching” as the “RIP” model. Watch for what is rewarded, what is ignored, what is punished. It is too easy to simply say “We encourage and reward innovation risk takers.” You have to walk the talk.


Does that mean you celebrate a bad idea? No, it works a little differently. That’s a subject for a different post.

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