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A loose, somewhat incoherent ramble upon the subject of innovation. Genius, of course… Just loose, somewhat incoherent genius…

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Ah, the oft-stated virtue of breaking new ground. We are cutting edge. we are pioneers. We are innovators. Like the paradigm shift of yore…

[Remember paradigm shifts? We do, booked a fair few $000s confusing clients as to how it didn’t mean what they had always thought it meant just to prove later that it did and that it wasn’t their fault the status quo didn’t help them move forward]

… it’s just not a corporate presentation without making the claim. Endless executives and their mothers claiming they are innovating the future. Claiming they are moving the frontiers. Breaking new ground.

Unshifted-paradigm-worshipping executives who made it to the C-suite by protecting themselves from the wilder excesses of innovation… Cutting edges are sharp. And it’s not easy to get blood-stains out of suits. And at the same time, claiming every success that innovation brings.

So, here we present three things you definitely need to know about innovation – because the people who get paid to ‘lead’ it most likely have no clue as to what it takes.

Lesson one: Innovation is not the norm

Innovation is, at its most simple, the act of finding a way to get things done, things that couldn’t have been done before. Human beings adapted long ago to use tools. And ever since our chimpanzoid relatives spotted that they’d got an opposable thumb, we’ve been adapting objects to do our will.

[Inventing words like chimpanzoid is fun]

By definition, we innovate to make the difficult easier, or the previously impossible possible. Get that: difficult and/or impossible. The pre-requisite for innovation. Difficult and/or impossible. When was the last time you saw an executive interviewed by Forbes for making things difficult and/or impossible? Take a glance at the business section of your local bookshop – where is the Jack Welch best-seller: “How I made things impossible!”? Where is “Difficulty for Dummies”?

[Clue: It’s not in the D section]

That’s the central paradox of innovation. It doesn’t arise from everything being hunky dory.

But that’s what executives get rewarded for: making everything hunky dory. Or at least appear to be that way. That’s what the quarterly earnings report and management of earnings are all about. Presenting the shining example of how growth is going to plan; that strategy is playing out as expected. Executives are not rewarded for creating the conditions in which innovation thrives.

They are, however, rewarded for the outcomes of that innovation.

Hmmmmm… Rewarded for something that you shouldn’t encourage.

[Sounds like a cue for an Enron/SEC punchline – it isn’t]

Doesn’t exactly sound like a winning proposition, does it? No wonder most executives claim it blindly.

Lesson two: Innovation is threatening

It’s easy to understand how innovation threatens. It makes the impossible possible or the difficult easier. And executives have been rewarded for everything being hunky dory, not for presiding over the impossible/difficult. So, when you prove it can work, you’re in essence saying “people who get paid more than me failed to get this done”. That is not a recipe for career success.

By the way, they love the fact you’ve got it done – just not that you’ve got it done. Celebration and damnation in equal measure.

And it’s not just those above that are threatened. What about all those peers who see innovation and carp “I would have done that if only…”

[substitute meaningless excuse… I’d had the time… My boss hadn’t been such an asshole… I’d actually had the talent to do it…]

Yup. It’s safe to say that innovation makes you an outgroup.

Lesson three: Innovation is a knife-edge

Succeed or fail. Go or stop. Innovators know that innovation doesn’t follow these black and white absolutes. Instead, they know an endless cycle of prototypes, of tweaks and measurement, having a go and learning from the experience. They know that the most important thing is to take a step and keep moving forward. The fear of failure is constant in all human beings. This fear resonates throughout the political, media and socio-economic lanscape. Fear of losing. So to willingly elevate yourself to the level where the potential for failure is continuous represents a pretty counter-cultural decision.

The world expects us to fail. It’s in our mythology – the fall from grace. Truly, the innovator grabs that premise and chooses to walk the knife edge anyway.

So there you have it:

  • Lesson one: Innovation is not the norm
  • Lesson two: Innovation is threatening
  • Lesson three: Innovation is a knife-edge

So what are you going to do about it?

Take a look at your workforce… Ask yourself, who is being rewarded for innovation? Who is being rewarded for making things appear hunky dory? If the answer is the same person, then this badconsultant will challenge that it isn’t the innovator that’s being rewarded but instead someone who is claiming the outcome of innovation.

Don’t get us wrong – we love executives who claim success from others innovation…

[they pay our day-rate so that we can stroke their egos through endless reinforcement that they are, indeed, a misunderstood genius]

But put the three lessons above together.

And ask… Who are your outgroups? Who is scaring the living bejeezus out of their peers and, especially, their bosses? Who has a track record of taking huge risks but making them work?

Do you know who we’re talking about?

They probably don’t look, sound, think or act like any executive you know. They get the difficult or impossible done.

And it’s guaranteed that, in most corporations, they won’t be your highest performers – they’re just too non-conformist to be celebrated. They do what their bosses couldn’t, and their peers wish that they could. Their 360-degree evaluation doesn’t ring with unanimous endorsements. Innovators make people uncomfortable.

And here’s the catch, the badconsultant value-add… keep them just that way. It’s where they thrive. It’s what drives them. Make things difficult and/or impossible and then let them loose. Of course, it does help if you make the right things difficult and/or impossible. Like product enhancement. Or market penetration. Or the impossible customer who will never buy the crap your company peddles. Make all those things difficult and/or impossible.

But whatever you do, do NOT make the following things difficult and/or impossible:

  • Access to like-minded peers and co-conspirators
  • The freedom to act (the moment you set a goal to innovate, you fail)
  • The tools and resources necessary to shock you
  • The backing when they go wrong (because they will)
  • The space to envision a future that executives cannot imagine

Innovators are difficult.

They’re not the norm.
They’re threatening.
They’re on a knife-edge.

Keeping them engaged but just pissed off enough to innovate is the trick. Most executives manage the latter part easily enough – c’mon, any large corporation does it without even thinking. The trick is knowing when to leave well enough alone and let them do their best work.

And finally, if you’re reading this and don’t get it, we here at badconsultant would love to talk with you – you’re likely highly paid, rewarded for creating the illusion of hunky-doryness and existing thanks to the innovation of the weirdos below you.

[We do a nice line in ego stroking, should you care to peruse a statement of work]

If you get it, know that you’re not alone, you’re just in a very small minority.

And are likely to be pissed off for the majority of your career.