I have been in multiple meetings and have been asking some questions about people’s perceptions of me and of our whole organization. I have had much discussion in the past year of my life about perceptions. People’s perceptions are people’s reality. People’s reality tends to be their truth. People’s first impression of you might be false, but it will be their truth about you. How people perceive you is more crucial than you might like to admit. What are you doing about how people perceive you? How do people perceive you? I want to talk about two popular kinds of American leadership styles that influence how people perceive us. The two styles I want to talk about are the all too famous spirit of Innovation style and compare it to the a style I am in favor of, the spirit of Discovery style.
Please understand that innovation and discovery are strengths and each is important and good. Innovation and Discovery are strengths and attitudes that have a place in society. I am in the people influencing business (Aren’t we all in the people influencing business?”) So I am confident that the spirit of discovery creates more success than the spirit of innovation. This article is long and I hope you can journey with me through this thought process. If, I believe that Discovery is more success oriented than innovation, you must know by now that this article will take a leaning towards being a bit critical towards innovation. If you differ with me in this I would be glad to hear your comments.
In order for you to answer the question as to whether or not you are bent more for innovation or discovery you will have to understand each concept well. I am no expert on the two, but I have taken the time to thoroughly think and study these topics and I hope you can learn from my gleanings.
The Spirit of Innovation
Let’s start by going “Old School” and see what Webster says innovation is. I had to blow the dust off the top of my dictionary sitting on my dusty bookshelf. The dust reminded me to be deeply thankful for the internet. Webster says that innovation is, “to make changes, or do something in a new way.” In Non-webster terms I would say it this way. Innovation is to take something old and make it useable in a new way. Innovation is reformation. Innovation is often the act of taking something that worked over there and using it over here
Innovation is doing something old in a new way. Innovation is a new and improved way. So far, innovation sounds like a great style. I’m not opposed to the product that innovation creates, I’m nervous about what the spirit of innovation actually does to the innovators. When a group of people innovate something, they become very loyal to the newly innovated product. (By product I mean anything they created. It could be a philosophy, it could be a method of leadership, it could be a brand, or it could be an actual usable product.) This loyalty to the newly innovated product causes the innovator to love what they have innovated. Why? Because they innovated it. It is theirs. They understand it, they helped build it. They sat in the room as the innovation was being argued about. THEY argued about it. It makes sense to them and to the organization that innovated. To the people of the organization, this innovation doesn’t do anything wrong. What it does is the best it could do under the circumstances. Someone who knew what you know would make the very same decision, because under the same circumstances it was the only/best option. So they innovated and they love their newly innovated product.
So…of course, the world should buy from them or commit to them and their product. They innovated, which makes them think they did it better. If they think they did it better they also think they DO it better. They innovated. Innovation is good…Right? That’s a brief explanation of innovation. In short, innovation is to take something old and reform it into something, in your opinion, that is better.
There is a dire side to innovation. Once innovation actually happens, the innovator naturally thinks their innovation is exceptional. It’s human nature to think this way. The innovator loves their new innovation. Once they believe in it, as exceptional, it is almost impossible to innovate again. Why? Because innovation is making something work better. For an innovator to re-innovate is to admit that whatever they first innovated is now needing improvement. Remember, to innovate is to take something and make it better.
When an innovator has total buy-in towards their innovation and it begins to not be as successful as they wished, they will naturally say, “not fair.” No innovator ever wants to admit that their innovation is no longer working. When they believe their innovation is good they will no longer innovate because it’s too hard on the ego. No innovator wants to admit that their innovation needs innovated.
Another problem with innovation is that anything innovated is really not new. It has a façade of new. But it’s not new. Grocery Store shelves are labeled with bright new advertising screaming their message “new and improved.” However, in reality, it’s the same old product with a small tweak, but is marketed as innovated/new. Is it really new?
To innovate something is to think with an attitude of, “needs improvement.” Such an attitude is not necessarily a bad thing. Great leaders have the ability to see what’s not working and so whatever is necessary to make it work. What I’m focusing on as I compare the spirit of innovation to the spirit of discovery, is attitude and motive. An attitude of “that needs improvement” is usually preceded by an attitude of “I can do it better.” It’s very difficult to have an “I can do it better attitude” and not be perceived as arrogant.
The person who think they can do something better naturally must criticize whatever they they think should be better. It’s nearly impossible to do this without being perceived as arrogant. The innovator may not actually be arrogant, but is perceived as arrogant. Remember earlier when I said, “People’s perception is their reality and truth.” So, the reality is that the spirit of innovation breeds arrogance. Innovation doesn’t lead to arrogance. I said, breeds arrogance. To breed arrogance you need arrogance to start with. Innovation breeds arrogance. Arrogance innovates and breeds more arrogance. I can’t help but think back to the old movie “Gremlins” and how the arrogant ones just kept breeding. “Just add water!” There are some common errors that innovators make that create their own demise. The Wall Street Journal recently came up with a list of 5 commons mistakes of Innovators. I will give a brief description of the mistakes and if you want to read the full article you can go to HYPERLINK “http://blogs.wsj.com/source/2011/05/23/five-common-mistakes-business-leaders-make-about-innovation/?mod=google_news_blog” http://blogs.wsj.com/source/2011/05/23/five-common-mistakes-business-leaders-make-about-innovation/?mod=google_news_blog
The five common errors of Innovators…And I added a number 6.
1. You believe your own numbers. You insist on “seeing the numbers” too soon and all you have to base your numbers, is your past statistics. Remember that innovation is really not creating something new it is simply taking something old and making something that you think is better. Having a mentality that numbers are the most important thing creates a leadership mindset that RESULTS matter most. I said earlier that I am in the people influencing business. To be more specific, I am a Christian Pastor. Anytime in the Bible that Men/People focused on the results is when that man caused great damage. Innovation plays this dangerous game because it tends to focus too much on results instead of the more important focus of CAUSE which I will share in the discovery section.
2. The Success Trap. When a company gets financial success because it got very good at what it does, it begins to focus on the thing that made it successful. This focus on “what got us here” causes a crowding out of other options and points of view. This might bring immediate further success, but in our culture of fast change, it is only a matter of time before the innovative company gets trapped in the one thing they do so well. Getting trapped also means narrowly focusing on that one thing usually ending in all the eggs getting put in one basket. This causes success fragility. This usually happens to very large successful companies and their death is a frustratingly slow and agonizing death. I believe in our culture of fast pace and change…the slow death isn’t even reality. The company that gets stuck in the success trap has a vividly fast way of becoming obsolete. In fact, in his book “In Search of Excellence,” by Peters and Waterman, the authors tell the fate of 43 companies recently leading the world that got caught in this trap. Today only 5 of those 43 companies even exist.
3. Believe they know the competition. The innovative company makes a huge mistaken identity gaff when it comes to identifying the competition. Ask your innovative companies CEO, “Who is your competition?” They will usually reply with the company that is most like them. The problem with this is that history proves that our greatest competitors usually come from a different angle. i.e. Shipping companies suffered from the steam engine, newspapers are in trouble because of the internet, watch companies suffer because of time being displayed on mobile phones. In my opinion, Innovative companies get so caught up in the love of themselves that their greatest competitor is also their greatest enemy…themselves! Most wives know this of their husbands. A husband’s greatest enemy is usually himself.
4. Believe that because everybody had always done it this way, it is the best way of doing the next “new” thing. This is my greatest problem with innovative companies. They think they are on to something “new” but in reality the definition of innovation is making something new from something old. So it’s not really new, right? It’s just innovated and feels new. This is a huge problem for companies who are trying to innovate into uncharted territory. I have been in the leadership of a very successful church. In fact, this church has seen so much success that for them to go to new levels means they have no examples to follow in this American Culture. There is nothing to innovate on. If they think innovating is going to take them to the next level, they are never going to get to the next level. For instance, when America landed on the moon. Innovation built the rocket, the space suits, space food, etc. But innovation is not what Neil Armstrong could build off of when he put his hand on the door hatch and opened the door to outer space and took his first step onto the moon’s surface. That was sheer discovery. You can’t innovate that. It had never been done before! When your company is leading the way, and you choose to move forward through innovation, then you have just signed your contract that says you are guaranteed to no longer be in first place. Maybe even just signed your death certificate. Your company, if its leading the way, has to be in the Discovery mentality to go to the next level because there is nothing to innovate off of.
5. Asking the customers for their opinions. The innovative company is really good at answering the questions that their non-customers are NOT asking. The customers have already bought into the company. Why are we asking them what they want? It actually gets worse…Think about it, the company’s leadership team, that has innovated its idea from an old idea, is now sitting around the table making decisions based off of what has been done to try to keep going to next level. This company starts making decisions based off of keeping the already reached customers happy while there are new and unreached people waiting to be “Discovered!” This is innovation’s greatest downfall. Once you innovate something, your own human nature won’t let you innovate anymore because the team would have to admit that their innovated idea “used” to be a good innovation. Meaning its failing now. An innovative company never wants to admit that its innovated product no longer works. To not admit failure is pride and arrogance. “Pride comes before the fall.” Bottom line…Innovation works really hard to appear right, regardless of the actual results that are taking place. It is fascinating to me that innovation is all focused on results, but even when the results are headed in the downward trajectory, the innovator would rather believe the lie that things are okay instead of admit that the innovation they created no longer is working. “Every bad idea, used to be a good idea!” Innovation…it’s a vicious cycle.
6. Stop taking ultimate risks. This sixth point is my opinion. Most innovative companies are led by people who ultimately ARE NOT what could be defined as risk takers. There is a difference between risk taking and calculated risks. Innovative Leaders are “safe risk takers.” They only take calculated risks with what they understand. The problem with this lies in the fact that if you are the company in the lead…which means nobody has gone before you on this journey…you can’t calculate what to do, because their has been nothing done to calculate. There is nothing to do but risk. Companies in the lead usually end up not being in the lead anymore, because the Leader ran out of ideas to innovate from. The company that is top dog begins to focus on how much there is to lose and they begin to settle in on their success and begin to “play it safe.” Its like a Pro football game. The game is close. The winning team has the ball and its just the beginning of the 4th quarter. The offensive coordinator decides to try to protect the lead and thus changes the game plan from, ‘playing to win’ to ‘playing not to lose.’ What usually happens when that game plan is employed? Its called an upset. The team that was in the lead should not have started playing not to lose. They should have kept playing to win. A company that is leading the world in their field has nothing to innovate anymore, and pride to often prevents this leading company from innovating on itself. This company now is headed into uncharted territory and can no longer innovate. This company can only open themselves up to new learning experiences that will make them feel uncertain at best and incompetent at worst. This is hard for an innovative company to shift into, but it can be done. It usually takes the company leader becoming a total risk taker. Due to the fact that there is nothing to innovate on, the leader must now become like Neil Armstrong and go into the uncharted new! This is the mentality of DISCOVERY, and my next blog post will be about that very issue!