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Matthew E. May

Quality Insider

Let Discipline and Patience Enable Innovation

Excuses amount to preemptive surrender

Published: Thursday, April 18, 2013 - 09:41

Innovation is at or near the center of nearly everyone’s radar screen. If you’re not looking for it in your work, you’re looking for it in your personal life, because stirring in each of us is the desire to employ our ingenuity. Thus, the potential to innovate is alive and well in everyone.

Actually doing it with any acumen and consistency is another matter entirely.

A study of the great accomplishments in art, industry, and science reveals a story of constant study and hard work. Mozart, Galileo, Rockefeller, Renoir, Plato, Einstein, Shakespeare, Newton—all were innovative geniuses, and all believed in the constant and purposeful application of their abilities. Investigation into their magnificent achievements reveals a lifelong process of deep reflection, keen observation, and constant betterment. The ancient Greeks also believed that to become capable in any profession, three things were necessary—nature, study, and practice.

For more than 30 years the U.S. Army has employed a leadership model of Be-Know-Do. It’s the Army’s view that acquired knowledge and skill (Know and Do) are necessary and valuable, but they’re also perishable because they can quickly become obsolete in today’s competitive environment. It is the first element, Be—representing drive, dedication, and determination—that remains the enduring differentiator.

Innovation is all about discipline. Therein lies the rub, for all the same reasons that losing weight and maintaining physical fitness seem so elusive for so many. They both require lifelong vigilance and perseverance… and patience, because it takes time. Innovation demands patience, but patience is something in short supply.

In general, Western cultures are relatively impatient and nearsighted. We’re not that willing and eager to trade immediate gratification and short-term gains for the long-range possibilities that seem too distant. We begrudgingly respond to change, usually waiting for the fabled burning platform to suddenly and mysteriously appear and move us to action.

As a result, the as is prevails over the could be for far too long... so-called innovation efforts are in reality initiatives centered on optimizing the status quo, rather than creatively destroying it.

The journey to building a companywide culture of innovation—one in which every soul on board is contributing ideas daily, converting them to reality regularly, and in which performance is measured in terms of the quantity and quality of ideas tested rather than solely on business outcomes—is one most don’t commit to making. The reasons? It’s not easy, and it’s not quick, and it doesn't necessarily show up on a plan, budget, or balance sheet.

You may be wondering where all this is coming from.

I walked out of a recent meeting convinced that people in the room truly believed they would become the modern day Archimedes, that they were just moments away from the Eureka! moment to hit them in the bathtub. I’m fairly certain the killer app they (and so many others) are hoping for won’t magically come to them through the mythical happy accident. At least not without engaging in the hard and unglamorous work of immersing themselves fully in the problem first (which they had not done), struggling through endless but enlightened trial and error. There’s simply nothing accidental about true innovation.

All change demands learning. Meaningful change—aka innovation—demands profound learning. Learning and innovation go hand in hand, but learning comes first. Again, that takes time. There are no overnight sensations. Great careers and great companies are built painstakingly over time.

Corporate obituaries are haunted by the ghosts of those who let impatience with (and distaste for) gradual change and continuous, incremental innovation become an excuse for not taking any action at all, memorialized with a collective tombstone inscribed with “No singles allowed—homeruns only” and buried in the same plot as people who say they only play the lottery when the jackpot is more than $25 million.

Instinctive, but illogical.

While I’m on the topic of excuses, true innovators resist them at all costs. Excuses are all too easy. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard people tell me, “We just don’t have the time,” I’d be permanently camped under a Caribbean cabana with a Cuban cigar, clipping coupons.

The excuses usually come just when all the low-hanging fruit has been picked clean, creativity wanes, things get a little hard, and the daily fires are allowed to rule the day. Look, everyone’s busy. But the question is, what are you busy about? Spend all your time in a defensive and reactive posture, and you’ll find yourself getting slower and slower. You’ll be playing catch-up. When change takes you by surprise, like that, you’re done.

Excuses amount to preemptive surrender; to the authentic innovator, that’s wholly unacceptable, and it sure doesn’t sound much like leadership. If you give up before you even start, not only will you never progress, you’ll lose whatever advantage you do have now to your competitor, who views it as a challenge and so offers up something the media will likely label “disruptive” (a word, mind you, that is quickly losing its meaning, thanks mostly to the labelers). Your customers won’t open their wallets to the wafflers and “we-can’t-do-its”; they’ll spend their money instead with the problem-solvers.

My note to all would-be innovators leaning in to hear more about discipline and patience is this: Understand that the process is long and messy. There is one, and only one, solution.

Keep at it.

First published on the Edit Innovation blog. Reprinted with permission.


About The Author

Matthew E. May’s picture

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May counsels executives and teams through custom designed facilitation, coaching, and training using four basic ingredients: strategy, ideation, experimentation, and lean. He’s been counseling for 30 years, a third of it as a full-time advisor to Toyota. He is the author of four books, the latest The Laws of Subtraction (McGraw-Hill, 2013), and is working on his fifth book. His work has been appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. May holds an MBA from The Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.



Yes, that's it: we're all drunk with Innovation. Instead of pursuing a stable development, we push hard on the accelerator pedal of innovation - while queuing on a motorway or on a trunk-road. Why don't we try to innovate by not forcefully innovating? By letting the stream run its course? Thank you.