An Innovation Lesson From American Idol

by Dennis Stauffer

An Innovation Lesson From American IdolSometimes we just don’t realize how misplaced or misguided we may be. When I was not long out of college, I was living in a new community doing a variety jobs, as I tried to figure out a career path. For me this was largely a process of elimination. I kept finding myself doing things I didn’t particularly like—at least not full time long term.  A few years further on, I became a journalist, and whenever someone asked why I chose that profession I told them only half joking that it was because I’d tried everything else first.

In the midst of that sorting process, I got acquainted with a young woman who was a singer in a local dinner theater, who encouraged me to try out for a job there. I thought I had a decent speaking and singing voice and I was comfortable getting up in front of people, but performing as a singer was not something I had ever pursued. Still, with her encouragement and training (She was a voice instructor.) I prepared to audition. She convinced me I could make the cut despite my thin resume…and perhaps partly because I was a paying client. She was a great cheerleader.

Then I auditioned.

Imagine a much earlier, smaller and (thankfully) more private version of American Idol. Simon would not have been impressed. I still wince a little when I recall that experience and how long it took me to realize how completely out of my league I was. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

An Innovation Lesson From American Idol

Singing is one of those skills that is difficult to evaluate in ourselves. We rely on feedback from others to determine how we’re doing. (Again, think of American Idol.) The personal capacity to innovate is a lot like that. It’s difficult to gain an accurate sense of our own creativity or analytical skills or insight. How often have you seen people either discount their creativity or exaggerate it? It’s quite common…and not just in singing competitions.

Yet organizations may place people on innovation teams, perhaps because of their relevant area of expertise, with little training in the diverse skills that innovation requires. Not just how to come up with ideas, but how to implement them, evaluate the results, gain new insights and engage in the kind of iterative thinking that innovation requires. The assumption seems to be that the process will somehow teach people to be innovative. That’s like expecting me to become a singer because I’m standing in front of an audience.

It’s unlikely that the typical employee will have already had this sort of training. Until recent years, it was nonexistent in all but a handful of academic programs. It’s still rarely part of any program that isn’t explicitly about creativity and innovation. Our schools crank out thousands of scientists, engineers, MBAs and PhDs in all sorts of disciplines who have little understanding about how to leverage their creativity. Yet they may genuinely believe they have the skills needed to do innovative work because of their subject expertise.

It may be that those who are most eager to contribute to innovation are most susceptible to the delusion I suffered. You want courageous people who are willing to take the kind of risks I took in that audition, who won’t shrink from a challenge. But if you want them to succeed, they need to be equipped with the needed innovation skills and that requires more than cheerleading.

Don’t set up your people (and your innovation agenda) to fail. Don’t create a dynamic that deludes people into thinking they have skills they don’t have. It’s not only counterproductive for your innovation efforts; it’s unfair to those people.

And…if like me, you’re someone who welcomes a new challenge, be sure you stay closely attuned to the feedback you need to accurately gauge your skills. Beware of the cheerleaders.

imagecredit:americanidol & amplifiedvolume

Follow @ixchat on twitter

Don’t miss an article (3,850+) – Subscribe to our RSS feed and join our Innovation Excellence group!


Creating an Innovation Mindset - It's All About AssumptionsDennis Stauffer is the award winning author of Thinking Clockwise, A Field Guide for the Innovative Leader. He’s the founder of Innovator Mindset, helping individuals, teams and organizations boost their capacity to innovate. A copy of his new report, Innovation Essentials: The Four Greatest Ways We stop Ourselves…In Business and in Life can be downloaded at: http://innovatormindset.com/specialreport.htm

Leave a Reply