I had an odd thought in the shower this morning… I like playing board games. I’m not obsessed with them, but I still find them an appealing diversion from time to time. It hit me that being successful in the workplace is very similar to winning in a strategy board game.
Any given day is like a turn in the game. You have a fixed number of hours to invest, and you must choose wisely how you do so. I can envision a series of gauges, that measure where I stand at any given point. These gauges could represent items like “Manage current business”, “Invest in Future Business”, “Network with Others”, “Increase Knowledge”, “Focus on Employee Morale” etc. Each gauge could have a bright red line that indicates a dangerously low level, meaning that if your score in that area drops below a certain number, there will be dire consequences. On any given day, it’s impossible to invest an ample amount of time in each category, but over the course of multiple days (turns), it is critical that no area be ignored.
Like any good game, life throws unexpected twists at us. “Your project manager has appendicitis and will be out of the office for two weeks”, or “Your newest client just had their budget slashed, and is forced to cancel their current contract with you”. The impact these events have on you are directly affected by your scores e.g. “Because your networking score is high, the cancelled contract has minimal effect on your long term cash flow”, or “Your Future Business Investment score is too low, the cancelled contract will force you to lay off two employees”. Ignore other areas of your life, and you’ll also suffer consequences. “Due to your excessive number of hours spent at the office, your wife has expressed high frustration with your marriage. Take an unplanned four-day weekend to patch things up.” Inevitably, there will be those that play this game as if everyone is an opponent, and there will be those that take a team-based approach. Going it alone? That’s a high-risk/high rewards path. You might win, but watch your back. Playing as a team? Your progress might be a bit slower, but your odds of making it to the end are much greater.
We play this game every day. How many of us are watching to ensure we have some semblance of balance? How often do we strive to win in one area only to find that we’ve sacrificed in others? I think I’m going to build some gauges and put on my wall.
The problem with embarking on an innovation project is that you can’t know where it’s going to end up (if you did, it wouldn’t really be innovation, now would it?). Many people (and organizations) have a strong need to be in control of as much of their world as possible. Getting excited about a breakthrough idea that can lead to a very new and different place? Not likely. The further the idea is from “business as usual” the less control they will have. After all, radical ideas might attract new customers, require new forms of distribution, and put the company in a market with currently unknown competitors. Without control, any one of these issues could surely lead to failure… And who wants to sign up for that?
Fear of the unknown is a natural trait. But it is often misplaced. Good innovation stems from seeing an opportunity in the marketplace, or in meeting a need held by a group of consumers. If a concept passes these litmus tests, how unknown is it really? Of course there’s still risk. But the real question is, “What is the risk of doing nothing?”. In this day and age, there are few if any markets that stand still over time. Increasing competition, savvy consumers and disruptive technologies have rocked many an industry. Relying on past success for future success has become an oxymoron.
Sit through any innovation project with most companies and notice what transpires. Ideas may surface that range from mild to wild… But which ones almost always are chosen to move forward? The ones which cause the least amount of stress to the company. The potentially market-changing ideas are often relegated to a three-ring binder until such time that a competitor enters the market in a bold way, then the binder will be dusted off to see if there are any ideas in-house that could compete.
Max DePree, former CEO of Steelcase once said “We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are”. In this one simple quote, he says a lot. He recognizes that there is a tremendous desire within any organization to “remain what we are”. But the reality is, that should be where the fear enters in. Companies realistically have to focus on one part of this or the other, they can’t do both. So what is it with your company? Is your attention on determining what you need to be? Or are your resources dedicated to remaining what you are? Yes, change is scary. But in this day and age, not changing is horrifying.
With this post, I am starting a series of blogs entitled “Why Innovation Won’t Work in Your Company”. In doing this I will point out common situations that exist within Corporate America that fly directly in the face of successful innovation.
External Stimulus is Required for Innovation – People resist outside anything
Let’s face it. It’s very desirable to stay in your comfort zone. In these cozy retreats you know what to expect, you can plan your days and experience minimal personal risk. Thrill seeking is for extreme sports junkies, not for middle managers going through the motions, right? The problem is, the world is not standing still around you. While you hunker down and keep your head low, the competitive environment is ever changing. You may know that change is required to survive, but what specific change is needed? This is not something that you are going to find within yourself, or in a discussion with like-minded co-workers. At best, that tactic will lead to simple “change for change sake”. Innovation is not just about being different, it’s about solving an existing problem in a unique way. Your thinking and your existing environment are as unique right now as they are ever going to be. Realistically you’ve already had any breakthrough thoughts about an existing issue that you are going to have… unless you seek external stimuli.
External stimuli can come in many forms, but you have to seek it out and be receptive to it. A new person on your team will provide it. An outside professional can share their expertise. Put yourself face to face with a customer and really observe and listen to what is going on. External stimulus is not scarce, and it’s not formidable. But you’re not going to find it in your comfort zone, and you’re not going to find it sitting around the table with the same group of people day in and day out.
So you say that you are a product company, not a service company, right? Therefore, your interest and concern deal with how people perceive the “stuff” you manufacture and sell. If you only had a better understanding of how people perceive your “stuff”, then you could make it better and ultimately increase your profitability. The best way to get this information is to ask the people that own and use your “stuff”,