Innovation happens on the fringe. It's rarely, if ever, the lone genius who invents that new product, service or process. It usually takes a collective effort to put something of value into the world. And as our world becomes increasingly complex, we better have some guiding principles at the ready to help us confidently navigate the future. These are value judgments on how we might behave tomorrow and in scenarios that we have never experienced before. 

To get a clearer picture, just think for a moment of how a self-driving car may have a moral decision pre-programmed into it. It will already have decided in a given accident to either risk your life or the life of the child who just ran out in front of you. Likewise, we will need guiding principles for how we will work in our organizations of the future.

Innovation is a messy process. It takes a diverse set of worldviews to create healthy conflict, a big appetite for risk and experimentation, and an ability to actually execute. Harvard business professor Linda Hill labels this creative abrasion, creative agility, and creative resolution. The point is that building innovation capabilities is itself a process. It's a delicate balancing act between the tensions that exist within the organization. 

Innovation is also really hard to implement. But with the three principles below you might stand a better chance. If it were all piss poor easy, then perhaps Rome would've been built in a day.

Candor over Compliance

Ever been in a meeting and someone isn't really saying what they mean? That is happening all over the world each and every day. Too many folks are wearing their professional masks with fierce determination, and they, their teams, and their organizations often suffer as a result.

Patty McCord was instrumental in developing the notoriously rich company culture at Netflix. The key premise of her strategy? Well besides not hiring any brilliant jerks, it was telling people the truth. And doing so both respectfully and honestly. The results are a company that champions healthy conflict and has the right dose of creative abrasion to constantly innovate.

It's doing you and your colleagues a disservice by not speaking up candidly. In the long run, it's likely you are doing more harm than good by taking the Fifth. The takeaway here is that when you encounter tensions at work, you need the wherewithal to move through it with confidence and calmness.

Emergence over Strategy 

Planning is useful. But in a world where change is happening fast than ever before -- more and more things don't go according to plan. There was a time when we could refer to the past to help predict the future -- but that's wishful thinking now. 

The Responsive Manifesto outlines several tensions which organizations must learn to manage (including experimentation and planning). Experimentation, or learning by doing, is something that is difficult for scale-ups to do well. On the other end of the spectrum, trial and error is the key capability of upstarts. They are said to move quickly and break things, precisely because they can pivot so easily. Whatever size your business, being agile amidst the unknown and responsive to new opportunities is the name of the game. A healthy business practice means maintaining an emergent strategy that champions learning through experimentation and attaches no stigma to failure.

An emergent strategy, writes McGill Professor Karl Moore, is the, "View that strategy emerges over time as intentions collide with and accommodate a changing reality. Emergent strategy is a set of actions, or behavior, consistent over time." Rooted in the management philosophy of Moore's colleague Henry Mintzberg -- emergent strategy provides the compass by which to foster, and then realize, a new practice that was never expressly intended. It can't be neatly stored inside a pre-ordained plan, for the simple fact that it must bubble up from within the organization.

Learning over Education

The jury is out; maintaining a curious disposition and acknowledging that there are others smarter (and better equipped) than you is just good leadership. Soliciting the input of those around you, no matter gender or race, will set you apart from the pack. In our world of abundance, where information flows fast and freely, adopting a growth mindset is your only choice.

Our formal educational system is predicated on industrialization, exemplified by banking knowledge into passive students and falsely selling the possession of that knowledge as a guarantee of job security. Continuous improvement has really, and always will be, the name of the game. We tend to learn best when we're connecting the dots amongst things we care about, often done in a participatory fashion with others.

Writer Chia Evers argues that learning over education may be the meta-principle from which the other eight principles follow in Joi Ito's and Jeff Howe's book Whiplash. She explains, "Where education privileges traditional, one-way, top-down models of knowledge transmission, learning relies on systems that value students' interests and give them the tools they need to discover and pursue them." As Ito quaintly puts it:

"Education is something that is done to you. Learning is something you do for yourself."

Some folks like to frame these competing forces as tensions to be managed -- where neither is better than the other. I side with the other camp that prefers 'even over' statements -- the kind that makes a value judgment of which principle should take the spotlight. Candor, experimentation, and learning haven't led me astray thus far.

Published on: Feb 1, 2018
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