Innovation is different. It is, by its very nature, outside of the proverbial “box”. Innovation involves creative thought and solves some problem, issue, or void that must be filled. In essence, innovation is the exceptional – or an exception.
This very attribute, that innovation is an exception, is what makes it so incredibly difficult to manage within any existing organization. The problem presented to organizational leaders is that we want innovation, but by its very nature it is going to stand in contrast to something we already do. Often it even stands in contrast to something we already do well (or at least think we do well). Innovative thought challenges our current reality. It’s uncomfortable because it challenges our comfort zone. It’s revolutionary because it challenges our existing process, procedure, or status. It’s creative because it stretches us to new places, new concepts, and hopefully new success. How do we handle this practically as organizational leaders. How do you deal with this tension of new direction and existing success? Sometimes it’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The innovation just doesn’t seem to fit.
This is when organizations who claim to want innovation and creative thought most often fail. The ideas are the easy part. Start asking your employees, vendors, and customers for ways to make your business better and the input will flow freely. Finding a champion for an idea is not often a difficult process. Then things get interesting. Then this idea gets a life of its own and things start changing. Innovation bumps up against your current reality, and it starts to hurt a bit. It gets uncomfortable. Leaders begin to realize that implementing this new idea is going to require much more change in many more areas than anticipated (it always does), and the negotiation begins.
There is great caution we have to take at this critical negotiation point of an idea. The reality is if we try to change every little thing that is in the way, most ideas would simply never happen. That’s the dirty and honest truth. There must be negotiation between what is and what will be to find success. If we try to change too much of what is all at once, we stall. If we attempt to change too much of what will be, it just becomes a watered down idea that never really has a chance to succeed. Innovation is different. It’s the exception. Keep in mind the idea here is not co-existing with each other. There is no way we can have innovation with no change. Leaders must be ready to drive change and lead through transition. Here are a few tips to success at this critical point of negotiation and implementation:
1. Define the Non-negotiable Items: When innovation bumps up against reality, the negotiation begins. What can you leave out? What isn’t needed? Champions of innovation must know from the beginning what is not negotiable. What are the few critical factors that, without them, there is absolutely no chance for success. Be upfront about these factors as soon as possible and keep them in front of people. Fight for these items. You must have them.
2. Define the Important Items: Some items are very important and can be attained by cashing in on your “political capital”. Some good negotiation and vision casting around the organization could get you these items, at least in some form. Work towards these items by calling in any favors your have left. Maybe these don’t end up exactly how you envision, but that’s OK. As long as they get done, that is what’s important here. These don’t have to be perfect.
3. Define the Unimportant Items: This may be the most critical factor, even more so than knowing what’s non-negotiable. One of the greatest failure points of driving an innovative idea is wasting time and “political capital” on items that simply don’t matter. Don’t waste your time and be sure to check your ego at the door. Some things are nice, but just don’t matter to the overall success of the idea. Driving change and innovation is no place for perfection. It’s a bit messy at times, and there wouldn’t be much negotiating if champions for innovation weren’t willing to give somewhere. Identify these areas as soon as you can and let them go.
In the end, know that every innovative process is a negotiation between what is and what will be. No matter how much you might try to section off innovation by itself, it is the exception and it’s going to require some transition, or possibly much more. Often this innovation begins affecting areas you never anticipated it would (it has a way of doing that). As a leader of the innovative idea, know that you can’t have it all. Momentum is critically important, so some things will need to be side stepped or adjusted instead of being changed so your progress can keep moving forward. The most important thing is the idea keeps moving and you never loose your non-negotiable items. You can’t win every battle, and your energy is too important to waste on things that don’t matter. Know what is critical and fight for that. For leaders of the what is, know that saying “yes” to innovation is saying “yes” to change. You will have to change. It will be tough work. That’s what you get when you ask for creative thought and innovative action. It’s part of the gig.
Know what is critical and fight for that. Everything else is negotiable.