Do You Know the Secret to Innovation That Most People Forget?

April 20, 2021

Brand new year. Brand new decade. This is the time of year when organizations, and the people in them, create strategic plans and make resolutions. Both fail more often than not. Why is that?

While it is admirable and even desirable to look ahead to try to improve our organizations (and ourselves), our efforts often fail for a single reason: fear of loss.

While we have discussed fear of loss here in the context of resistance to change (people don’t fear change, they fear loss here ), we have not discussed it in the context of organizational or individual progress.

It is a common axiom: What has made us succeed over the past 10 years is not the same thing that will make us succeed over the next 10 years. This implies that success requires change. The days of being able to do one thing for the duration of your career are long gone. The process of change has only accelerated with technology, and it will continue to do so.

But change creates angst, anxiety, discomfort. So how are we to get more comfortable it? Practice. Practice. Practice.

Loss and Sacrifice Are Very Different

Remember, people don’t fear change. People fear loss. Loss is the perception that something is being taken away.

If you are sitting down for a meal and a strange person comes up to you and takes away your food without asking, that is loss.

But if a 4-year-old child you care for takes food off of your plate, you are much more likely to give away that food (the opportunity to teach a lesson on manners and asking permission notwithstanding).

The result is the same: You have less food to eat. But how you perceive the situation and process the information is different. When food was taken away, you perceive loss. When food was given away, you do not perceive loss. You make a sacrifice. You give up something of value now for the potential of some greater good in the future. Sacrifice offers us an opportunity to practice managing change and loss.

There Is No Safety in Playing It Safe

In business, many workplace cultures focus on doing what they have always done well rather than taking any risk. They play to not lose rather than to win. And they prioritize asset protection rather than investing in the future.

In 1991, G. Lee Thomson, the CEO of Smith Corona, arguably the world most innovative typewriter company, partnered with Acer Computer company. In 1992, he killed the deal, saying, “We’re not a buggy whip industry; there is strong demand for our product in the U.S. and around the world.”

In 1995, Smith Corona filed for bankruptcy for the first time. Acer went on to become the fourth-largest computer manufacturer on the planet.

Thompson wanted to believe Smith Corona could succeed doing what it had always done – making great typewriters. He was afraid of losing assets. He was more interested in protecting what he had rather than in what he could accomplish. He was playing to not lose rather than playing to win. History is littered with the corpses of once-great companies that played it safe.

There’s No Innovation Without Risk

How can we get comfortable, as individuals and as organizations, with the angst, anxiety and discomfort that change often creates? Start small and practice sacrifice. Give up something of value for the potential for some greater good in the future.

On an individual level: Identify a habit that gives you comfort. Now sacrifice it. Whether it is parking in the closest spot, eating a food you enjoy that isn’t the most healthy or nourishing or watching a favorite TV show, sacrifice it. Not forever. Starting small means doing it once and paying attention to how it feels. Your sacrifice will likely trigger feelings of discomfort. Managing that discomfort — which you chose to experience — will help you deal with any future feelings of discomfort that take you by surprise. This readiness, the capacity to deal with the discomfort that comes with change, is just part of the greater good you achieved through your sacrifice.

On an organizational level: Identify some level of risk (such as a loss of profit) you are willing to sacrifice as an investment in innovation. For example, you may create a new process that’s more costly in the short term – particularly during its development – but that, in the long term, will move your organization forward. In other words, you sacrifice some profit now for the greater good of keeping your organization viable in the future.

Leaders generally love the outcomes of innovation, but they hate the process. That’s because it requires risk (investment) without any guarantee of a particular return. If you risk some profit for the innovation, your organization has at least a chance of innovating a change that will move it forward. If you do not risk in order to innovate, your organization has no chance to innovate.

Sacrifice, in small steps, helps us individually and as an organization. If you are not willing to risk in order to innovate, those below you won’t be, either. This is how we shape the culture in which we live and work.

I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this further, just drop me a note.

Keep cultivating your culture!

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