Innovation is Not a Light Switch

Dec 12, 2022

Innovation is not a light switch we turn on or off. It’s not something that exists in a vacuum. It’s part of the culture, part of the way we do things. It requires a commitment to stepping away from the comfort of the known and well-used. It asks we tolerate the messiness and imperfection of the new idea that moves forward with the awkwardness of a baby giraffe taking it’s first steps. But with nurturing and time it can start moving with confidence and momentum, and soon it is galloping ahead.

Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just stand there.

-Will Rogers

Take the example of Steve, the CEO of a $400 million dollar construction company that had been in business for more than 50 years. Steve was worried that the crises of 2020 would compound the anticipated slow-down in business, and that would force him to make serious cuts to their operation and workforce. His response was to assemble an innovation taskforce made up of his senior team and some talented, emerging leaders. Steve asked me to join him in one of their first meetings.

I observed as the team looked for ideas and solutions, and then a young manager excitedly offered up a very innovative and unique idea. As the room got quiet, one of the most senior members of the team looked at him from across the room and said, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard! That’s not the way we do things here”. You could see the smile and excitement melt away as the young manager sank into his seat. For the rest of the meeting, he barely raised his eyes from his note pad.

After the meeting, Steve approached me and asked, “So, what did you think? We are embracing this innovation thing, aren’t we?” My answer was simply, “No. I’m afraid you haven’t yet.” This discomfort of the imperfect and the messy, is the price we must pay to continue to grow, to move forward, to stay relevant. We need to go through the creative part without pre-judging the ideas. Without discarding the threads and leads before we know where they can take us.

Furthermore, the experiences of 2020 have presented us with the opportunity to leave behind what we don’t need any more and embrace what matters most. Perhaps the latter includes things we have been doing successfully, but it may also include brave – and messy – ideas we haven’t tried yet because we were afraid of the discomfort brought by change and innovation. Now that we are all in the same boat, ready to come out of the Great Pause, what will you do differently if you can only look beyond your fears? What could you try if you knew you couldn’t fail? Will you continue to curse the darkness or reach for the light switch? I know someone that can help you make that transition in your culture and operations.