Innovation Lessons from Santa Claus

by Scott Bowden

santaThe Holiday Season for innovation practitioners is a time for reflection on the previous year, its highlights and lowlights and all those days in between.  Most of us will take a well-deserved break from work this month as we prepare for the inevitable challenges of the coming new year.  In the spirit of the season, I decided to spend some time thinking about possible innovation lessons from Santa Claus.  There are a number of attributes of Santa Claus that we as innovation leaders should consider leveraging in our work efforts in the coming year.

 

Wear Attire that Makes One Stand Out from the Crowd

When one thinks of Santa Claus in terms of an image, the picture that leaps to mind is of a jolly, heavy-set, older, white-bearded person with red fleece clothing, white fur, a black belt, and a stocking cap.  There is not much variation in terms of how we view Santa Claus, and thus it is easy for a large number of people to arrive at the same image of Santa.  If Santa were wearing a bland grey suit and tie, he would certainly be less memorable and, indeed, more non-descript.  Innovation practitioners probably should avoid a full Santa costume, but they may likewise want to avoid the typical innovation costume of a black turtleneck and jeans that seems to pervade our field.  A nice dress shirt with a unique color will garner more attention from workshop attendees or colleagues then the standard innovation uniform.  It is often said that an audience views a speaker in a plain white shirt as more trustworthy than any other shirt options, but I would argue that plain is, in fact, just “plain.”  Standing out in a room will make people remember you more easily, and may also keep their attention focused on you during your innovation workshop.

Accept Being Referred to by Different Names

Santa Claus is referred to by many names in the US and around the world, including Saint Nick, the Jolly Old Elf, Jolly Old Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Pere Noel, and many others.  Santa Claus does not complain about all these different reference names. Rather, he delights in how so many people around the world are able to connect with him in different ways.  An innovation practitioner may experience some of this use of different names, perhaps by being referred to as the “Innovation Guy” or “Innovation Gal,” or sometimes “Innovation Dude” or even “Smart Guy.”  An innovation leader should embrace these various names and be glad to be accepted by one’s colleagues in the role of a thought leader for the enterprise.  It should be noted, however, that with such nomenclature comes additional responsibility to actually deliver innovation and new thinking, just as Santa Claus is expected to deliver his gifts on Christmas Eve.

Make a List and Check it Twice

Those of you who are now humming along after reading the phrase above no doubt recognize the list as one of the most important characteristics of how Santa Claus operates his magical empire.  He makes a list of who has been naughty and nice and he checks it twice to ensure there are no errors.  While naughtiness and niceness are typically not associated with innovation initiatives, the importance of lists cannot be overstated.  An innovation leader should always manage lists of active innovation initiatives or programs as well as ideas for future exploration. The lists should be updated frequently and checked regularly to make sure that one does not allow a great idea to wither on the vine.  Likewise, a decent idea that is slow to get traction may not be worth the investment of time that it is taking to propel it forward.  The best way to keep good and bad ideas in their proper place is to make lists and check them twice (or more often).

Know All the Names of Your Team Members

Santa Claus knows the names of his reindeer. He could have been content to simply hitch them up to his sleigh and crack his whip to get them to pull him forward, but instead he eagerly shouts out their names with a hearty “on Dancer, on Prancer, on Comet, on Cupid.”  Each reindeer certainly appreciates this special recognition and attention given the drudgery of flying around the world pulling a heavy sleigh filled with gifts in the dark where it is typically cold (at least in the Northern hemisphere).  Just as Santa calls out the names of his team, so, too, should the innovation practitioner make mention of the names of his or her team members in a larger forum.  For instance, when presenting a new innovation in a C-suite meeting, one should be sure to name all the people involved in creating that innovation, even those with minor roles in the process.  This will help show the Executives the broad base of thought that went into the initiative and also reward those individuals who invested their time and energy into making the innovation a success.

Embrace Eccentricity

On the topic of reindeer, one cannot overlook the most famous reindeer of all.  Rather than excluding him from reindeer games, Santa embraced Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer’s eccentricity and put him in charge of guiding the sleigh through the foggy night (and presumably through future non-foggy nights as well).  For the innovation practitioner, this serves as a reminder of the need to value the contributions of all members of a team, including those whose offerings may at first seem to differ greatly from the other participants in the room.  Sometimes the best new ideas can come from those who have a tendency to think outside of the box and who are not encumbered by typical intellectual constraints.

Have a Jolly Laugh and Show Good Spirits

Santa Claus loves to laugh and when he chortles his belly presumably rolls around like a bowl full of jelly.  When one thinks of Santa Claus, one typically sees him with a big smile across his face, heartily laughing with his hands on his belly.  Santa is never seen as angry, even when he is checking the naughty list (twice).  After all, even the naughty kids who receive lumps of coal can use that product for heating in winter.  For the innovation practitioner, happiness is something that should be brought to each and every meeting, with a positive attitude that is infectious to the rest of the team.  This jolly attitude, even in the face of great challenges, can inspire fellow team member to achieve great things.  A downtrodden innovation leader would be just as out-of-place as a sad Santa.

Search for Alternative Entry Methods Such as the Chimney

As he makes his way around the planet spreading gifts and good cheer to the world, Santa Claus faces a very distinct challenge at each house in terms of how he gets into the structure to deliver his presents to the children.  If Santa were to come in through the front door, he might be spotted by a neighbor or, worse, wake up the dogs who would then bark and wake up the whole household.  Santa’s solution is to take advantage of the chimney as an entry point, which is quite an innovative solution for several reasons.  First, the chimney has easy access from the roof where Santa parks his sleigh.  Second, the chimney is typically centrally located in a house, usually in the great room.  Finally, people tend to put their Christmas trees in the great room, so Santa has a short distance to go with the presents once he makes it down the chimney. Innovation leaders should always be thinking about alternative approaches to problems in order to come up with new thinking.  Avoiding the front door, and taking advantage of other creative possibilities, can result in the kind of innovation that a practitioner needs to overcome a challenge.

Don’t Forget Milk and Cookies (and Water for the Reindeer)

After making his way down the chimney and dropping off presents, Santa is usually hungry and thirsty, so the children at a house will usually leave him milk and cookies, as well as water for his reindeer.  Santa is greatly appreciative of these goodies, as he has a lot of work to do on Christmas Eve and needs all the calories he can get in order to complete his tasks.  Innovation leaders running a workshop should keep this lesson in mind in terms of making sure that participants have food and drink to get them through the session.  Not only does this engender goodwill on the part of the participants, it also reduces distractions.  Attendees who are thirsty and hungry will be thinking about how they can obtain food and drink rather than concentrating on the topic at hand in the workshop.  Providing nourishment for the bodies of the participants will provide fuel for their minds and will result in superior outcomes.

Enable the Dreams of Others

In the end, Santa Claus is all about dreams, but not necessarily Santa’s dreams.  While Santa certainly derives great personal satisfaction from his work related to getting presents to all the girls and boys around the globe, the real joy he seeks is something that, sadly, he does not get to see.  That joy occurs on Christmas morning when the children run down the stairs and see the presents he left for them (along with the empty glass of milk and plate of cookies), and the presents represent the achieved dreams of the children.  Santa knows that he is bringing joy to the world in his work, so even if he can’t experience the joy in each and every house, he knows that it is there.  Innovation practitioners should think about how they can use their work to bring forth the dreams of others.  Finding a great idea in the mind of a workshop participant, and working to turn that idea into an innovation initiative, then seeing that idea through to the development of a new product or the implementation of a process change demonstrates how the job of the innovation practitioner is to enable the dreams of others.

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scott_bowdenScott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has Ph.D. in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sgbowden

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