Wrestle Your Success To The Ground

by Mike Shipulski

Wrestle Your Success To The GroundInnovation, as a word, has become too big for its own good, and, as a word, is almost useless. Sure, it can be used to enable magical reinvention of business models and revolutionary products and technologies, but it can also be used to rationalize the rehash work we were going to do anyway. The words that send angry chills down the back of the would-be-innovative company – “We’re already doing it.”

When company leaders talk about doing more innovation, there’s a lot of pressure in the organization to point to innovative things already being done. The organization misinterprets the desire for more innovation as a negative commentary on their work. The mental dialog goes like this – We’re good at our work, we’re working as hard as we can, and we’re doing all we can to meet objectives – hey, look at this innovative stuff we’re doing. Clearly this isn’t what company leaders are looking for, but the word does have that influence.

What can feel better is to describe what is meant by innovation. Wherever we are, whatever successes we’ve had, we want to change our behaviors to create new, more profitable business models; create new products and technologies that obsolete our best, most profitable ones; and change our behaviors to create new, more profitable markets. The key is to acknowledge that our existing behaviors are the very thing that has created our success (and thank them for it), and to acknowledge the desire to build on our success by obsoleting it. When we ask for more innovation, we’re asking for new behaviors to dismantle our current day success behind us to create the next level of success.

There’s a tight link to innovation and failure – risk, learning, experimentation – but there’s a missing link with success. Acknowledgement of success helps the organization retain its self worth and helps them feel good about trying new stuff. However, even still, success is huge deterrent to innovation. Company success will retain the behaviors that created it, and more strongly, as new behaviors are injected, the antibodies of success will reject them. Our strength becomes our weakness.

Strong technologies become anchors to themselves; successful, stable, long-running markets hold tightly to resources that created them; and time-tested business models are above the law. New behaviors almost don’t stand a chance.

Fear of losing what we have is the number one innovation blocker. Where failure blocks innovation narrowly in the blast zone, success smears a thick layer of inaction across the organization. What’s most insidious, since we celebrate success, since we laud customer focus, since we track and reward efficiently doing what we’ve done, we systematically thicken and stiffen the layer that gums up innovation.

Instead of starting with a call-to-arms for innovation, it’s best to define company values, mission, and strategic objectives. Then, and only then, define innovation as the way to get there. First company objectives, then innovation as the path.

Innovation, as a word, isn’t important. What’s important are the new behaviors that will wrestle success to the ground, and pin it.

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Mike ShipulskiMike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior.  He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design.

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