This week I spoke with the innovation leaders at a major biopharmaceutical firm. They were lamenting that challenges of designing an innovation program seemed overwhelming. No matter what they did, the organization just kept focusing on execution and narrow thinking rather than innovation and big thinking. I reminded them that big companies are like slowly sinking ships (sinking under the weight of their own execution orientation), our efforts to innovate will never be perfect, we are just trying to keep pumping water out of the hull to keep the ship afloat.
The analogy resonates because it reminds us that our efforts to innovate will never be, can never be, perfect. Nor can they be optimal. There is a fundamental principle why, and the principle underpinning all innovation--the uncertainty principle. By uncertainty principle, I don't mean the quantum behaviour of particles (although I do find it ironic that the one discipline that deals the most with physical reality is the only discipline to have an uncertainty principle). Instead I mean the simple fact that all innovation involves fundamental uncertainty, the kind of uncertainty we often cannot foresee or predict. The kind of uncertainty that drives people and organizations crazy and thus leads us to try and stamp out the uncertainty. In fact, Herb Simon, an organization theorist who won the Nobel Prize in economics, observed that the purpose of organization is to eliminate uncertainty. If you look around you, most organizations including those that educated us and those in which we work, try very hard to eliminate uncertainty because it is inefficient and unpredictable. Indeed all our lives we have been told to plan the unplannable ... our lives and in our organizations to foresee the unforeseeable.
Here is the fundamental principle. No uncertainty, no innovation. Uncertainty is the soil out of which innovation grows. So we need to learn to embrace as well as respect uncertainty. When I say embrace, I mean find the ways to allow uncertainty into our lives and organizations, it is the spark that can lead us to a future better than the one we imagine for ourselves. By respect, I mean how do we manage the uncertainty, so it doesn't overwhelm us or derail us.
Obviously there is much more to managing uncertainty than this simple principle, which is one of my quests: to understand the personal, professional, and organizational tools that allow us to turn uncertainty into something beautiful, something that solves real problems. Although I cannot share it all here, let me share one observation. As soon as you engage uncertainty, you start to feel anxiety. But the anxiety does not mean you are failing. If you are pursuing a new idea, new career, new business, new approach, whatever it may be, you will experience this anxiety. Don't let it derail you. I'm not speaking about data--if the data says something different--then take it into account and perhaps change course (see my work on The Innovator's Method for this). I'm talking about how it feels. And when it comes to how it feels, remember, uncertainty feels crummy while you are in it and beautiful when you cross to the other side, even if that other side ends up different than you expected. And it almost certainly will!
In closing I'm reminded of Ursula Le Guin who wrote, "great artists make the roads; good teachers and good companions can point them out. But there ain't no free rides, baby. No hitchhiking. And if you want to strike out in any new direction--you go alone. With a machete in your hand and the fear of God in your heart."