As an executive, do you go fast or slow when it comes to innovation?

Franco Bianchi​, CEO of Haworth, a leading manufacturer of workspaces with yearly revenue of $2 billion, asked me this question about the speed of innovation. How do you strike the balance between the time needed to come up with an innovative idea and the time needed to develop and launch that idea into the market?

It's a great question. Time is relative when it comes to innovation. Just like in Einstein's Theory of Relativity, it's both slow and fast, depending on where you are in the process. 

CEO's, like Bianchi​, often need to juggle this duality inherent in innovation. They need to know when to give their teams time to explore, the slow period, and when to accelerate, the fast period. This slow and fast approach is important in that it defines one's attitude--when to be patient and when to accelerate.

Let me break the two periods and their qualities down for you. 

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When Gestation Is Slow 

When you're imagining the future, and working on revolutionary versus evolutionary ideas, you need to invest time to be able to do the following:

  • Experiment. You take time to experiment and go wide on multiple ideas. 
  • Be playful. You're being playful because when you're playing you're like a kid. You're not afraid of making mistakes which is essential to your ability to break your preconceptions and come up with new ideas. 
  • Be open. Both your mind and eyes are open to inspiration and intuition. You're like a sponge, soaking in information and connecting the dots in new ways. 
  • Sleep on it. You take time to sleep on ideas and let your unconscious do the work. 
  • Uncertainty is OK. You're comfortable in what you don't know and excited about what you will discover. And if you know too much, you may not be innovating enough. 

The slow period ends with what I call a "BAM!". This is the moment when you know you're onto a strong idea--a big idea that has the potential to generate the most value. It energizes you and the team, and this energy serves as your accelerator. It gives you the speed to go fast for growth.

When Growth Is Fast 

Once you have the big idea, you're off to the races. In contrast to the slow gestation, growth of a good idea needs to be fast. Once the idea starts to grow, you will get a bunch of reactions and opinions, which can be distracting from the core idea. Distractions are the Achilles' heel of development. Just know that the worst thing you can do is change your criteria or goals midstream. This is to be avoided at all costs. 

Jim Long taught me this lesson about the relation between speed and naysayers, when he was the Director of Research at Herman Miller: "Move fast. You can't shoot down a moving target."

It also helps to ne action-oriented. Keep your development runway short and straight. You need focus and clarity to keep the end-game in your sights.   

You also need to have certainty. Acknowledge that you still don't know everything, but you know enough to believe that this idea is worth developing. Use your logic and expertise to propel your project forward.

In a nutshell, the gestation period is about creativity and needs to be slow; the growth period is about implementation and needs to be fast. And the moment of BAM is your accelerator.

Here is the trick: Don't mixup the two.

Don't go fast and get implementing in the gestation period. Don't go slow and get creative in the growth. And remember, if you don't have a moment of BAM!, a strong idea, you can't accelerate.